I used to wax lyrical about how motorcycles were better than cars, more fun, more practical, easier to afford and so on. But the insistence of the motorcycle industry to focus on its traditional audience who love aftermarket exhausts and deafening noise, rather than innovate with electric bikes has lead me more towards 4 wheels, and those above statements are no longer as clear cut as they once were.
The car industry has always been ahead, but in recent times, the difference is astounding. Even in the traditional area of motor racing, manufacturers are flocking to Formula-e in their droves while in bike racing, electric is virtually nowhere to be found. This year, the only electric bike in competition from a manufacturer (Honda) was the Mugen TT Zero machine, except this time, they had no competition whatsoever. Dorna have announced an electric class in MotoGP from 2019 but it will be most likely hidden away, ranked below even Moto3, and maybe not fully televised. It’s an incredibly weak proposal when you consider what could be possible. For some odd reason, even Pike’s Peak lacked electric competitors this year despite the obvious advantage of running an electric powertrain at high altitude.
That’s the motorsport situation. The production situation is arguably only slightly better, but not by much. Only one of the major makes (BMW) are making electric motorcycles, and that is a maxi scooter. None of the recognisable brands, including all of the Japanese manufacturers, are making electric motorcycles in 2017. That is incredibly sad to me.
I’m sure there is some element of money involved here. The motorcycle industry is tiny compared to the car industry. The R&D costs are going to be hard to justify for businesses that really need to focus on short to medium term revenue. It’s harder for them to look too far into the future like the car industry can.
However, I don’t think money is the only reason. Motorcycling in general is far more closely associated with motorsport and noise in particular than the car industry is. Combine that with the fact that the male baby boomer generation have been the ones primarily supporting the industry in the last decade or so, and you have a cocktail that doesn’t create an environment for electric bikes to thrive. There are older male riders who are into tech and love riding their Zero bikes, but they are few and far between.
Yamaha and Honda are tentatively taking baby steps into production EVs with this scooter sharing service in Japan that they’re collaborating on. I’m sure they also have some exciting tech ready to go in the background, but for now, they don’t feel confident enough to release anything for fear of alienating their customer base that they rely on tremendously. We’ve seen the concepts from both manufacturers at motor shows, but nothing has made its way into production.
Will 2017 be the year they announce a production electric bike? Surely it has to be, but I’ve been predicting that and being let down each year for the last few years, so I can’t be sure. Vespa were the only bright spot in the motorcycle show season last year when they announced an electric model, but we’ve heard little of it since then, if anything.
Yamaha, Honda and the rest need to stop being afraid to change. At some point they’re going to have to present electric sports bikes to petrolhead fanboys at a press conference. But we’re reaching a point now where even die-hard litre bike fans and harley riders are starting to understand the extent to which the industry is changing. People are realizing that electric isn’t a threat, it’s awesome fun and that initial negative opinion, fueled by fear, is now turning more and more towards excitement. There is some risk in acting too soon, but there may be even more risk long term in waiting too long. The young people that they’re so desperate to go after probably won’t come unless they embrace EVs. And companies like Zero are positioned to take advantage if they aren’t challenged in the next couple of years.
If the big manufacturers can change the conversation with some great production machines, they can reignite my passion in bikes, and capture a potentially huge market worldwide that is untapped at present.