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Sparking a trend: electric bikes

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As gas prices rise and the environment continues to be a concern, we put the spotlight on electric and hybrid vehicles.

Here's what we found out:

Hybrids' weight issues

To start with, it's worth saying that the biggest problem with hybrid motorcycles is probably the weight: the bike has to carry two motors. An electric motor - while lighter than an internal combustion (IC) engine - requires a heavy battery pack. While the electric motor with the battery is still lighter than an IC engine, hybrids need to carry an IC motor as well. It makes it difficult for this combination to work on motorcycles, where space and weight are much more of a concern than on an automobile.

Battery bikes

As for battery-only bikes, there's a lot of potential, with numerous companies around the world researching the technology. At this point, the general belief is that electric bikes are an urban niche market, although there are some interesting off-road electric "play-bikes" already on the market.

If you live in an urban area and don't expect to travel more than 30-40 km a day, they can be useful in the same way that a bicycle is - without the effort of pedalling. Some small ones actually have pedals; Ontario has had a pilot project underway effectively treating such vehicles in the same way as bicycles - more information on that can be found from the Ontario government.

Electric bikes have also begun to infiltrate the off-road world. KTM, an Austrian manufacturer of high-performance bikes for both road and dirt, has been developing its Freeride dirt racer for several years now, and Zero Motorcycles out of the U.S. has both a trail and motocross racing version of an electric bike on the market, plus dual-sport and street models.

Included among electric streetbike buyers are short-range commuters, campus police departments, resorts, small parcel delivery services, and a host of other potential fleet sales. Zero Motorcycles, a California manufacturer of electric motorcycles, recently sold their first bikes to the Police Department in Scotts Valley, California. It's the first law enforcement agency to accept delivery of an electric motorcycle to assist in local patrols and traffic enforcement.

Pros and cons

What advantages are there to an electric bike? Some of the calculations are subject to question, but most companies claim about a 75% savings in operating costs (fuel versus electricity), silent operation, stronger acceleration than a conventional machine, green operation because of no exhaust from the machine (factoring in electricity production, it's still a more emission-friendly device), and instant-on (no warm-up required).

There are, of course, disadvantages. Consider the initial up-front cost (higher than a conventional machine), a much shorter range, a longer "fill-up" (charge) time, a lack of charge points other than at home, lower attainable speeds, serious drain in cold weather (as much as 80% of charge can be lost in very cold weather, depending on the battery type), and the need for constant maintenance of batteries even when the bike isn't being used.

Of course, there's also the environmental cost, which is hard to quantify, of disposing of batteries after their useful life is over.

Who's out there?

Brammo and Zero, the two biggest manufacturers around today, both claim that their batteries are relatively easily recyclable, and that the total environmental cost of their bikes is considerably less than a conventional machine. But both also agree that the day of electric bikes completely replacing internal combustion types is in the future.

Scot Harden, an international off-road racing champion, recently signed up as Zero's Vice-President of Global Marketing, after successful stints with Husqvarna and KTM motorcycles. He agrees that the day of the electric bike taking over the world isn't here quite yet, but thinks it's coming.

"So the naysayers, they're right. I am that guy - I'm a naysayer. I'm the guy that looks at it and says, 'Man, I just can't; it just doesn't meet my needs,'" Mr. Harden says, adding that for him the IC engine is still important for his particular off-road riding.

Then he adds, "But I do know that it meets the needs of a sufficient number of people. There is enough there to build a business out of it, so that we have time to wait for the technology to arrive, and that's coming quickly to where we can get into a much broader scale."

Republished from In The Saddle. To subscribe to this free newsletter, simply request a motorcycle insurance quote!

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