Why You Should Consider an Electric Motorcycle (Especially if You Have a Gas Bike!)


Why You Should Consider an Electric Motorcycle (Especially if You Have a Gas Bike!)

We recently had the opportunity to sit down for a Q&A with Jay Friedland, one of Plug In America’s board members, and a strong advocate of electric motorcycles. We talked with Jay about why electric motorcycles are great, what incentives are available, and what Plug In America is doing to help spread electric motorcycles far and wide.  We also discussed the impacts of highly polluting gasoline motorcycles and the efforts to take them off the road.

Question: How much do gasoline motorcycles pollute compared to gasoline cars?

Jay: All the motorcycles sold in 2017 polluted more than all the cars sold in 2017. Motorcycles are very efficient, but their engines are mostly unregulated.  Keep in mind that motorcycles typically ride about one third the average daily distance of passenger cars, and there are only one tenth as many motorcycles on the road as cars, yet that combination is still generating 16% more smog than all the cars on the road.  Over the last 20-25 years, cars have gotten much cleaner while motorcycles have not faced any significant new regulations. The last time there was an attempt to regulate the pollution of motorcycles was 2008-2009, right as the Great Recession hit.  Motorcycle manufacturers argued that if pollution regulations were mandated, they would have killed the industry.  As a result, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) backed off.

Until now, that is.

Currently, the ARB is in the process of reconsidering the regulations, starting with off-road dirt bikes.  Dirt bikes are extremely polluting.  Just one mile driven on a two-stroke off-road dirt bike is the equivalent of driving over 3,000 miles in an ordinary passenger car.  To make matters worse, over seventy percent of the off-road trails in California are in the mountains around the LA Basin. In the summer, all this pollution is descending into the LA Basin, creating a perfect storm of pollution.  These unregulated internal combustion engines pouring pollution into the LA basin are really counterproductive to all of the efforts to clean up Southern California’s air.

All the motorcycles sold in 2017 polluted more than all the cars sold in 2017…Just one mile driven on a 2-stroke off road dirt bike is the equivalent of going over 3,000 miles in an ordinary passenger car.

Q: What do we have to do to get these highly polluting bikes off the road (and off the off-road)?

Jay: The first step that the ARB will take is to get rid of the Red Sticker Program, which allows old two-stroke dirt bikes to be operated off-road.  These stickers are re-issued every year, so the simplest step is to not re-issue the stickers next year.  Ending this program would stop this program and reap a dramatic improvement in air quality very quickly. There are already three times as many “green sticker” dirt bikes on the off-road as “red sticker” bikes, so it’s really time that these old, dirty bikes are retired.  Note that this isn’t the first time such a program has been implemented; an identical program for four-wheel all terrain vehicles (ATVs) was phenomenally successful.  99.6% of all ATVs are now “green sticker” ATVs.

(For even more information on the Red Sticker Program, click here.)

Q: Where will all these suddenly illegal “red sticker” bikes go?

Jay: Some manufacturers may offer a scrappage program, whereby old bikes are turned into the manufacturers for credit towards a new bike.  This may be one of the areas where the ARB has to think it through.  The upside is that these old “red sticker” bikes are only a quarter of the dirt bikes out there.  Plus, there are plenty of “green sticker” bikes for sale, and of course electric bikes, too!

Zero FX Motorcycle

Q: What about on-road motorcycles?  What steps are being taken to make on-road bikes pollute less?

Jay: On-road motorcycles in California will likely be held to the Euro 4 and Euro 5 emissions standards. These are much more stringent emissions standards that aim to reduce the green house gas emissions and carbon dioxide emissions from internal combustion engines.  This will necessitate a phase-out of the motorcycle fleet, as new bikes that abide by new emissions standards replace older, more polluting bikes.  The thing is, manufacturers are already making these motorcycles for the European market.  They could bring these to the US at the snap of their fingers.  So it’s not as if the manufacturers will have to design new bikes.  For the older bikes, there may be a scrappage incentive.  Zero Motorcycles did a promotion where you could trade in a gas bike to get an electric bike and get $1,000 off.  This is an area where the states could step in and offer incentives to replace older bikes with newer, less polluting models.  Of course, the ultimate and ideal solution is to completely switch to electric motorcycles.

Q: Are there electric dirt bikes?  Do they have any advantages over gas dirt bikes?

Jay: Yes, there are! Besides their awesome instant torque and respectable range, electric dirt bikes have a huge advantage – they are quiet.  This may not seem like anything important, but consider that the noise pollution from dirt bikes is the reason why they are restricted to trails and areas far away from populated areas.  And these areas are going away.  There are progressively fewer and fewer places to ride a dirt bike and these keep getting farther and farther away.  With electric bikes, you have people who are riding them in their backyards!  Zero Motorcycles even held a 24-hour dirt bike race in the City of San Jose.  This is just something you can’t do with gas dirt bikes.

Locations of designated dirt bike riding areas. A “non-attainment area” is an area considered to have air quality worse than the National Ambient Air Quality Standards as defined in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970.

Q: What are the barriers to widespread adoption of electric motorcycles? Can they be overcome in the short-term?

Jay: The big two factors with electric vehicles in general are price and range. Electric motorcycles are no exception.  From the range standpoint, current electric motorcycles meet the needs of 90% of the riders out there.  Current electric motorcycles can achieve up to 200 miles of range in the city, and over 100 miles on the highway.  Sure, there are always some riders who want to go really, really far on their motorcycle without refueling, but for the vast majority of riders, an electric motorcycle would easily meet their range needs. Electric motorcycles are especially well-suited for commuting, as 100 miles of highway or 200 miles of city riding is more than enough to get to and from work every day.  What you will see now is a climb to the range sweet spot where it is no longer a factor.  The cost of the battery is the primary reason why electric motorcycles cost more than gas versions.  As there are incremental improvements in battery cost, the price of electric bikes will become more and more cost competitive with ICE bikes.  When electric motorcycles are able to compete in the sub $7,000-price range with gas motorcycles, you’ll see a fairly quick switch, as people see that electric bikes have lower maintenance.  Remember, people with bikes tend to want to do their own maintenance, and having one bike in the stable that doesn’t need any maintenance is a huge plus, especially if you rely on that bike for daily riding.  Most motorcyclists own more than one motorcycle, meaning there really isn’t the same anxiety over replacing a gas motorcycle with an electric one as there is with electric cars.

When electric motorcycles are able to compete in the sub $7,000-price range with gas motorcycles, you’ll see a fairly quick switch, as people see that electric bikes have lower maintenance.

Consumers will get the electric motorcycle as an addition to their collection.  The major manufacturers are starting to wake up to electric motorcycles (Harley-Davidson, KTM, BMW, etc.) and are putting real effort into their development, bringing more choices to market.  At the end of the day, motorcyclists want to fly – and electrics are much closer to that.  I’ll say it again – the motorcycle market could tip faster than the passenger car market. You can see the motorcycle market dominated by electrics faster than car market dominated by electrics.

Lightning Motors LS-218 Electric Motorcycle. 100-mile range, 218 mph top speed. Whoa.

Jay: Did I happen to mention they’re a blast to ride?

Thank you, Jay, for taking the time to sit down with us.

Have a question of your own about electric motorcycles? Please let us know what you think in the comments below!

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