The future of motorcycles is less clear than that of cars, at least in terms of alternative sources of power. Will they be powered by electric-run engines, or by some other alternative?
Though it may seem that electricity will prevail, the idea of it is slightly utopian, considering that engine noise (from internal combustion engines) is a big reason why biking aficionados, thirsty for excitement and adrenalin, choose to indulge in traditional motorbikes.
Construction peculiarities, low weight, and limited room for battery storage make electric-fueled engines in motorcycles a less self-evident solution than in cars. If electricity once excited the curiosity of small-scale, obscure manufacturers, then it certainly is a focus of big brand names today. While KTM, BMW and some other brands already took off on serious projects, the Japanese continue to work on concepts, such as the Yamaha Luxair, the Honda Oree and the Suzuki Crossage.
Is Electricity a Tough Nut to Crack?
"We believe in electro-mobility on two wheels," said Harald Plöckinger, a KTM executive board member, at the presentation of their electric dirt bike, the KTM Freeride E, and their scooter, the KTM E-Speed. BMW, on the other hand, is going electric with their C-Evolution scooter, featuring a 35kW electric motor, a top speed of 120km/h and a reported 100-kilometer range. Both KTM and BMW acknowledge, however, that battery weight and limited range are the main problems in electric-powered motorcycles. Last year, Harley Davidson stirred up a storm of publicity with their electric motorcycle LiveWire concept–heresy for traditional lovers of Milwaukee's two-cylinder, gas-powered engines. Still, Harley is adamant, as COO Matthew Levatich said: –I am sometimes asked...whether there will be an electric Harley.
People would say 'hell no.' But why not?" Their motorcycle is powered by a longitudinally-mounted electric 55kW motor (not bad, considering they sell a number of weaker, classically-powered bikes), which will propel you to a top speed of 150km/h, and allow a range of 80 km on a fully-charged battery. Next in a line of American electric motorcycles is the Lightning LS-218–an undeniably electric superbike rocket, with a 220 horsepower electric motor and a torque of 228 Nm.
With a maximum speed over 350 km/h, it's been deemed the fastest production motorcycle in the world. Available in a limited edition of 150, the Lightning LS-218 will reach deep into your wallet, at a price just short of $40k. You can choose between 12, 15 or 20 kWh batteries that promise a driving range of up to 300 kilometers per charge. But Bultaco, the recently-reinvented Spanish manufacturer, which bets on two-wheeled electric vehicles, took things in a different direction. Meet Brinco (introduced with the Rapitan model last year)–a cross between a motorcycle and a bicycle. Powered by a 2kW electric motor, it has three ride modes (Eco, Tour and Sport, with pedaling), and a range of up to 80 kilometers.
Production motorcycles and competitive engines aside, electric two-wheelers are the fruit of concept creations, a perfect venue to implement certain design and technical solutions. If designers had once been forced to sacrifice their design in favor of space for internal-combustion engines and other mechanical demands, then things have changed with electric motorcycles. The drivetrain is smaller, and the batteries which come in different shapes can better comply with the designers' needs.
Innovation in electric two-wheelers is, for instance, well-represented by the Expemotion e-raw from France, which was designed by Martin Hulin. His solution could not be simpler: a steel frame that embraces an electric generator, above which sprawls an 80-layer wood laminate work of art which serves as a seat, though its retro style makes it look like a gas tank. A funky feature: it uses an iPhone as its dashboard.
From a Slovenian company that produces electric components comes an electric-powered beast, the TEM01. Executed by CustomNorth, the motorcycle serves to promote both companies. TEM01 is made of unique and specially-developed components such as frame, swing arms, front forks, bodywork and rims. Hidden parts astound even more, like the application of electricity. In brief, the motorcycle comprises an electric motor, control panel, batteries and electronics. It has no transmission, no clutch, and when driven reasonably it uses regenerative braking, and a passive 360° front brake when necessary. The beast wakes upon recognizing its driver's fingerprint. It features touch LCD screens with all the information on electric and other car conditions. The driver can select between different driving modes: sport, eco and transport. It also features front and rear air suspension, with 400 hp on the rear wheel and 530 Nm of torque. Impressive numbers that are, in theory, enough to drive 500 km/h!
Meet on the Track
Technical specs within the motorcycle industry advance at lightning speed, above all in terms of speed and range. Where better to put new specs to the test, than during sports events? Starting in 2009, as part of the Isle of Man TT races, electric-powered prototypes have been tested on their 360 kilometer long race track. The American MotoCzysz gave the best performance to begin with, and was especially proud to win the title in 2013, having bested Honda's Mugen with an astounding 180 km/h, despite the rumored expenditure of the Japanese team: as much as $4 million. Well, this year the Japanese won, with John McGuinness on his Mugen averaging 190 km/h.
The progress, compared to 2009, when the Agni bike reached an average speed of 140 km/h, is obvious. By way of comparison, it took Norton Manx 30 years of development to reach this average speed. But in the years to come, the speed of the winners improved: in 2010, it was 150 km/h (this is the winning speed of traditional bikes from the 1950s), and in 2011 the speed was 160 km/h. This year, the average speed of the winner, one of six bikes that finished the race, is comparable to the average speed registered by superbikes back in the 90s. What took gas-powered bikes fifty years of development to achieve, electric prototypes, raced on the Isle of Man, reached in just a few years. Are electric dreams still just a dream?