Electric motorcycles: Evangelical BS, or the future incarnate? | RenewEconomy

Electric motorcycles: Evangelical BS, or the future incarnate?

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Are electric bikes just an early adopter pipe dream? Are they decades away from dominance?

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A while back, an old buddy and respected journalist accused me of ridiculousness when it comes to my lyrical waxing about electric bikes.

It was a fair call; petrol bikes still dominate and I made the mistake of offending an old mate who still loves his stunning 1980’s Suzuki Katana and doesn’t want to be shamed for his passion. I thought long and hard about this.

Are electric bikes just an early adopter pipe dream? Are they decades away from dominance? Is my enthusiasm for them blinding me to the realities of the world?

Perhaps. A bit.

Nonetheless, for a whole bunch of reasons I just can’t shake the bug.

I still subscribe to petrol bike magazines and the thrill and excitement of petrol bikes hasn’t shifted from the day it first hit me. But what has changed for me is that the technology seems to have plateaued. Petrol bikes seem to evolve in tiny incremental steps now but electric bikes are rapidly leaping ahead and that’s what’s exciting to me.

The race track has always been the ultimate testing ground for vehicle technology and this year’s Isle of Mann TT included the 7th running of the all-electric “Zero” class.

The IOM race circuit is a 60km street circuit that winds through villages, mountains and open roads. It’s lined with stone walls, trees, bridges, precipitous drop off’s and has horrendous weather. It is an insane place to race motorcycle’s and it kills people who make mistakes or have bad luck.

It is arguably the last vestige of old school street circuits where riders are willing to challenge death head on in the name of passion and glory. This year, three poor souls died there doing what they love most and may they rest in peace.

This year’s Zero race was pushed back like most of the other classes due to bad weather but finally took place on the 9th of June. The class remains small with just 14 bikes entering and 8 bikes competing to the finish.

You can read a bunch of reviews on the race here, but being an evangelical electric motorcycle nerd, I’m going to focus on the statistical outcomes and some of the statements by the three heroes who took the podium, because they perfectly tell the story of progress and change.

On the downside, the electric bikes are still only able to run a single lap of the race course, compared to around five laps in the petrol classes. There is still some

work to do on range.

However, putting that aside just looking at speed and lap times the story is tantalising.

I’ve been charting the statistics around race lap speed (the average speed across a whole lap in race conditions) since the start of the series as a measure of progress and this year, the electrics made progress again, continuing to close the gap on the petrol bikes although it was marginal progress at best.


I focus on the relative change compared to the premier class of Superbikes as a measure with a very high bar.

It’s also worth noting that the best lap in the superbike class is a flying lap whereas the electric only do a single lap, from a standing start. As the graphs show after a tough year in 2016, the electrics closed the gap again (in relative terms) on petrol bikes in 2017.

For 2017 almost all the classes went slower than previous years due to the weather conditions and that includes the electrics. However, the difference in speed between the winning superbike lap and the winning electric lap was improved by 1.1% (compared to last year) and is now only 8.5% slower.

Notably, despite all lap times being down as a result of poor conditions, the electrics were only 0.5% down on last years speed, whereas the superbikes were 1.8% down; perhaps evidence of the smoother power delivery of electric bikes, particularly in bad conditions.

The winning Mugen Shinden teams average lap speed came in at 188.52kmh (189.54kmh last year). The superbikes came in at 206.06kmh (209.662kmh last year.)

Another incredible statistic is that in one section of the course (Sulby Straight), the electrics had the fastest speed of 260.64kmh almost 9% faster than the lightweight classes at 240kmh.

Even more interesting were the comments in the post race press conference.

Guy Martin (2nd place Mugen Shinden) is a TT legend and always entertaining.  He has crashed at high speed on the course many times and only a day before the Zero race, crashed his petrol bike in a  race at around 220kmh and walked away bruised and battered but not seriously injured.


In a sobering interview just following his crash and with three fellow competitors already dead, you could read the fear and questioning on his face.

As he said in the post-race interview reflecting on the life and death challenges “I’m sick to the back teeth of it honestly. TT is great but you can’t ever forget it’s just a motorcycle race. The only good bit I can drag out of it (this year) is the whole Mugen (electric) thing”.

It was at this point in the interview that you could see the same evangelical excitement in his face, hear it in his voice about electrics. He is thrilled by them and can see and feel how rapidly they are evolving “it’s only a matter of time” he said.

Race winner (Bruce Anstey, Mugen Shinden) made similar comments. “The corner speed is already faster than the Superbikes” and “they feel like a 250cc bike”, despite weighing around the same as a Superbike.

All riders commented that riding electric requires your style to be adapted to get the most out of them, something that everyone is still getting used to. “You don’t use big gobs of throttle”; you treat it like it’s made of glass” delicate and progressive.

So clearly there’s still progress to be made – but that is a big fat opportunity in a class that has really only just got in its stride. Several other teams with amazing bikes didn’t make it to the grid this year and a couple of new teams posted impressive results for their first year in.

Comparatively, petrol bikes took 21 years to evolve from 85-100MPH, electric took 2 years. To improve from 100MPH to 108MPH took petrol bikes 10 years and electrics 1 year. To go from 108 to 110MPH took petrol bikes 8 years and electrics 1 year. The next target for electrics is 120MPH and we got close at 119Mph in 2015 but aren’t there yet.

The petrol bikes passed it after only 2 years so we are now falling behind a bit although progress has still been made in relative terms. Our next big milestone is 133Mph (212kMh) for average lap speed which is the current superbike record. 10 years? 5 years? I’m going to say 2 years but we’ll need some luck.

I may be a bit too evangelical but can’t help being blown away at the progress and the sheer excitement of the rider in this emerging new class.

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  1. George Darroch 3 years ago

    They’re certainly not for me, but I’m glad that they’re closing the gap. Is it energy capacity or the ability to turn that into forward movement which is the constraint?

    • Nigel Morris 3 years ago

      great question! A bit of both. They are very close to being able to match the top speed in electronic terms, but the batteries become a weight liability over distance. On drag strips they are starting to win. On Pikes Peak, they are starting to win. On long circuits, capacity + weight is the constraint

      • George Darroch 3 years ago

        Interesting. On that basis I suspect if you increased the energy-density by 20-30% you would be clearly ahead.

  2. Doug Cutler 3 years ago

    That cool guy with the crossbow from the Walking Dead said it, electric bikes are best because they’re much quieter and don’t attract zombies.

  3. Kay Schieren 3 years ago

    The whole idea of racing in 2018 to gain a kph or two, so the riders, manufacturers and spectators can have another mild wet dream, is a sick joke. By the time the folks getting their pebbles off at the notion of such raucous or blissfully quiet speeds the world has moved a huge leap closer to becoming an non-viable life support system. I am all in favour of e-bikes as a quiet, efficient, enjoyable form of transport. but at a max of 80kph, beyond which speed human reaction time, tyre wear, road construction effort and maintenance, etc., all go into overdrive. And most humans can actually not cope effectively with speeds over 20 kph when reacting to the unexpected. Since 1915, when records were first kept, more than twice as many Australians were maimed and killed on the roads than were in all the wars Australians have ever been involved in.

    The ideal one seater vehicle:
    An aerodynamic three-wheeler with a 3 kw electric motor and 2 or 3 gears could easily carry a recumbent rider at 80 kph, have sufficient battery capacity for a 300km range, and re-charge at any 240V, 12V or similar outlet in very quick time. I ride a recumbent trike which is encumbered by Australia’s corrupt and idiotic governments with a limit of 250W and I have just made an 800km return trip at a very road blocking 30 kph – but with 10 kg of lithium battery and a solar panel roof I can do 200km on a sunny day, and about 170 when it’s cloudy. And I carry a built in exercise machine on board! And I can charge it all up at home on stand-alone solar.

    There’s already some very efficient transport around on two wheels – but the top end electric superbikes are just a suicidal wankers wheel chair, I feel. When men and women actually grow up and start to take on our real job – to look after what’s left of our fragile life support system – we can start breathing easier. Especially if the toxic petrol-chemical filth we enjoy spreading around is minimised. We gain nothing if we build more fossil fuel power stations so we can get sucked off the backs of our bikes at the lights from the brute torque of an overpowered electric bike. I had https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8b77bb447c0b452dfa711924eb018da55f1442ac82d62b05409ba3b0a67b92fa.jpg a succession of 20 motor bikes when I was younger. I know.

    O.k., start throwing it.

    • George Darroch 3 years ago

      Each to their own.

      • Kay Schieren 3 years ago

        Well, we do not own the air we breathe or the future generations. That’s the rub – human beings only make the mistakes, the consequences are made by agencies not under human control.

    • Ren Stimpy 3 years ago

      How do you handle the torque on that thing?

      • Kay Schieren 3 years ago

        Eh, you give a bit more with the pedals instead of going to the gym. I have worked at Peter Stevens motorcycles and had my ears folded back on every superbike made up to the 80s, including a Honda 1000cc in line six (the worlds fastest vacuum cleaner), I have never enjoyed myself more than now – I pity those poor, oxygen starved and stressed inhabitants of the metal coffins and riders of ball squashers who arrive at their destinations without having journeyed in the real world, without having really been anywhere except a coffin, etc. and are now “jet lagged”. I leave home 68 years of age, and after a few hours I am back to 18 from the way I feel. That’s the real torque. And for cheap thrills, you can’t beat a Vline bus passing you within 20cm on a narrow section of the Princess Highway near Lakes Entrance at a speed differential of 80kph. Yes, I am mad, but I feel more alive than I have ever been on a Zuzuki Katana 1100.

        • Robin_Harrison 3 years ago

          EV torque is a wonderful thing. Your bike with that small but ridiculously less than legal power and putting a bit of wellie into the pedals can give most vehicles a surprise at the lights.
          Like you I spent most of my life on 2 wheels and with some very high performance bikes. At 71 my Ebike is the all-time favourite. Silently cruising through awesome landscapes and, for speed thrills, downhill through twisties couldn’t be better.
          Here’s a strategy to keep the tin tops away. The unpredictable wobble. Any movement across their line of sight makes you highly visible. With a rear view mirror you can pick your moment and, with practice, manipulate the traffic to your heart’s content without them even noticing. No tin top comes within a metre of me any time ever.
          A strategy for avoiding closer inspection of your oh so illegal bike by the boys and girls in blue is to always pedal. They only get curious when people are zipping around like a scooter.
          At the same time I’m fascinated when dedicated speed freaks like Guy Martin have their eyes opened to the possibilities. I watched the interview and the light in his eyes was something to see.

          • Rod 3 years ago

            I probably would be dead if I owned an ICE motor bike but spent most of my commuting days on 2 wheels too.
            Without a doubt my e-bike is my fave.
            My bike might be a little bit illegal but as you say, always pedal.
            I also like the stealth approach.


    • suthnsun 3 years ago

      Bravo Kay! I’m throwing gladioli. If I ever go travelling in Oz I hope to do it as soundly as you.

    • Rod 3 years ago

      OK, I’ll throw some kudos.

    • Radbug 3 years ago

      Piaggio has just released the Li-ion Vespa. Motorscooter engine noise has damaged my hearing. I look forward to buying my first Li-S Vespa. I just hope that the Li-S battery can slot in & replace its Li-ion predecessor in the Li-ion Vespa.

  4. Ren Stimpy 3 years ago

    Cripes Almighty! Good luck getting a good night’s sleep the night before that race!

  5. Steven Gannon 3 years ago

    The range issue would be much less in a street bike I guess, enough for a similar range to an ICE bike. Most bikes are lucky to get 300km to a tank, as storage capacity improves significant gains must surely come.

    I’ve seen E bikes competing in Australia against ICE bikes, they tear through the field from the back of the grid then get overtaken after a few laps. It looks a bit dangerous, I think we need to create an E class soon.

  6. Tinman_au 3 years ago

    I’d be using an electric bike now if they had a decent cruiser…most of the “cruiser” class electrics are too funky for me and I’m not into cafe racers and sports bikes

  7. Malcolm Scott 3 years ago

    I think every life is precious. I wish they did not race at the IoM. Thanks for covering that issue as my voyeur interest in the Zero TT racing did not see that.

    What I like about this class is that bike designs for each team are completely different. The best architecture for a racing electric bike is yet to be established. Not even the broad look is consistent yet. There is so much engineering pride going into these bikes, from university efforts, factory OEM teams, factory race teams, to the bespoke custom builder. Some are works of art, others are laboratory experiments. Some are production road bikes, or can be by special order.

    They also have not yet refined the best combination of power and weight. The battery in some seems to define the bike visually and for all of them in weight, and yet in others the battery is not noticeable. Some of the electric racers have huge power capabilities and yet have modest track speeds. In the video I’ve linked below it’s most apparent the differences in the nature of the bikes. The Mugen consistently the fastest is actually not all that powerful at 120 kW compared with other bikes.

    Yes there are the very thoroughbred race bikes from Mugen bringing the best of Japanese technology, and thank goodness that they do this as it must cost a bundle for one race lap a year. Last year the factory Victory with the best of US tech was very close to the Mugen, but that company is no longer making any bikes. The University of Nottingham entries look like barns on wheels housing their way of installing the motor and the battery.

    I’m surprised that no one has yet turned up with a svelte lightweight racer using a battery of unobtainium chemistry giving a hand grenade performance with a 5 to 10 cycle battery life. That is a legitimate development path too.

    Here enjoy 4th place Dean Harrison on the Belgium made Sarolea race eventual 3rd place University of Nottingham’s Daley Mathison. This is what 110 mph lap times look like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VcH26zzPic

    Here is what the road version of the custom built Sarolea looks like – beautiful.

    Here Adam Child talks about his 6th place at 80 mph on a standard production Energica Ego https://twitter.com/MCNSport/status/873293027376345088

    Waiting keenly for someone to do more for more choice in affordable electric road bikes without compromise, which is close to where electric cars are at.

  8. Robert Engle 3 years ago

    Please be consistent with mph/kmh. Pick one or put them both up every time.

  9. neroden 3 years ago

    Zero Motorcycles are awesome.

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