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Having owned and ridden petrol-powered two-wheelers since the age of six — and with a collection of 15 of them currently jammed into my garage — I can’t say I’m looking forward to the day when the mellifluous bark of my Ducati’s V-Twin exhausts might be considered such an anachronism that I’d be ashamed to ride it. Neither am I looking forward to the possibility of not being able to jump on my BMW and set off across Europe without worrying about places to “plug in” en route.
Yet that day is coming, and fast. In the UK, the government’s ban on the sale of new petrol- and diesel-powered cars will arrive by the end of this decade. For motorcyclists, a date of 2035 has been proposed as an end point for the sale of all new, non-zero-emission vehicles. Whatever my pangs of nostalgia for the sights, sounds, smells and thrills of the “dinosaur” bikes I have loved, I know it’s now time to get on board.
The good news is that the electric motorcycles I have ridden have all been rather good, and they’re only going to get better. So far, younger specialist makers have been leading the way. After 12 years in the business, California-based Zero is regarded as the leader in the high-performance electric motorcycle sector, offering the greatest range of machines as well the quickest. Its SR/F can hit 124 miles per hour, yet starts at a realistic £18,990. Fuell, meanwhile, is the brainchild of former motorcycle racer Erik Buell and will shortly launch a model called the Fllow that promises “the acceleration of a superbike” at a price of €11,995 (£10,200).
The only electric superbike from a widely recognised marque to have entered production is Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire, released two years ago. I spent a week with the LiveWire back then and, while its top speed was just 110mph, the way it got there was certainly superbike-thrilling. Thanks to the instant pull of the electric motor, it jets from zero to 60mph in three seconds. A visceral, sci-fi whine from the geartrain made up for the lack of the famous Harley-Davidson exhaust note, and the bike handled superbly despite being weighty.
Yet sales are said to have been slack. Two key reasons might explain this: a hefty price tag of almost £30,000 and a limited range of just 110 miles on a full charge (if you’re careful). That means the LiveWire has so far ended up being an expensive, short-haul plaything for well-heeled, environmentally conscious riders or a secondary machine for more committed motorcyclists who also have a petrol-powered bike for longer trips and touring. The company has sought to address the problem by making the LiveWire a standalone sub-brand and creating what it calls the LiveWire One. Now on sale in the US, it is around $8,000 cheaper than the original bike and also has an improved range of 146 miles in town.
Harley-Davidson chief executive Jochen Zeitz declines to reveal LiveWire sales figures, saying only that it is “the number-one selling model in its category”. He admits, however, that “taking the price to a more competitive level” was intended to boost sales and that LiveWire One is likely to become available in Europe next year at a similarly reduced cost. “It has to be remembered that we are breaking ground with this bike,” says Zeitz. “Personally, I don’t think the range is an issue, but many people still have anxiety about not being able to travel 300 miles nonstop.”
Potential competition for the LiveWire finally emerged earlier this year, however. British marque Triumph unveiled the proposed power-train and performance figures for its Project TE-1 electric prototype superbike, along with design drawings showing how it’s likely to look. At first glance, it appears good enough to tempt even a diehard combustion engine fan such as me to jump aboard, especially as it is expected to need just 40 minutes to charge from empty.
Triumph is halfway through a four-stage development programme in conjunction with Formula One specialist Williams Advanced Engineering and electrification experts at Warwick university. The aim is to create a viable, good looking, high-performance machine that will represent a practical proposition for riders wedded to conventional sports bikes. But are bikers in general being persuaded?
More are, it seems, but the shift is gradual. According to figures compiled by the Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA), 633 electric motorcycles were registered in the UK in June, up sharply from 248 in the same month last year. And while MCIA chief executive Tony Campbell cautions against like-for-like comparisons owing to last year’s pandemic lockdowns, electric motorcycles and scooters are undoubtedly catching on. They now account for 5-6 per cent of the total UK market and, says Campbell, the increase in sales is set to remain exponential.
Still, he believes that more work needs to be done to convert diehard bikers to electric power. “What is going to be really interesting, however, is seeing how manufacturers start to innovate. Who knows, maybe battery power won’t be the only answer to emissions-free riding? Perhaps hydrogen and biofuels could be the key to greater range and higher performance.”
Aside from Harley-Davidson, BMW, whose C Evolution scooter went into production as long ago as 2014, is almost the only major motorcycle manufacturer to have made serious inroads into the electric two-wheeler market. That model has now been discontinued in advance of the arrival of the decidedly radical CE 04, which goes on sale early next year priced from £11,700 (less the UK “plug-in” grant of 20%, capped at £1,500).
The first machine in what BMW is calling its “silent revolution” for electrically powered, urban two-wheelers, the CE 04 offers futuristic looks that are complemented by a matching riding jacket that glows in the dark — if pedestrians can’t hear you coming, at least they might see you. (Although synthesised sound, already developed for some electric cars, is likely to be widely adopted for two-wheelers and is already a feature of the artificial intelligence-equipped machines produced by Indian brand Revolt.)
Guy Salens, the Belgian founder of specialist electric motorcycle and scooter website The Pack, welcomes the innovation. “The fact that the design is so different from other scooters is really commendable. The criticism I often see and hear in the media is that electric motorcycles still look too much like traditional ones. The technical requirements are completely different and automotive designers have new challenges, something that BMW has understood.”
Salens is hopeful that the “big four” manufacturers — Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki — will join the party with full-production electric motorcycles sooner rather than later. “Who knows what they have been developing in their R&D departments?” But electric motorcycles clearly have a very long road in front of them. “The future . . . is going to be extremely exciting,” he says.
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