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Electric motorcycles accelerate into the spotlight

Image of the Harley-Davidson Livewire electric motorcycle
Project Livewire has produced a Harley Davidson electric motorcycle that has silenced at least some critics by getting to 100 kph in less than four seconds.

Efficient and innovative electric motorcycles are converting long-time fans

People who ride Harley Davidson motorcycles tend to be particular about their machines, and Yvon Carvalho admited that many of them simply dismiss Project Livewire when they hear about it.

But the experience of being on the electric motorcycle is so satisfying, it's converting even the most "died-in-the-wool" Harley Davidson customers. "When they ride the bike they come back with a big smile," Carvalho said.

The soft spoken Carvalho has been working in the Harley Davidson lab for eight years. At the Motorcycle Show Vancouver in January, he explained that his job involves thinking about and researching technologies and developing concepts like Livewire. "The idea," he said, "is to showcase Harley Davidson innovation."

The appeal of Livewire is its performance, said Carvalho. Unlike motorcycles with combustion engines, the power band on an electric is instant; it delivers peak torque — a measure of force — anytime the throttle is engaged. Livewire takes less than four seconds to get to 100 kph, and less than two seconds to further accelerate to 150 kph. "That's what makes it really fun to ride," said Carvalho.

Image of Zero FX electric motorcycle
Dozens of police departments in the U.S. are using the Zero electric motorcycle for its combination of acceleration and silence. Surveillance of suspects is quite a bit easier when you can't be heard.

The appeal of the electric motorcycle

North Vancouver's Matt Young has been riding motorcycles for most of his life. He and his family ride dirt bikes when they spend time at their recreational property in the B.C. interior.

"They are louder than hell," he admitted in a phone conversation. "We'd see wildlife but we'd scare them away. We were being disruptive."

Not any more. Young bought a Zero electric motorcycle, which is completely quiet. So quiet, in fact, that more than 50 police departments in the United States are using them, according to Jeff Jolin, who drove up from California to be at the Motorcycle Show.

The Los Angeles Police Department use the Zero for urban surveillance because they can't be heard coming by suspects. And Young can ride around his property and enjoy the wildlife, instead of watching it run away.

Zero motorcycles have Bluetooth connectivity, so riders can program the efficiency of the electric motor with their smartphone, and Young says his Zero costs him less than six cents a day to operate.

"It's great for bombing around town and doing errands," he said.

Electric motorcycles are great in traffic because they don't require shifting. There's no clutch and no scrambling to find neutral while riding in stop-and-go traffic. And in the heat of the summer there's no additional warmth from an engine. "You don't have it cooking your legs," said Carvalho.

Even better: except for tires and brake pads, electric motorcycles are maintenance-free.

Limitations of electric motorcycles

If there's an issue with electric motorcycles, it's that they have a limited range. Young said that he can get from his home in North Vancouver to Whistler on his Zero in one charge, but then he needs to plug in. Connected to a standard outlet it takes about six hours to get a full charge.

Carvalho calls the Livewire a "big city bike". It has a top range of only 100 km and the concept bike takes three hours to fully charge.

Zero's Jolin said that when they released their first electric bike in 2008, the range was laughable. "We had issues," he admitted, but bikes and battery technology have evolved.

"When we figure out how to charge a battery as fast as you can fill a tank of gas, the internal combustion engine is finished," he said.

Image of Johammer electric motorcycle
The Johammer electric bike will turn heads as it zips by. The Austrian bike can go up to 200 km between charges and features a fully recyclable aluminum chassis.

Getting more distance out of an electric motorcycle

Everyone agrees that there are no electric motorcycles designed for touring. But Austrian manufacturer Johammer has used a unique design to create the J1, which has a range of about 200 km.

The J1 looks at the same time like an artifact out of the past and something from the future. Information normally found on a dash, including speed and range, is delivered by small colour screens embedded in the rear-view mirrors. No front fork makes the frame more rigid and reduces weight. And the electric motor has been integrated into the rear wheel.

Another future-friendly design feature is the fully recyclable aluminum chassis. "Products that are difficult to recycle should have as long a life as possible," founder Johann Hammerschmid says in a promotional video.

Project Livewire coming to a Harley dealer near you?

Jeff Jolin couldn't be happier that Harley Davidson is considering an electric motorcycle. "The busiest day of web traffic for Zero," he said, "was the day after Harley Davidson announced Project Livewire." And while there weren't any other electrics at the Motorcycle Show, Jolin said that every manufacturer is testing them.

As for Livewire, Carvalho had one unique problem to solve: that distinct Harley rumble. Electric motors are whisper quiet when operating, but people expect Harley Davidsons to be, well, noisy. So Carvalho and his team engineered their concept bike so noise would emanate from the motor and gear case. "It sounds like a jet," he said with a smile.

While Livewire is a concept motorcycle, and no announcements have been made by Harley Davidson, Carvalho admitted that there's a "good chance" the bike will go into production. If — when — it does, it will include a different battery because, he said, battery technology is evolving at such a fast pace.

If you're interested in a test ride of Livewire, Harley Davidson will be in the Vancouver area this summer. Dates will be announced this spring at the project website.