It was only a decade between two very different types of technology were used for the first time to propel a two-wheeled vehicle. The first record of the use of an internal combustion engine on a motorcycle dates back to 1885. Only ten years later in 1895, the earliest known patent for the electric-powered motorcycle was applied. The era of electric motorcycles was born, but the petrol-fuelled engines started to dominate the evolution of technology and the future of powering up most of the vehicles. Well, as it seems, it is time for the electric engines to come back to life for the second rebirth. This time with all the prospects of taking over the leading position in the 21st century.
In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach made the first motorcycle that was powered by a petroleum internal combustion engine. The vehicle was built only in one example, and they named it the Daimler Reitwagen. Arguably being the first motorcycle in history, it would be more accurate and correct to describe it as the first motorcycle with a gasoline internal combustion engine.
Only ten years later, in 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. of Canton Ohio filled the first known electric-powered motorcycle patent application. In the same year, Hosea W. Libbey of Boston filled another application filled for an electric bicycle. In 1896, an English bicycle manufacturer Humber presented the first electric-powered tandem bicycle at the Stanley Cycle Show in London. Batteries powered it with an electric engine in front of the rear wheel.
It took another 15 years until further breakthroughs in electric powered motorcycles were made. In 1911, the magazine Popular Mechanics revealed the introduction of an electric motorcycle. What I find amazing is the range specification of the electric motorcycle from over 100 years ago. With fully charged batteries, the electric motorcycle could range from 75-100 miles (120-160 km). Only recently, most modern technologies were able to significantly surpass these numbers. This only indicates that the electric engine technology fell behind into the shadows of the internal combustion engines for more than 100 years.
According to Wikipedia’s article Electric motorcycles and scooters, the first real production electric motorcycles were built from 1936, when »the Limelette brothers founded an electric motorcycle company called Socovel (Société pour l’étude et la Construction de Vehicles Electriques or Company for research and manufacture of electric vehicles) in Brussels. They continued production during the German occupation with their permission. Due to fuel rationing, they found some degree of success. But after the war, they switched to conventional models. The electric models remained available until 1948.
During World War II, compelled by fuel rationing in the United States, Merle Williams of Long Beach, California invented a two-wheeled electric motorcycle that towed a single-wheeled trailer. Due to the popularity of the vehicle, Williams started making more such vehicles in his garage. In 1946, it led to the formation of the Marketeer Company (current-day ParCar Corp.)«
Suddenly it was evident that gasoline internal combustion engines won the fight against the electric-powered vehicles. The development of the electric motors came to a standstill, and there was practically no significant development for years. It was not until recently when the idea of electrically powered traffic was reborn again. The evolution of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have set high demands on battery performance, pushing the industry to develop even better batteries with the higher electrical power density and quicker recharging capabilities. Along with the technological advances in mobile communication technology, also other directly unrelated industries started to rethink the future. And so did the automotive industry.
Internal combustion engines have a significant negative effect on the environment. The industry was forced to develop a way to control the exhaust emission standards in the past two decades. Even though the modern standards seem to perform a lot better than two decades ago, the increasing number of vehicles somehow fills in the difference in emission output of traffic in general.
Technological advance and environmental care make it an obvious next step. That is the transition from oil derivative powered engines to electric engines powered by renewable energy. It is a very highly debated topic, and many countries already speak of their commitments to make the transition in a short to medium term. It is a fact that the transition is inevitable, but it will still take some time before evolution will start to change the traffic. In the same way, the vehicles will evolve, and new technology will come to life, so will the infrastructure. And motorcycle development will have to follow the transition to electric propulsion if they want to stay a part of the future traffic.
At the moment, the biggest set back in the world of electric motorcycles is the lack of power density of the batteries they carry, as well as the time it takes to recharge and the infrastructure, that will allow electric vehicles to power up as fast as current vehicles fill up their tanks. Taking the current need to account that the current lifestyle requires, the electric-powered vehicle technology still needs a lot of improvements to become a viable substitute regarding usability.
Just to make it more transparent, here is an example from Wikipedia that rounds up the main issues: »Even with special equipment, charging a battery takes significantly longer than filling a gas tank, which can make electric vehicles less flexible than their gasoline counterparts. With the maximum number of accessory chargers, it takes over an hour to charge a Zero S ZF6.5’s 6.5kWh battery to 95% capacity. This refuel time also increases with battery capacity; the Zero S ZF13.0 (which has a 13.0kWh battery) takes over 2 hours to charge to 95% capacity using the maximum number of accessory chargers. While this may not pose an issue to commuting in an electric vehicle with overnight charging, it will likely impact taking long road trips that require refuelling during the journey.«
It seems that the usability of electric motorcycles depends only on the development of batteries. When the charging time becomes as fast as refuelling and when the power density of batteries allow travelling as far as with a full tank of gasoline, the time will be right to transit to electric-powered engines in general. Every other aspect seems to be in favour of electric-powered vehicles. And it is the same with electric motorcycles.
From a performance point of view, electric motorcycles are even better than motorcycles with an internal combustion engine. As a fact, the electric engines have much better energy efficiency, providing maximum torque at any time in the full RPM range without any clutch and in most cases without any transmission for the maximum power efficiency.
Nowadays, there are many electric motorcycle manufacturers, that are producing motorcycles with very promising characteristics. Riding performances regarding acceleration, speed and handling are already as good as any other motorcycle. In some cases, you might as well hear, that the electric motorcycles handle and perform already even better. On average, the prices for electric motorcycles are still high and for many, even too high, taking into consideration all other cons. Nevertheless, it seems this will change significantly in the next few years.
Let’s have a look at the most promising electric motorcycle companies in 2017/2018.
The company ZERO Motorcycles was founded in California, USA, as a start-up company in 2006. In only 12 years of existence, the company managed to become a significant player and one of the leaders in electric motorcycle technology.
ZERO presented an exceptional motorcycle, the ZERO SR. It is not the fastest, it hasn’t got the best range of performance, it is not the cheapest. But what makes it unique? Well, in my opinion, it is one of the electric motorcycles that give you the most for the price. It offers excellent performance in terms of range, speed and handling at a very reasonable price.
Lightning Motors Corp. is a young company with immense potential in electric powered two-wheeled vehicles. They are researching and manufacturing electric motorcycle for more than six years. They can proudly say they are the fastest in the world among electric motorcycles. And their mission doesn’t include only to be the fastest. They also want to provide the best performance with the best efficiency at a more affordable price than any gasoline-powered alternative.
LIGHTNING LS-218 is currently their top-notch electric motorcycle and the most recognizable model. The LS-218 is the current world-record holder for being the fastest street-legal electric motorcycle in the world.
Electric supermoto/motocross motorcycle? Why not. The Alta Motors company developed the best electric motocross bike out there, the Alta Motors Redshift MX.
With an innovative approach and a lot of in-house development, they managed to put together a motorcycle, light and powerful enough to compete with standard, gasoline-powered motorcycles easily. And what is especially amazing about this bike? Amazingly, you can enjoy it for up to 3 hours of off-road joy per fully charged battery.
Energica Motor Company is an Italian company with headquarters in Modena. The company managed to put together some of the brightest minds from Formula 1 and added the high-performance capabilities to the recognisable Italian design, which stands out the most in their Energica EGO.
It truly is a purebred Supersport electric motorcycle with some quite amazing specifications, as well as the price range.
The brand Brutus rose up from the effort, and hard work of the family-owned company called the Bell Custom Cycles (BCC). With a rich history in the local motorcycle community, they have managed to upgrade and evolve their business to become a recognisable player in the American motorcycle market. Furthermore, with the Brutus V9, they have set their goals even higher. They are tackling the very top in the electric motorcycle segment as well.
Obviously, the Brutus V9 really stands out. Not only it is one of the rare motorcycles that resemble the classic choppers, but with the electric engine, it also has some of the best performance and range specifications.
Have you already thought about changing from gasoline to electric-powered motorcycle? Many riders I spoke with didn’t like the idea. On the other hand, I had an opportunity to have a test run on the Zero SR motorcycle. I must admit, the only thing that was quite unusual for me was the lack of the sound from exhaust pipes and the vibration from the engine. The performance amazed me. I believe I wouldn’t mind changing to an electric motorcycle. If only the charging speed and range could improve to the point of being accessible, quick and handy as the current gasoline alternative.