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.