29th May 2019
Environmental, technological and other influences shaping the world of motorcycles as electric bike development accelerates
Although consumer motoring and fleet media predominantly focus on plug-in hybrid and electric cars, motorcycles very much remain a popular method of mobility throughout the world, so we discuss the latest market trends as emissions regulations, battery power and other forces rapidly shaping the car and van markets also permeate the two-wheeled sector.
The current motorcycle market
Despite ride-sharing, car-sharing and other mobility modes increasingly being promoted across the world, motorbike sales certainly haven’t decelerated in the EU for starters, H1 2018 seeing a 7.2% year-on-year increase in registrations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Italy registered the most motorcycles, with the UK placed fifth. It’s interesting and somewhat unexpected, though, that moped registrations decreased by 32.1% during the same period. What is very encouraging is the 49% rise reported by ACEM (the European Association of Motorcycle Manufacturers)1 in the registration throughout the EU of electric mopeds, motorbikes and quadricycles, showing that such vehicles aren’t being left behind when it comes to battery power, despite cars and vans dominating headlines. Comparing ACEM’s figures, VisorDown2 points to a 9.9% increase in motorcycle sales in Europe in 2018 as a whole, during which time electric registrations rose by a phenomenal 81.5%
In terms of the global market, MotorcyclesData3 recently reported ‘Q1 2019 sales declines 5% despite Europe is booming’, citing sales volumes at 14.1 million units and attributed falling markets in China and India as major factors. The Indian motorcycle market represents the most sizeable in the world4, having overtaken China in 2016 and exceeded 20 million registrations in 2018. The fall in motorcycle sales in 2019 so far seems to have come somewhat unexpectedly, judging by media reports, with unusually high levels of unsold stock combined with flat consumer appetite given as possible reasons5.
Challenges two-wheeled OEMs face
The Bike Insurer5 describes the new motorcycle market as in a state of significant change amidst forthcoming emissions rules, technical developments, consumer demands, tariff uncertainty in light of Brexit and other relationships, and the introduction of new powertrains. Following the motorcycle shows in Cologne and Milan, the publication sums up the market by saying that adventure bikes remain popular and integral, sports bikes still have a future, and consumers are demonstrating a preference for modern motorcycles rather than retro. But the Euro 5 rules introduced on January 1st 2020 are forcing OEMs to increase engines’ cubic capacities, reduce emissions and also exhaust noise, plus save weight in every way possible including utilising innovations such as 3D printing.
Are car innovations shaped by motorbike advancements?
It was with great interest that we read the Fleet World article ‘Zero to hero: How electric bikes are pioneering the EV market’7, author Jonathan Musk fascinatingly asserting: “For years, engine innovations have been pioneered on two, not four wheels. Forget what the chaps at Formula One will have you believe – that they’ve developed a new piston engine technology – as the reality is the motorbike lot had probably already done it, or even sold the technology to F1 in the first place.”
Thinking about it logically, though, it’s understandable that motorcycle manufacturers are making perhaps more rapid and relatively significant strides in engine technology, weight-saving and other techniques, because their vehicles are so much more compact but yet are expected by many to be powerful and agile. Bikes’ petrol engines with 1.3-litre displacements typically deliver 200bhp and power-to-weight ratios of 1,000bhp per tonne while yielding fuel economy much more impressive than cars.
The piece states that fleets should pay attention to electric motorbikes such as the Zero SR/F because such two-wheeled vehicles are pioneering EV innovation just as they’ve discretely done for car engine development over the years despite receiving less investment and column inches.
It certainly seems like the Zero SR/F is a game-changer and a more significant disruptor than other electric motorbikes launched so far by various long-established and start-up companies, showcasing its electric motor and battery unashamedly visibly while avoiding any badges and other details harking too much to traditional petrol motorcycles. Technology and the IoT will increasingly permeate the two-wheeled world just as they are the car market, the Zero SR/F being a smart, connected bike.
Is a grant available for electric motorbike adopters?
The UK government’s OLEV introduced the Plug-In Motorcycle Grant (PiMG)8 in March 2017 offering prospective green-minded two-wheeled adopters with a £1,500 or 20% reduction against the price of buying a new electric motorcycle or scooter. The criteria set in place include a range of at least 30km (18 miles) for mopeds and 50km (31 miles) for motorcycles, along with a top speed of 40kmph or more, and the fitment of a battery covered by a 5-year warranty. Eligible bikes9 must weigh at least 50kg without batteries and emit zero grams of CO2. Unsurprisingly, as tends to be the case with most initiatives, certain voices expressed criticism10 following the PiMG’s introduction, stating that the list of feasible motorcycles has remained stagnant and small in number – but two years on, the current and forthcoming electric motorbike markets are much more promising, which we welcome.
Electric motorcycle models
Alongside Zero’s SR/F Premium, which offers a 1-hour charging time and a 200-mile electric range from its 14.4kWh lithium-ion battery, BMW and KTM also manufacture electric bikes, while Super Soco is set to launch a 30mph electric scooter for urban mobility, and Lightning is tipped to release what they claim is the world’s fastest production motorcycle – not just in the electric arena but in general.
In its ‘best electric motorbikes of 2019’ list compiled as of May 2019, Motorcycle News11 included the Vespa Elletrica scooter with a 62-mile range, and a Ducati-branded version of the Super Soco CUx as the most noteworthy smaller urban bikes. At the full-size end of the spectrum, the Zero SR/F inevitably gets a mention, as does Super Soco’s TC-Max and another offering from Zero badged the DSR and with a 163-mile range, while Energica is another leading producer of electric bikes and its Ego model is known for its high performance and sports agility.
Our interest was particularly piqued by the LiveWire from Harley-Davidson, one of the world’s most iconic bike manufacturers, its EV debutant coming this summer and equipped with Bluetooth connectivity and a TFT instrument display. In the car segment, electric power is increasingly entering people’s consciousness as providing instant torque and acceleration, and the same very much rings true of the LiveWire with a 0-62mph time of 3 seconds, which Harley-Davidson markets evocatively: “No clutch to release. No gears to run through. All you do is flick your wrist and take off.”
It has a 140-mile zero-emissions range and, just like a car, can be charged overnight using a level 1 charger via a domestic electricity socket, or using a public level 3 DC Fast Charge point that will recharge the battery to 100% in one hour or achieve 80% in around 40 minutes. Like increasing numbers of premium cars, the LiveWire is app-connected, enabling remote control of various functions from inside one’s home, office or café, but we were somewhat disconcerted by the promotional material stating that “the loudest sound you hear will be your heart racing”, as it’s largely understood that most e-bikes will be fitted with artificial engine sounds like many of their four-wheeled equivalents.
What do electric motorbikes currently sound like?
After riding the LiveWire, Chris Morris reported for Fortune12 that “instead of the loud roar that is so familiar to Harley riders, the LiveWire starts silently. And rather than the rumbling, bone-shaking growl that, for so many people, goes hand in hand with Harley Davidson, the LiveWire has a higher pitched sound as it accelerates.” It’s perhaps a shame that RideApart’s April Fool’s piece13 claiming that Harley has announced customisable engine and exhaust sounds spanning classic notes such as the ‘Milwaukee-Eight’ through to MP3s uploaded by riders via their smartphones and the H-D App was a joke, as we could envisage LiveWire owners receiving such an option positively. Still, Harley will no doubt have whetted the thirst of technology-loving, eco-minded riders by revealing: “The LiveWire model is designed to produce a new signature Harley-Davidson sound as it accelerates and gains speed. This new futuristic sound represents the smooth, electric power of the LiveWire motorcycle.”
The expression “loud pipes save lives” that is often associated with motorcycle riders has been labelled a myth14 by some on the basis that no statistical evidence for this theory has come forth. Others have dismissed the notion because of the way in which the Doppler Effect15 perhaps negates the throatiness of some bike exhausts, while CleanTechnica’s analysis of accident data per brand in 2014-15 was caveated with the acceptance that 40% of fatalities involving motorbikes were single-vehicle accidents, rendering noise or lack of irrelevant.
Various smaller OEMs have been showcasing differing sizes of electric motorbikes equipped with faux engine and exhaust sounds. Examples include Rumble Motors16 from California, whose model incorporates the ability to activate or deactivate typical motorcycle sounds that correspond to acceleration and is amplified using speakers on each side of the vehicle, and Kymco from Taiwan. Their SuperNEX electric scooter17 features a ‘dial-in Active Acoustic Motor’ that can be tuned to the rider’s liking for character and volume.
For anyone who hasn’t visited Shanghai or another densely-populated Chinese city, Wired’s piece18 that says quietness is a major and deadly problem with China’s electric scooter revolution may come as a surprising insight. Trak Global Group’s solutions have road safety at their core and we agree that the safety of near-silent EVs does need ensuring for pedestrians and cyclists, and we can appreciate why the author Katia Moskvitch is concerned about China where 300 million motorcycles are registered and where 90% of the world’s electric bike sales materialise.
The near-future of motorbikes
Similar to the effect that the new and more realistic WLTP emissions and economy tests have had on the car world, with several key models and most notably some plug-in hybrids pulled from sale, the enforcement of Euro 4 emissions regulations for motorcycles from 2016 likewise resulted in the discontinuation19 of certain well-known iterations from brands including Agusta, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Triumph. January 2020 will see even stricter Euro 5 rules introduced and commentators are expecting existing models to be revamped or replaced.
Michael Ryland, technical lead at Ricardo Motorcycles, recently explained20 to specialist bike insurer Bennetts that Euro 5 imposes much lower emissions limits on OEMs, Euro 4’s carbon monoxide ceiling lowered from 1,140mg/km to 1,000mg/km, total hydrocarbons from 170mg/km to 100mg/km and NOx, infamous amongst car emissions, from 90mg/km to 60mg/km. Ryland elaborated that “you typically have longer valve durations which causes many issues, in particular for the hydrocarbon emissions”, making it harder for manufacturers especially of high-revving sports motorcycles to reduce hydrocarbons.
Euro 5 will also mandate the fitment of OBD State II on-board diagnostic systems, which is reportedly proving challenging for many manufacturers because of the vastly different way in which high-revving motorcycle engines operate compared with cars’, potentially causing a delay in this particular imposition.
Motorcycle commentators point towards brands increasingly turning to turbocharging and more of a reliance placed on variable valve timing (synonymous with Toyota in the car world), as well as on lift.
Petrol-electric hybrid motorcycles do exist, but they’re a niche. Motorcycle writer Ben Purvis commented in the same Bennetts article that “there’s little interest in the same technology from bike firms because they can achieve Euro 5 limits without resorting to hybrid technology”, while Paul Etheridge, Ricardo Motorcycle’s head of strategy and business development added: “You’re going to need to have an electric motor and a combustion engine, and package it all in a suitable way for a motorcycle so you don’t lose the fundamental advantages of the vehicle you’re developing. What’s the point? If you don’t need it for certain requirement it doesn’t make sense; it’s more expensive, it’s heavier. That may change in the future, but that’s why you don’t see many hybrid motorcycles currently.”
All agree that electric mopeds, scooters, sports and touring bikes will proliferate, and we are excited at the prospect of the Vector21 bike from British firm Arc. Built in Coventry, it’s pitched as the world’s most advanced motorcycle and features a 399V electric power cell equipping it with a range of 200 miles and a 62mph time of 3.1 seconds. Perhaps more impressively, though, Arc says it will come with a connected helmet and jacket that will respectively display head-up information and safety prompts to the rider, the former equipped with a live rear-view camera for added safety. Charging the electric Vector is anticipated to take 45 minutes using a home charge point, and the futuristic bike looks set to come with selectable artificial sounds. Excitingly, Arc is associated with Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), its founder Mark Truman formerly running JLR Special Operations, and the British company’s InMotion Ventures is cited as a primary investor in the Vector project22.
Another fascinating collaboration23 as the era of electric bikes arrives is Triumph’s association with Williams Advanced Engineering of Oxfordshire, the project called TE-1 aimed at accelerating the development of electric powertrains for Triumph’s motorcycles and backed by the OLEV and the University of Warwick.
Emissions regulations and environmental moves are likely to affect the sizeable Indian motorcycle market, too, with April 2025 discussed as marking a threshold after which sales of motorcycles up to 150cc will be restricted to all-electric following proposals by the Niti Aayog policy think tank24. Sceptics say these plans will necessitate accelerated product development along with supply chain localisation to facilitate new technology, leaving the market’s volume-leading OEMs the most exposed25.
A whitepaper from the Freedonia Group26 expects the global motorcycle market, encompassing petrol, hybrid and electric, to grow 4.4% each year to 2022, with Asia continuing to contribute significantly to overall worldwide sales. Fascinatingly, the report identifies Western Europe as the likely region for the strongest growth of e-motorcycles, comprising 70% of new product demand.
While Trak Global Group’s solutions and R&D remains focussed on four-wheeled vehicles for the foreseeable future, it’s remarkable to see how strides in motorcycle technology may well have traditionally led the way ahead of cars, and it’s both welcoming and insightful to see how the same environmental, legislative, technological and societal influences are shaping the two-wheeled world in parallel.
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