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Electric bikes: Watt's the hold up?

Published: 31 August 2017

Like it or not, electric vehicles are coming. The Government have said that by 2040 the sale of cars and vans with internal combustion engines will be banned. Officially there has been no word on motorbikes, but we expect they’ll be lumped in too, so it’s time to start thinking about going green.

2040 is a long way away though and it’s left some people asking why couldn’t we go electric by 2030, or 2020 even? To find out we spoke to two manufacturers: BMW, who still have a strong fossil-fuel business but are leading the way with electric, and Zero, who only make electric bikes.

Fast learners

“What we are doing with bikes has been done with the cars already and we talk with our car colleagues regularly,” says Professor Karl Victor Schaller, Head of BMW Motorrad Development. “There is no experimenting around and wondering should we be doing this or that – we already know what to do but there are many challenges ahead.

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“For instance, we are still not finding off-the-shelf products to provide the drive. We’ve been co-operating with our car division, who developed their own electric engines, so we’ve been using them. The other area is the electronics. “People want the digital environment in their scooter to be the same as the car, so a big emphasis is put on connectivity. Right now people have a product for 10 years but that’s completely unrealistic in a connected world, so we have to be able to design a product that can be continually updated without changing any hardware. That’s a big challenge.

“The good thing about electronics is that they follow Moore’s Law, so they’re getting much more powerful without getting any bigger. A huge problem right now is the size of the connectors – the 120-pin connectors required to process all this information are massive and difficult to pack into little motorcycles.

“The other thing is that in 20years’ time, people will have requirements from a bike that we do not know about today. We talk too much about hardware in the bike world but in the future it will be about applications.”

Plug it in baby

One of the big worries customers have is bikes quickly becoming obsolete, however Schaller thinks there’s little to worry about. “Battery technology has moved on but there are no majors steps coming– no doubling in the next three years or anything like that. We have to make bikes that satisfy consumer demand and that isn’t an urban scooter with a300-mile range, because no-one would use it. As long as the bike will still cover the same range in 10 years’ time, people will be happy.”

So what of the big sellers in the BMW range? Are we going to see electric versions of those soon? “We could make an electric S1000RR, perhaps for a specific competition,” says Schaller. “The GS would be more difficult because these customers want to do big distances. Maybe quick-charging would help one day, but it puts in more weight. Quick charging develops huge amounts of heat, which needs more cooling, which adds more weight again. I think after 2030 we will see a lot more electric performance vehicles but for the time being it will just be urban mobility.”

‘By 2027, 50%of bikes will be electric’

“Europe is further ahead of the US with electric vehicle adoption and infrastructure,” says Sam Paschel, CEO of Zero Motorcycles. “But when it comes to bikes, adoption is slower. Our biggest challenge is awareness – we need to get people to try electric bikes as, once sampled, our uptake rate is very high.”

But what about the high prices? “Price won’t be such an issue in the future, in fact I believe it will be an electric bike’s main selling point. Currently, around 40% of the cost of an electric bike is the battery, but this will reduce. In the future you will get a higher value electric motorcycle than a petrol-powered one for less, as petrol bikes are only going to go up in cost as they struggle to conform to emissions laws.”

However, while Zero’s bikes already produce almost Panigale-levels of torque, recharge time and battery life are still huge obstacles. “At the moment EVs are restricted to urban areas where the infrastructure is available, so we won’t displace a BMW R1200GS on long trips,” he says. “Battery capacity and range are growing at about 10% a year, but recharge time is the next major jump we need. Riders want to recharge in the time it takes to fill a petrol tank. When someone makes the next breakthrough in charging it will trigger the electric revolution. In 10 years I can see well over 50% of new cars being electric and 50% of bikes as well.”

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