NYT Story on Electric Motorcycles: Bitter Pill?

Recently the New York Times posted a story on Electric Motorcycle Sales that was, well, harsh.  However, after a few weeks, I’m still thinking about what they said.  There’s more than a little truth there.

Here’s the story: Electric Motorcycles in Search of a Market, and, just because I don’t like the conclusions, doesn’t mean they’re wrong.  After seeing Roehr close doors, wondering where Quantya and several other bikes are and where they’re going, including Brammo, bitches, and seeing a large handful of my friends who have built awesome bikes consider going into “production”, then see the harsh reality of what that means…  as well as the fact that Honda, with all the muscle Honda represents in manufacturing and design (not to mention sales and marketing), tread water on the release of any serious motorcycles,  you’ve got to start wondering about the Kool-Aide.

I’ve heard dozens of times “You ought to sell these!”, and “I want you to build me one!”, and though I appreciate the enthusiasm, nobody has actually put down the money.  I’ve heard this story from other guys like me, too.

Are electric motorcycles going to go mainstream?  I certainly haven’t seen it, and the trend is heading the other way.  Companies like Brammo have quite effectively placed electric motorcycles startup companies into the category of “more interested in building stock options than products”, I’m sorry to say.  I may eat my words after the company actually starts shipping products (again), but the damage is done.

Here’s the most telling quote, from my viewpoint:

Until an electric bike maker captivates many thousands of people — picture the lines at Apple stores — they are doomed to compete on the cruel battleground of performance and price.

The dominant demographic in the motorcycle market has long been baby boomers, who are careening past middle age. If companies want to sell expensive bikes, they’ll have to sell a lot of them to men over 40, with enough disposable income to justify buying what looks, to many, like a two-wheeled toy.

Middle-aged motorcyclists have jobs, families and limited free time. They use their bikes mostly on the weekends and for recreation, not transportation. They want to ride fast, at least at highway speed, for more than an hour, and get back home without burning five hours of their Sunday at a charging station.

Electric motorcycle makers like to talk about a rider’s daily commuting distance and show how their bike’s limited range is just right. The problem is that most real motorcyclists don’t commute on their bikes. They commute in air-conditioned cars that keep their hair in place, their smartphones in hand and their clothes insect-free.

Interestingly, electric scooters and bicycles, especially bicycles, seem to still be products that some people want.  Electric motorcycles?  To be painfully truthful, they move more to the “really expensive toy” category the more they evolve.  Arguably, the Lightning is a great example of that.  At $38,000 for a custom built machine, it’s not something I’m running out to order, much as I want one.

Which brings me back to why I built my own bike in the first place.  I couldn’t buy one anywhere.  Where does that leave the builders?  Right where we started.

Which is, in fact, fine with me.

This whole thing has some interesting parallels.  In the ’80s there was this curious little thing called a “Personal Computer”, which was really expensive, had pretty limited application and didn’t really work all that well.  From that sprung several other products that had similar problems, from digital imaging technology right on through to the internet’s early iterations.  The one thing that all of them shared was “the killer app”, or that single, wonderful thing that the product did that made it compelling.  Lotus Spreadsheets, many claim, was the “killer app” for personal computing, and what drove the market to demand better.

Does an electric motorcycle have a “killer app”?  I’d argue the power delivery…  but until that is even understood, much less demanded, by the average rider, you’re not seeing anything change soon.


16 responses to “NYT Story on Electric Motorcycles: Bitter Pill?

  1. Some truth there, yes.

    Until Brammo starts to ship, Zero is really the only player in the production elmoto market.

    Zero sold about twice as many bikes in 2012 as they did in 2011. I’m reasonably sure they sold more in 2011 than 2010, but don’t have numbers to back that up.

    While more expensive options are now available, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A year ago you couldn’t purchase a 70 mile freeway EV for love or money, unless you bought a discontinued Tesla Roadster.

    Very soon you will have two options, excepting again the Tesla Model S:

    * 2013 Zero S ZF11.4
    * Lightning superbike (when/if they ship .. they claim 100 miles usable freeway range.)

    As far as prices going up…

    2011 Zero S 4.4 kWh max (3.9 kWh) $9995
    ~20 kW
    ~67 mph top speed
    300 lbs
    43 miles city range (EPA UDDS), ~25 miles 60 mph riding

    2013 Zero XU 2.8 kWh max (2.5 kWh nominal?) $7995
    20 kW
    77 mph top speed
    216 lbs
    38 miles city range (EPA UDDS), 24 miles 55 mph riding

    2013 Zero XU 5.7 kWh max (5 kWh nominal?) $10495
    21 kW
    77 mph top speed
    260 lbs
    76 miles city range (EPA UDDS), 48 miles 55 mph riding

    Nevermind the newer features like the smartphone integration, significantly improved brake system and CHAdeMO charging option, the 2011 bike is closest to the 2013 XU 2.8 in range and power.. and the XU probably rips the older bike apart on acceleration.

    “Are electric motorcycles going to go mainstream? I certainly haven’t seen it, and the trend is heading the other way.”

    Zero’s growing sales year over year and rapid improvements indicate otherwise. IMO.

    • Thanks for the considered response. Citations are begged, however. I haven’t been able to find any sales numbers from anybody. “Zero’s growing sales year over year…” for example, can you give us your source? I’ll give you that it seems that this year they’re selling more than last, but that’s hardly “year over year”.

      Even with the cost dropping as you’d expect, as the NYT story pointed out, compared to a cheap gas bike it’s still a “really expensive toy”.

      As an aside, can you really say the Lightning is a “production motorcycle”? It’s built-to-order, from what they say on their site. That, in my book, is a “custom” product. But that’s maybe splitting hairs.

      “The trend is heading the other way.” Yes, indeed, and this is what I base that on. Instead of new companies popping up to dive in to the exploding market, we’re seeing companies dropping off, one by one. It’s a classic consolidation of a small, or shrinking market. Until someone can show me something other than opinion, I’ll stick with that.

      Honda, for me, is the most telling hint of where the market really is.

      Here’s a company that is big enough to dabble in whatever they feel would be interesting. They can take a chance or two. They throw together a beautiful example of an electric motorcycle as a concept bike, but what do they actually go into (real) production with? An electric “personal” scooter thing.

      When a company like Honda breaks a real electric motorcycle then I’ll start thinking that this market is, indeed, “going mainstream”.

      • Here’s sales numbers based upon NHTSA recalls:

        160 total US S, DS bikes were produced in last six months of 2009 + first 3 months of 2010
        196 total US street bikes were produced in 2011
        315 total US S, DS bikes were produced in the first nine months of 2012

        “Hollywood Electrics, a leading seller of electric bicycles as well as motorcycles, said it sold more electric motorcycles in the first two months of 2012 than it did in 2010 and 2011 combined.

        ‘It’s a perfect storm,’ co-owner Harlan Flagg said. His bestselling electric motorcycle is the $14,000 Zero Motorcycles S ZF9, which can reach a top speed of 88 miles per hour and travel up to 112 miles per charge.”

        (article mentions DS range, but w/e)

        Granted, HE is just a single retailer, but they’re (I recall) the largest Zero dealer in the world. (citation needed?)

        I agree there’s a distinction between Lightning production and Honda (or Zero, or even Brammo) production .. but at least for records classification, Lightning is taking production electric motorcycle land speed records.

        I view the withdrawal or tapering off of production plans, the Natives, Roehrs, Missions, etc as part of the commoditization process. Look at the early days of computers, when they were transitioning from a hobbyist kit market to a consumer market. Even then, many did not survive. How many Tandy, Sinclair, Atari, Amiga, etc computers are produced today?

        If sales were decreasing, then I would agree that the market was contracting.

        Honda is very conservative.. like the other e-curious companies (BMW, KTM), they’re dipping their toes in the water to build production knowledge and hedge their bets.

      • Thanks… actually speaking more to my point than yours, I think, what with the microscopic numbers.

        I love him, but Harlan is also commenting in his own best interest. Forgive if I discount what he says.

      • Yep, they’re certainly small sales numbers, less than 0.1% of the market. But they’re trending up .. and I expect their sales to continue to grow in 2013.

      • Wait, what? Honda conservative? The company that’s making robots and stuff? Electric Super Cubs? Ummm…

        I’m afraid you’re sounding like you’re practicing what’s generally referred to as “confirmation bias”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias A bunch of companies (loosly using the term here) float concept bikes, never really reach the point of viability and either change their focus or vaporize, you have to ask why they didn’t reach that point. Could it be there’s little or no market for their product?

        How about this? Brammo doesn’t deliver bikes all year, so how many people jump ship and buy Zero? Wait, one of them was you, wasn’t it? Does that mean there’s a growing market? No, it means the numbers you see showing Zero growth are partly the existing market moving from one manufacturer to another.

        By the way, the way I see it is if Brammo had huge demand for product they’d have put their money into production. Am I the only one who remembers the Empulse pre-order pitch? “Help us make 1000 orders in 30 days”? Am I just being cynical that they may have never hit that 1000 order mark, and production was halted because they couldn’t get funding without that threshold?

        It is, in my humble opinion, at the very best a slowly growing niche market. So, what’s wrong with that?

  2. Yep, Honda’s conservative, at least in respect to bringing new technology to market (they’re dragging their heels on DI for cars as well). It doesn’t mean that they’re not developing new technology, just that they won’t move until they see the market exists. Annual sales in the hundreds of units won’t exactly tempt them.. tell me where I can buy an ASIMO robot.

    Confirmation bias, that’s the one where you see companies disappear and conclude the market is vanishing or shrinking, right? : )

    The market is very small now, no doubt. And entering is much harder than slapping an electric motor and batteries into frames and calling it a day .. it requires serious up-front capital and a willingness to burn money for a while to reach a profitable state.

    Tesla isn’t there yet. Zero isn’t there yet.

    Some of the people that signed up to buy the original Empulse, a highway capable bike @ $10-14k .. yeah, we switched and bought the 2012 Zero bikes when they arrived. Maybe you’re correct, and the market is a fixed and very small size and it’s nearly saturated now .. if so, I would expect to see sales fall off dramatically in 2013. If sales continue to improve, that’s a good indication that the market is not yet saturated.

    One way to think of it ..

    There’s a certain market size for $8-12k 60 mph bikes with 30 miles of real-world range. This was fully exploited by the pre-2012 Zero bikes and by the Brammo Enertia. (basically 2009-2011)

    There’s a larger market size for $12-14k 70-80 mph bikes with 40-70 miles of real-world range. This has been exploited by the 2012 Zero bikes, but we’re still seeing new owners join the forum.

    There’s an even larger market size for $6-10k 100 mph bikes with 50-100 miles of real-world range. This market hasn’t been exploited yet – the 2013 Zero S and Empulse are in the right ballpark performance-wise, but the price is far too high still. I don’t think we’ll see this arrive until an Envia-like technology is available on the market, but even with the current battery technology there is plenty of room for price reductions through economies of scale and (eventually) reducing the redesign effort.

    “It is, in my humble opinion, at the very best a slowly growing niche market.”

    I think it’s a slowly growing niche market. So perhaps my estimate of the production elmoto market is on the outer bounds of your estimate.

    “Are electric motorcycles going to go mainstream? I certainly haven’t seen it, and the trend is heading the other way.”

    They’re far from mainstream now, but prices are (slowly) falling and performance and range are both increasing. There’s less public sales data than I would like, but the NHTSA recall data indicates that sales have grown year over year. Hopefully they will continue to grow, but time will tell.

    And hopefully Brammo can pick up a bit of the action once they start to sell bikes.

    • Confirmation bias is when you support an opinion you already have with available facts. As you can see by reading my original post, the conclusions I’m considering are quite in opposition to my original ideas.

      The idea that a shrinking base of manufacturers can be a result of an oversaturated market is far from my own personal opinion. It’s pretty much standard business-school curriculum.

      “…they won’t move until they see the market exists”. And that, sir, would be exactly my point. Please re-read the title of the original NYT title, mebbee?

      • Confirmation bias is when you support an opinion by cherry picking facts and disregarding others.

        I’ve found very little public sales information, unfortunately. Do you have any facts that support the market (in terms of unit sales) shrinking over time, or that the bikes are increasingly deviating from mainstream purchase preferences?

    • Yes. My point is, just to review, “Who gives a crap about the market?” I build bikes, I don’t buy them. I, for one, don’t. (Give a crap.)

      Maybe I didn’t quite come out and say that clearly enough. Re-reading my post, I see I only hinted at it. I should have stated it more clearly.

  3. Just to comment long after this was posted. Honda is the least affected by the current market of the big 4 Jap manufacturers and they are all going after the growing markets in Asia (as Richard230 pointed out a year before Micheal U. wrote that article for HFL. Honda is not flurishing. They didn’t have a factory team in WSBK for years and let Ten Kate do their thing only to start working with them just a few years ago, and how long has it been since you’ve seen a factory backed team in AMA. And racing is what Honda Motorcycles does. They have a whole company just for it (HRC). While they are huge I think they might just be hurting enough to not want to put an effort in now. If they weren’t hurting then they just might. I don’t know. The motorcycle industry in general has been hurting bad since the recession hit, or so I keep reading int he mainstream moto press. I think Honda is powerful, just not Omnipotent, and I believe using them as a measuring stick isn’t particularly straight forward. Just my opinion though.

    Also, what’s wrong with slow growth as long as growth is happening? It’s when growth isn’t happening that’s a problem. So far both Brammo and Zero are growing. It’s like my boss complaining about the electric infrastructure, and how much it’s gonna cost to put in. I told him, not everyone is going to have an EV tomorrow, so you don’t need to charging stations everywhere tomorrow. And they can make money so your tax dollars won’t have to go to building them (his biggest concern). But lets say Brammo, with all their hype over the last 2 years (which I thoroughly enjoyed) Only has 500 people actually make good on their 2000 pre-orders will clearly be out selling Zero’ entire 2012 line with one model. But even 1/4 of their pre-orders coming in is probably overly optimistic overly optimistic.

    As far as the killer app, I’m not sure it’s going to be just the power. Of the reviews I have read of the Empulse everyone compares it to an SV650 in the power department, stupid wide torque band or not. I am slowly beginning to think hp is hp, and a wide torque is only as good as the gear ration that puts it to the ground. But you get to ride an elmoto every day, and I’ve had a joy ride on an Enertia in a parking lot. As I read, I am beginning to believe more and more that the handling is going to be a big part of elmoto adaption. I think the killer app is going to be the sense of a purer motorcycling experience because of the quite, constant torque, and more in tune sense of handling. Like Mark Miller said some time ago on MotoPod, you’re not going to give up you old gasser, but your going to want an electric because its a totally different ride.

    Just my 2 cents, anyway.

    • So, wait, what? Honda (Motorcycle) is struggling? Could that be because the entire motorcycle market is in decine? (…or “hurting bad” as you put it) And you’re arguing what? You too seem to be arguing to my point. The electric market is a small niche of a big market that’s in decline. Honda, in spite of everything you said, still has more market muscle than anybody else fielding a concept bike… and when they actually make it, I’ll believe electric motorcycles are going mainstream.

      If you argue that electric motorcycles are going to save the industry, maybe so, but it would seem that Honda is unconvinced. And they have a lot more to gain or lose than you do.

      Is growth happening, even slow growth? Prove it. I can’t. I can however point to several companies that have folded up their tent and gone home.

      You can “slowly begin to think” whatever you want but until you ride a bike with some serious balls you don’t know what I’m talking about. The Enertia is a scooter. I rode my bike on back roads and neighborhoods for about 6 months before I got it on an open road and was able to scare myself crapless on it, and only then did I start to understand. I still don’t have my head around it, and that’s after riding motorcycles for 45 years. That, of course, is what I find so awesome about it. I haven’t ridden a gas bike that truly excites me for about a decade.

      Sorry to be a bitch, but it’s like trying to describe sex if you’ve never actually had it. That, I’ve said over and over, is the problem. These guys are selling the wrong thing.

      Whatever, I just read the NYT story again, and I’m more convinced now than ever that they’re right on target. Electric motorcycles don’t have a market, yet. It’s going to take a lot of time for a market to build to the point of being “mainstream”.

      The only source for electric motorcycles is to buy one from the few basically custom builders (I’d call Lightning one of those builders for the record) or build one yourself… and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Do I mourn that you can’t buy a cool custom chopper from a major manufacturer? Of course not.

      Then why should I mourn that you can’t buy a cool electric bike?

  4. Pingback: Oh for crying out loud, why’s everyone in such a panic about EVs? « esbk.co·

  5. Actually, to pick a nit, VisiCalc was the business killer app, long predating Lotus. The important part is it only ran on the Apple II at first, and made the Apple II into a business computer, with people buying ’em just because it ran VisiCalc. This moved Apple out of the TRS-80/Commodore 64 level of of being just a “nice geek toy”

    This is why Apple succeeded… not any magical design talents of Wozniak or BS from Jobs.

    VisiCalc was so important, Dan Bricklin was a bigger name at the time than either of “the Steves”, and Gates was still an unknown.

    The computer industry exploded when the IBM PC came out. I remember being boggled at how many magazines and people were gobsmacked at such a crappy piece of shit machine and buying them like popcorn. It had the magic badge on it, however. Will a big non-scooter electric bike from Honda have the same effect? I think anything Honda did, as long as it has 100+ mile range, would sell.

    I think Zero’s ability to move into standard bike dealerships like my local Yamaha dealer is a subtle but huge deal. There was a lot of “that’s an ELECTRIC bike?? but it’s not a scooter!!!” going on, so they were getting exposure if not outright sales.

    In addition, they’re handing out test rides like candy, which is another thing that “just doesn’t happen” as that’s the first test ride I’ve gotten from that dealer in 20 years. I honestly went there expecting to complain to Zero after being turned down for a ride, but they just went “got a license? here’s the key” resulting in my jaw hitting the floor.

    I got lucky in that I got to take the bike around roads I was really familiar with, all to myself, with no chaperone, for half an hour. I went from OMFG-ITS-ELECTRIC to “wow, it performs!” to “hey, it’s real nice in traffic” and “damn, it’s a dream doddling around a parking lot”

    Plus the Zero’s no Ducati 916, but it still looks pretty nice. They took the time to spruce it up and make it look good, and turn it into a package deal, instead of a motor & battery with handlebars & wheels. It’s a hell of a lot nicer looking than the Suzuki Gladius, which is the styling abortion that succeeded the SV-650. It seems other than Zero & Brammo, nobody else can do both form and function at the same time.

    > “I haven’t ridden a gas bike that truly excites me for about a decade.”

    Me neither. My original SV was in ’02. It took me a month to come to grips with the fact I was just about pissing myself to get the Zero and scrabbling any way I could to justify the cost to myself. I could not understand the gut reaction I had to riding it. I have bikes I like, like the CB1100 or R1, but none of them had me going I MUST HAVE THIS. NOW.

    I’m a guy that started out on $600 & $900 bikes, and I even got the FJR for only $10K in a very special turn of events. Sitting there going “I’m going to pay nearly twenty thousand dollars for a bike” kind of shook me.

    At AIMExpo, I was talking to another customer at the the Zero booth who was going “oh jeez, I can’t afford an SR, I’ll have to settle for the S” and I went “hell yes, I’m getting an SR! in for a penny, in for a pound!” and the Zero guys cracked up. The increment to get the extra 220 amps and “high-temp” motor was insignificant to me after I decided I was going to take the plunge.

    I can’t wait until the god damned thing gets delivered.


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