#279 Watts up, doc? – EBike.

An E-bike such as the model S from industry leader Zero Motorcycles might seem like a tempting purchase for planet-savers, but do the enviro-numbers really add up? Maybe not.

The real difficulty in changing the course of any enterprise, wrote economist John Maynard Keynes, lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping from old ones. Motorcycles have been powered almost exclusively by gasoline engines from Gottlieb Daimler onward, so discarding our idea of what constitutes a powered two-wheeler ain’t going to be easy.
So it’s with some misgivings that I try to get my head around the Zero DS standing in front of me, looking like an NBA forward’s mountain bike with a suitcase wedged in it. Or a space-age scooter carrying a two-four of beer. Whatever. Motorcycles have been built around some pretty ugly engines over the years, but nothing could have prepared me for the prosaic box lurking between the sweeping tubes and beams of the Zero’s frame. Couldn’t they have chromed it … or painted flames on it? No matter. The rest of the bike seems fairly conventional if somewhat minimalist.
Maui Moto’s Steve Myers sits on the Zero DS to explain the controls, of which two—compared with a regular bike—are absent: there’s no clutch or shift lever. Everything else, including both brake controls, are right where you’d expect if you ride a motorcycle rather than a scooter. Myers waits for the Zero’s self-diagnostic check lights to extinguish, then rolls the throttle. Nothing. “Forgot to plug it in last night,” he says. Hmm …
So I switch to the Zero S commuter bike, more compact but similarly styled. This works fine, and I roll onto the street in discreet silence.
To be honest, I’d expected more oomph. After all, electric motors are supposed to produce maximum torque at zero revs, aren’t they? The Zero S builds speed fairly swiftly once it gets above, say, 20 mph, but I have real trouble leaving cars away from the lights in the one-block drag race, where gas-engined scooters excel. A 125 with CVT transmission would leave it standing. My second bitch has nothing to do with the power unit: the mirrors suck. All I can see are my elbows—not much good for a lane-splitting commuter bike.
Those items apart, I enjoy riding the Zero S: it’s acceptably powerful in a lazy kind of way, handles and brakes well; and the controls—throttle and two brakes—work smoothly and efficiently. The zero S is light, nimble, easy to ride and spins along with deceptive quiet and calm at 60 mph.
I get back to the shop so my buddy Dave can try it out. As he leaves the dealership, the big green “OK power” light is shining brightly. Twenty minutes later, no sign of Dave or the Zero S. Thirty minutes … a phone call to the shop. The Zero S has run out of amps a few hundred yards down the street. Dave reports that there’s almost no warning of the impending outage, just a blinking light on the dash about 30 seconds before curtains. And while a lead-acid battery might muster a couple of volts after a rest, the lithium-ion in the Zero S is stubbornly comatose. We muse what might have transpired if that scenario had played out on the 401, and both concur: roadkill.
The good news is that the Zero S will be ready to go after a two-hour charge with Zero’s fastest accessory charger (a regular recharge with the on-board unit takes six hours). The cost of the recharge: “pennies.”
Well, how many pennies, exactly? The basic Zero S with a 64-km range has a 6.0 kilowatt-hour battery. Six kWh in BC will cost you around $0.45 at the moment. That compares pretty well with the DRZ400S I’ve been riding, which gets around 5 litres/100km. So 64 km would cost me 3.2 litres at around $1.30 per, or about $4.20. Over the course of a year, commuting say 200 days a year on the Zero S could save $750 a year. You’ll need that saving, though, to pony up the $12,530 Canadian MSRP.
In theory, provincial rebates for plug-in electric vehicles of over 4.0kWh battery capacity are available in Quebec and Ontario, so the Zero S should qualify. (BC sets a minimum capacity of 15kWh for its rebate program.) But if you’re thinking of buying one, check with your provincial DMV first!
On the other hand, I’m in Maui right now, where a kWh will cost you $0.30, while gas hovers around $1.20 CDN a litre. The sums don’t work so well at those prices. And you can’t feel smug here about saving the planet by plugging in because Maui makes almost all its electricity by burning fossil fuels.
So is the Zero S ready for prime time? It’s a big outlay for a bike that performs no better than a 3.0l/100km CBR125R at $9,000 less. And the elephant in the room is the risk of being stranded with a flat battery if you detour to Tim Hortons on the way home. A small reserve battery would surely help.
Over coffee, my buddy Dave offers his opinion: “Y’know what engines they use for the most efficient transportation on the planet-the railroad?” he says. “Diesel-electric, that’s what. So why hasn’t someone come up with a diesel-electric hybrid?”
Good question.

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