Faithful readers may suspect that I am a bit taken with electric motorcycles. I write about them frequently for AutoblogGreen and spend a lot more time reading about them and following various racing and development efforts. Yet, despite my infatuation, I had never actually ridden one before showing up at the headquarters of Zero Motorcycles in Scotts Valley, CA a few weeks back. In fact, I'd never previously piloted any sort of motorcycle on the street. Something I may have neglected to mention to my generous hosts.
I grew up in Canada, and early on my Dad decided snowmobiles would be a better sort of recreational vehicle for our family's somewhat rural existence than motorbikes. He was probably right. I raced through tight forest trails and across open fields whenever there was snow on the ground (and sometimes when there wasn't), and it opened up the great outdoors to me far more than any sort of two-wheeled vehicle could. You can't easily ride twenty miles down a frozen river on a motorcycle, for instance. Heck, in a pinch one could even power a sled across a couple hundred feet of open water after a sudden thaw of the mighty Petitcodiac. (Note to my Mom: I never did this. Especially not twice.) But I digress.
I do have a motorcycle endorsement on my driver's license, which I picked it up after missing out on an invitation from Zero to try out their lineup a few years back. As a requirement for getting that permission, I had to complete a motorcycle safety basic rider course, and so I am familiar with piloting a bike in small figure eights in a parking lot and, hypothetically at least, know how to deal with some of the challenging situations one might face on the open road.
Zero provided me with the appropriate safety gear and chose a route comprised mostly of the slower roads that twist their way through the surrounding hills.
With plans to finally be in their neighborhood, I convinced Zero Motorcycles to allow me to tour their facilities and go for a bit of a ride on a couple of their 2014 bikes: the Zero S 11.4 with additional Power Tank battery and the more powerful SR 11.4, as it turned out. While not completely forthcoming about the exact extent of my non-experience, I did try to make it clear that I was pretty green. They were both understanding and accommodating, providing me with the appropriate safety gear and choosing a route comprised mostly of the slower roads that twist their way through the surrounding hills.
Before mounting up, though, I got the grand tour of the company's main building. It's not especially fancy. The foyer is small and holds exactly one electric motorcycle. There's no receptionist, no seating, no free beverages to mooch. There are only a couple of doors leading from that space – each equipped with a pass-code lock to prevent unauthorized entry – and a set of stairs that brings the brass to their executive offices, also guarded by a locked door. Despite not being located in a neighborhood that could be called sketch by any stretch, they seem pretty serious about security.
In the company of multi-record breaker and certified electric-motorcycle nut Terry Hershner, who graciously gave me a place to crash for a few days, I was met by Zero's product marketing manager Sean McLaughlin. After introductions, we were off and making the acquaintance of staff in various departments as we strolled through the warren of interconnected rooms. It was all a bit of a blur until we reached the production area.
Zero's S, SR, and DS models travel twice as far on a charge than they could just a few short years ago.
Here, the lights were brighter, the floor uncarpeted, and the few standing walls were comprised of shelves and racks of components. Our pace slowed as I was introduced to the people and goings-on at each station. As the battery is probably the most important part of an electric bike, it was sort of appropriate that we start there.
Zero gets its lithium-ion battery cells already assembled into modules from American firm Farasis, which uses a manganese rich (MnR) cathode that helps combine pretty decent energy density with a long cycle life. These qualities allow the company's products to travel twice as far on a charge than they could just a few short years ago and gives them the confidence to offer a five-year/100,000-mile warranty on its S, SR, and DS models. (The smaller, swappable pack on its FX model has a 5-year/50,000-mile warranty)
The modules are blessed with Zero's battery management system (BMS) and stuffed into what some company insiders refer to as "the monolith." The big black battery case is roughly the size of a gamer's desktop computer from 2005 and creates something of a conundrum. While the 2014 version holds up to 11.4 kilowatt-hours of energy storage, it also creates a significant design challenge: how do you integrate a big rectangular box into the frame of a motorcycle, make it look good, and allow for decent lean angles? So far, the designers have been only partly successful in solving this riddle.
The company wants to make doubly sure its machines can handle way more than any sane person can dish out.
After going through a battery of tests (Get it? Battery of tests? I kill me!) including charging, discharging, and some quality time under the shower in the rain booth, they are ready to be introduced to their new rolling homes at the main assembly area. Here, frames are mated up with motors and other essential bits before being lowered over the giant juice box. With the heart of the beast installed, wiring and wheels are then attached, plastics and instrument cluster added. Before you know it, fully fabricated bikes are functional and ready for final inspection. Almost.
Zero has a good number of quality control procedures built into its manufacturing process and perhaps our favorite one takes place at this stage. Each finished bike is wheeled inside an enclosed room on the factory floor marked "Dynamometer Test Station" and, after being strapped down so that its rear wheel is in firm contact with the metal cylinder in the floor of the contraption, power is applied. All the power. That is to say the drivetrain is operated at wide-open-throttle, about 6,000 RPMs, for at least fifteen minutes. After going through a recall for potential motor failure earlier this year, the company wants to make doubly sure its machines can handle way more than any sane person can dish out.
With the tour done, it was time to head out into the California sunshine and get my first taste of honest-to-goodness, on-road motorcycle riding. As we passed through a final room full of assorted demonstrators and other bikes, my eye caught an example of one of the original Zero X motocross models. Looking a little sad with uninflated tires, it stood in sharp contrast with the products the company makes now, a mere eight years into its existence. The original is small, almost toy-like, with 16-inch tires and a baby-sized battery. It was marketed with a claimed maximum range of 40 off-road miles.
The main difference between the Zero S and a gas-powered bike is the lack of a clutch and gear shifter, and the addition of a Mode button.
The range-topping 2014 Zero SR, by comparison, is a fullsize street-legal machine with several times the power, and the ability to travel as far as 171 city miles when equipped with the optional 2.8-kWh Power Tank option using the EPA's Universal Dynamometer Driving Schedule (UDDS). Sure, it's also several times the price, but given the choice, I certainly know which I would buy. Hint: not the initial offering.
Throwing a leg easily over the seat of a yellow Zero S, I made myself comfortable and checked out the controls. Pretty simple, really. The main difference between it and the gas-powered Honda I had taken my safety course on was the lack of a clutch and gear shifter, and the addition of a Mode button. This switch allows for three different power settings – eco, sport, and a custom selection configurable in the bike's smartphone app – and can be changed while under way by clicking it and rolling completely off the throttle. Upon reengagement, the new mode is enabled.
After going over the game plan, the key was turned, powering up the slick backlit LCD instrument cluster, and the I tapped the big red switch on the right handlebar and selected eco mode. The throttle was soundlessly live and my pulse quickened. This was it. The moment I'd literally been waiting years for. Time to roll.
Not having to think about shifting gears gave rise to a sense that can only be described as "freedom." The road, the wind, the elements, all open to be experienced.
With Hershner's crazy-looking streamlined 2012 S taking the lead position, I eased down on the right grip and started out of the parking lot, with McLaughlin behind on a red 2014 SR. I was a little wobbly at first, but with a bit of speed, things smoothed out. I was still too nervous to enjoy it, though.
"Look where you want to go, look where you want to go." I repeated the mantra over and over, just soft enough that it wouldn't escape the confines of my helmet and give my total noobiness away. This may have been the single most important point I'd learned about riding and now I was leaning heavily on it, hoping it would take me successfully through the turns.
After a few miles I began to relax somewhat. My incantation was no longer verbal, even if it hadn't stopped completely. The feeling of speed unencumbered by a vehicle enclosure reminded me of that old snowmobile. That, and not having to think about shifting gears gave rise to a sense that can only be described as "freedom." The road, the wind, the elements, all open to be experienced.
At a stoplight, I switched to "power" mode so I could test out the bike's accelerative abilities. I slowed a bit to make a nice gap between myself and Terry and applied as much throttle as I dared. Repeatedly.
The quickening happened smoothly, gently, but blindingly fast. I was suddenly in illegal territory.
With no sonic accompaniment, or hesitation for that matter, the S powered happily forward. No sudden lurching, just a solid, exhilarating pull forward. Very nice. Addictive, even. I started looking forward to taking a crack at the SR, as it boasts 67 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque to the S's 54 ponies and 68 lb-ft of twist. That was soon about to happen.
Halfway into the ride our posse pulled over and I swapped seats with Sean. Standing still, the red bike felt no different than its stablemate. Aside from the color and badging, it also looked identical. Once we started rolling, though, I noticed differences. The brakes seemed just a bit better, sharper. Snaking through some twisties, the handling felt easier. I definitely had a sense of improved control.
I put the disparity down to the Power Tank that the first bike had been fitted with. The drawback of having its added range was extra weight. Also, the extra mass is located relatively high on the bike, in the storage area where a gas tank would be on most motorcycles. While I was assured that some people actually preferred the dynamics with the supplemental pack in place, my inexperienced self was quite happy with the lighter, not to mention cheaper, configuration. I was soon ready to click over from "eco" to "sport" mode and see what this baby could do.
Approaching a long, straight piece of highway I slowed down and opened up a nice gap between myself and our leader. Leaning forward in anticipation, my knees squeezing the sides of the bike, I twisted the right grip hard. It was the moment of truth.
I didn't see it, but I'm pretty sure the hand of god came down out of the sky, grabbed the front forks, and with all her ever-loving strength, pulled me some seconds into the future. The quickening happened smoothly, gently, but blindingly fast. I was suddenly in illegal territory and needed to apply a bit of brake, the empty space ahead of me completely eaten up.
Talk about your educational epiphanies. In an instant, I grasped more about the power of electromagnetic force than I might ever have while seated in a classroom. It's a lesson I want to re-learn again and again.
Zero's bikes now have enough performance to tempt the experienced rider, even as they remain approachable for beginners.
Unfortunately, the school bell was about make the saddest sound ever as the turn off for Zero headquarters came into sight. Despite disappointment that the end had come, I was still euphoric from the experience and quite pleased that I had managed to keep the rubber side down. My professional integrity intact, I came to a stop in the parking lot, hit the red switch and turned the key to the off position. I breathed a happy sigh.
Mulling over my visit, I have to say I was pretty impressed by both the bikes and the company that builds them. Battery-powered motorcycles are a tough business to be in, and as with any industry, the pioneers are often discerned by the arrows in their backs. Now, the market is still quite small, but you can be sure that as acceptance of this two-wheeled technology grows, traditional brands will move in and use their distribution superiority and advertising budgets as leverage to make up for their tardiness to the electric party.
To stay relevant, Zero Motorcycles will not only have to keep doing what it's been doing – consistently improve its product offerings each model year and control costs – but also massively increase its sales network and name recognition. At the moment, it seems to be slightly ahead of the curve. It has experienced solid sales growth, especially in the last couple years, and easily sells more machines than anyone else in this niche. Its bikes now have enough performance to tempt the experienced rider, even as they remain approachable for beginners like myself.
It doesn't have many years to build up the brand before the competition starts to get serious, but if it keeps up, it may be able to use its first-mover advantage to stay ahead of the game. I certainly know if I was in the market for a new electric motorbike or a religious experience, I would look no further.