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Excitement should be electric for the motorbikes of tomorrow (or today)

By Bruce Rhind, Tasmania, for Southcoast Health and Sustainability Alliance (SHASA)

For many years I have believed that electric motorcycles would be better vehicles than electric cars. They would cost much less; their smaller batteries would be much easier to recharge; and they wouldn’t need specialised recharging stations with unusual plugs. And they wouldn’t have the speed restrictions of electric bicycles. Perfect for one person with a short commute in the city.

A quick glossary before we launch in: ‘scooter’ refers to little stand-up scooters (foot or electric powered), as well as sit-down motorcycles with a step-through frame (also called mopeds), the latter is used in this article. Some tech words are required too: rather than CCs of engine power, electric motorcycles have the motor size in kilowatts, and battery size in kilowatt hours. Many people are familiar with electric bicycles at the small end, with about half a kWh in the battery and 400-watt electric motor.

Bruce Rhind’s electric motorbike – a Light Bee dirt bike

But while electric bicycles are common and electric cars are increasing in popularity, there is little sign of electric motorbikes in Australia. About 20 million vehicles are registered in Australia, about 900,000 being motorcycles, and about 100,000 new motorcycles sold here each year. But very few are electric.

The big four, Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki haven’t manufactured any, though they have prototypes. Partly it’s tradition. And the sound of the engine. But a serious barrier is the same as electric cars: insufficient range. Electric motorbikes have a short range, so petrol is still needed for long trips. But many urban riders travel much less than 100km per day. So, it would make sense to have something for that niche. And once you begin to search the Internet, you discover that there is an amazing world of electric motorcycles – sadly, mostly elsewhere.

The absence of (most of) the big players has left an opportunity for lesser-known companies and new start-ups to create new electric motorcycles and find a specific market. It’s a minor part of the transport industry here (As one as one commentator put it: “a trivial pimple on the butt of traditional motorcycle sales,”) but there has been an incredible amount of action overseas in the past two decades. Early development was mostly high-performance racing machines, but companies have been developing all the categories of motorcycle, from tourers to commuters to off-road trail bikes.

The electric scooter industry has already taken off in Asia. The numbers are astonishing. Scooters have always been cheap and popular in poorer countries, and there are well over 100 companies around the world producing all kinds of scooters. They are often the most common form of transport; for example, India sells eight times more motorbikes and scooters than cars. China is the big success story, legislating against polluting two-stroke motorbikes in their cities in April 2019. Shanghai has banned petrol engines from the city, so smoke and noise have reduced dramatically. Honda in Japan is still the world’s biggest motorcycle company, but the second largest is the (unknown in the west) Chinese company Yadea. They were founded in 2001 and grew rapidly until they sold about 9.4 million – yes million – electric scooters in the combined years of 2019 and 2020 (and slightly fewer electric bikes). China now has about 90% of the world’s electric motorbikes and scooters: an astounding 30 million of them. And we’ve been thinking in hundreds and thousands.

Yet, there are dozens of electric motorcycle companies in the west (also mostly unknown to the general public) developing, prototyping and selling their designs. Some attempted to compete with performance road bikes, but their bikes were a lot more expensive and not always commercially successful. Harley Davidson, the first of the well-known motorcycle companies to go electric, also aimed for the top rung with their LiveWire road bike. It weighs 210kg and has a 15kWh battery (half the weight of the bike) powering a 78kW motor. It can do 235 kph – briefly – but at sensible speeds has a range of about 200km. They are very expensive (about $50,000) and available in some parts of Australia.

The best-known electric motorbike company in the USA is Zero, which began in 2009. They sold about 3000 electric motorcycles in 2018, increasing to 4000 in 2020. Their bikes were available in Australia but they withdrew from our market in 2017 due to poor sales. Their newest bike is the SR/F, with an 82kW motor, 14kWh battery, top speed of 200kph, and a range of about 200km.

Each part of the world tells a different story. In Europe, sales have been increasing at about 25% per year, but different new brands. The top four early this year were Niu (China), V-Moto (Australia), Silence (Europe) and Askoll (Europe). Wait a minute, Australia? The Internet reveals that V-Moto has its head office in Perth. They are a joint enterprise with Western engineering and Chinese manufacture. V-Moto produce several Super Soco models including a motorbike and scooter.

It’s frustrating that many brands are promoted on the Internet but in reality, aren’t available. You need to email or ring to see if they are in the shop. The Super Soco motorbikes are available and stocked by MCAS in Melbourne and Sydney since late 2020. For example, their CUx scooter costs about $5000, and is selling well. It has a 2.8kW motor, 1.3kWh battery (10.5kg), and a range of about 75km at 45kph.

The secret success story in Australia was something unexpected: children’s electric motorbikes. They had obvious advantages: small size, small battery, very cheap, and no need for registration for the back yard. They were the safest, with no fuel or hot exhaust pipes. In the beginning they were just toys, but they have evolved into bigger dirt bikes. Dirt bikes don’t always need size, speed, or long range, as they are usually ridden for one or two hours at low speeds. Over a dozen companies make electric off-road dirt bikes for children and youths (again many not available in Australia). Some are known dirt bike companies (KTM, Husqvarna, Bultaco, etc) but many are new to the game. Electric dirt bikes now range in size from child to adult.

Sur Ron dirt bikes are imported by a Sydney company, which took a larger version through the road legalisation process, rather slowly, as the relevant government bodies didn’t quite what to do with this new electrical creature. The process was completed in 2020, and now Sur Ron Australia can’t keep up with the demand. Each container of about 80 motorcycles is presold before it arrives. I ordered one of these Light Bees for about $6000 and waited three months for it to arrive. I was worried that registration might be awkward, but it was the same as a conventional motorbike.