More so now than at any other point in history, the market is positioned to extend open arms to alternate energy motorcycles. Just how many manufacturers are ready to accept that invitation to enter the mainstream is debatable. But a clear early industry leader is California’s Zero Motorcycles, whose first production bike now blazes a clear trail ahead. Oliver Jervis reports from the press introduction of the Zero X, an electric bike with a future.
As I draw my helmet on, it occurs to me I’ve forgotten earplugs. Not a big deal though, the anticipated decibel count for the upcoming ride is nearly zero—entirely appropriate given the nature and the subject of the testing hours to come. Sent in early February to the Glen Helen Raceway north of San Bernadino, California, I am moments away from the official press introduction to the Zero X, a battery powered M/X-styled motorcycle that is, arguably, at the very front of the alternate energy vanguard that gains momentum with each new season.
Decidedly not a toy, but rather an immediate glimpse of what will be, inevitably, an important part of motorcycling’s future, the X-bike is a production model from Zero Motorcycles of Santa Cruz.
The prospect of sampling a bike with a nearly silent running mode, that does not involve the contemplation of bore, stroke and valve train, is one that I’m finding, frankly, refreshing. And as I prep for Glen Helen’s M/X course, I opt for leaving the earplugs stowed in my pocket.
At the core of the Zero X is a brushed permanent magnet electric motor fed by a 300-amp 168-cell lithium-ion battery that weighs 45 lbs. (20.4 kg) and recharges in less than two hours on any standard 110- or 220-volt outlet, and is said to last five to six years. To impress upon you how much power 300 amps really is, remember that you can weld metal with 200 amps.
With a patent pending on the design, filed by Zero creator Neal Saiki, the battery is purported to be “landfill approved,” containing no toxic metals such as cobalt, nickel, lead or mercury. “Completely recyclable” in North America and Europe, the battery’s cells themselves are sourced from E-One Moli Energy in Maple Ridge, BC. “We simply can’t beat the quality of the product from there,” says Saiki, of E-One Moli Energy, a Taiwanese holding that claims to be the only North American high volume manufacturer of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. But, the battery is only one part of the equation. At the Zero-bike’s heart, its electric motor delivers 50 ft/lbs. torque and a claimed 23-plus horses that propel the 150-lb (68 kg) unit from a standing start to 30 mph (48 kmh) in under two seconds.
And the power-to-weight ratio is significant: subtract the battery and the rest of the bike, including its frame, swingarm, forks, controls and motor, weighs a mere 105 lbs. (47.6 kg) combined. Sturdy but lightweight components play a significant role in those specifications. For example, the hydroformed aircraft aluminum frame, shot-peened and anodized for resistance to corrosion and abrasion, registers a paltry 18 lbs. (8.16 kg).
Despite these demure dimensions, a robust angular swingarm mates to an adjustable shock offering nine inches (229mm) of travel. On the flip side, inverted forks travel up to eight inches (203mm). With 20- and 17-in. front and rear wheels, respectively, the bike presents a 36-in. (914mm) seat height and a 54-in. (1371mm) wheelbase. Controlling speed are six-piston calipers gripping eight-inch stainless rotors. Both brake sets are operated by hand levers.
On top of all this, Zero claims that its X-bike produces less than one-tenth the pollution of a conventional gas-powered motorcycle.
NATURALLY THE ZERO X’S SMALLER STATURE IS TRANSLATED ONCE you take the reins. Sending its power down the line through a one-speed transmission and chain final drive, the Zero X features clutchless operation, while at the base of the handlebars a LED colour dash displays the remaining battery charge level. Straddling this LED strip are two toggle switches that allow the pilot to select from High Speed (zero to-60 mph) or Low Speed (zero to 30 mph), along with the option of Sport (high acceleration) and Easy (low acceleration) modes.
It goes without saying that I had to test the High Speed Sport mode first, and was quickly but pleasantly surprised to discover that the Zero X lives up to its advance billing. Unlike an internal combustion engine, the big electric motor makes peak torque immediately, delivering rather impressive hits the very moment you twist the throttle.
The characteristics of the electric motor are obviously far from traditional. There’s no exhaust of course, nor any engine noise, but there is also no real power band, as such. What the Zero X offers is 100 per cent bottom end with no perceivable increase in power as the rpms rise. This is not a bad thing, but for riders more accustomed to the reciprocal energy of moving pistons and spinning shafts, the electric motor definitely requires some getting used to. But after a few laps of the small course laid out for us at Glenn Helen, I grew more confident in the bike’s characteristics as well as the hand-operated rear brake.
The mountain bike-inspired suspension handled the less aggressive sections, but I quickly found its limits as the forks bottomed out on the big jump. But full redemption came when I began throwing the bike hot into corners, getting it turned early, and jumping to full throttle on the fat part of the tire. The Zero X absolutely rips out of these really tight turns. My only suggestion to Zero in this department lies in the connection from the throttle to the delivery of power from the motor. Simply put, there seems to be an ever-so-slight delay between throttle input and power delivery to the back wheel. Not that it’s severe; it took me only a few laps to get the timing down. But this “lag” is slightly compounded by a very light throttle return spring. Possibly, more return pressure would help.
Slowing things down doesn’t require extreme power when your bike weighs a mere 150-odd pounds. The Zero’s mountain bike-derived brakes handled things better than I’d hoped, but the multi-piston design tended toward an annoying “squawk.” This, said company officials, is caused by a vibration of the pads on the disc. Not that it hampered performance, but when the bike makes zero noise, excuse the pun, you can’t help hear these things. The brake system will be updated to a more robust four-piston design, says Zero, an upgrade that I did have the opportunity to sample and which proved to exhibit none of the squawk and even better performance.
The obvious question surrounding an electric motorcycle is, how long will it run between chargings? Well, with the bike fully charged, I made several hard-riding sorties, each between 15 and 20 minutes, before I felt a drop in performance from the battery. It’s worth noting that these were track sessions consisting of 100 per cent throttle for nearly the entire romp, and while Zero could fit a larger battery with an attendant longer operating cycle, the increased capacity would also demand a heavier frame architecture.
At one point I ventured out into the surrounding single-track trails, an environment that struck me as far better suited to the Zero’s strengths. Again, with instantly available torque, climbing sometimes challenging hills and steep grades, and even tearing through a mud wallow, became effortless tasks for the Zero X. I have to reiterate: single-track, or tight trail riding is the bike’s true element.
Further, away from a track environment, the rider enjoys the added bonus of longer running times due to the less demanding conditions. And as I mentioned, there’s no need for ear protection as the bike runs almost silent. So silent in fact that I was able to carry on a normal conversation with another journalist as we ripped around the track.
The X-bike is available in two performance packages: a standard unit that comes with what Zero calls a “MARS” motor, while the “Extreme Package,” the one we tested, boasts a German-built “perm” motor said to produce 10 per cent more power with faster top speeds and higher efficiency.
Pricing, in US dollars, starts at $7,450 standard and $9,400 extreme, respectively, plus $300 for shipping anywhere in the continental US. Additionally, international orders can be airmailed to Europe in six days for about $1,000. Spare batteries will run you $2,950, plus shipping.
As the technology to produce these bikes improves, their cost will inevitably go down. In the meantime, Zero Motorcycles must be considered a pioneer in the field of electric or alternate fuel source motorcycles.
Time-Out With the Chief
Zero Motorcycles has two principals: company founder/Chief Technical Officer Neal Saiki; and CEO Gene Banman. Saiki’s resume includes a project manager posting at NASA, and a career as a designer of mountain bike suspension systems—which is manifest in the Zero X design.On the corporate side, Banman’s background includes executive positions with prestigious companies such as Sun Microsystems. During the press launch of the Zero X in southern California, Mr. Banman took the time to answer questions relating to the company and its direction.
CB: It’s one thing to build a handful of prototypes and even small-run production bikes, but quite another to create a national dealer network (staffed by techs trained and qualified to service Zero products) that allows potential customers to put their money down with confidence.What are Zero’s plans for building an infrastructure that will allow for the mass distribution of streetable alternate energy machinery?
GB: First, We have the idea of a lightweight distribution channel based on the web, as the web marketing has really enabled a new way of selling …
Secondly, the electric motor has no maintenance requirements, the battery has no maintenance requirements, and really the only thing that needs maintenance on the bike is to oil the chain, or the occasional maintenance of the suspension. Most of our customers, are gear heads with a garage of tools and are perfectly happy to do this kind of maintenance. Should somebody actually want their brake pads changed for them, we’ve worked with the local mountain bike shops. We just ask them who they’re familiar with in town and call them up, send them the parts and they’ll do the work for them.
If you want to talk to somebody about (about our bikes) we have what we call factory coordinators at our headquarters that are very experienced and very knowledgeable about our product, who answer the phones and can talk to prospects about anything about our motorcycles. We’re setting up independent sales agents who have a bike and we send them our leads. So if somebody calls, or gets on the web, and they want to test drive we just connect them with an independent sales agent in their area and they make the appointment and go take a ride. This doesn’t require any inventory other than the bike that the sales guy owns. So it’s a very low capital approach.Demand is strong, but thinly distributed, so there’s not a concentration to justify putting a dealer in any particular area. But, if you look all across the US and Canada there’s enough demand out there to drive our growth very nicely. That’s our model—it doesn’t take a lot of capital or discounting so we can offer a more aggressive price to our customers.
CB: How close is the Zero S to being in production? (The Zero S is a street version, or super motard version of the Zero X.)
GB: We’ll be doing a formal announcement in the next couple of months. We’ll have pre-production in the springtime, and full production in the summer.
CB: Was the production of a competition-style model such as the X-bike important to Zero?
GB: We had a very pure trail bike as the 2008 model and we got a lot of feedback from our customers saying they’d like to see a more aggressive rear wheel, more hook-up, more aggressive brakes. Basically they loved the bike but coming off their 250s and 450s they felt like they wanted us to move up a notch in that way. So we worked on that feedback and did the wider swingarm to accommodate the bigger rear wheel and even bigger brakes. We’re constantly upgrading this bike …
CB: How many units have you constructed this far?
GB: At this point it’s a couple hundred—100 last year and we’ve already sold 100 this year. Our capacity now is 500 to 600 per month if the demand is there for the spring. We spent a lot of time last year getting geared up for a real expansion this coming year. And the production model we have wouldn’t need much tweaking to exceed 1,000 units per month.
CB: What’s your target production run for the next two years?
GB: We have projections, but we’re not going to say what they are. We’re sitting here looking at one of the worst recessions since the great depression and what impact that is going to have on discretionary spending like motorcycles, we really don’t know. The model we have can add and take down capacity really quickly so, we’ll see. The motorcycle industry, well there’s almost a million dirt bikes sold every year, so it could be a huge number.
CB: How far ahead of the competition does Zero see itself being?
GB: Well, Quanta got to the market almost 18 months before we did. They’re very well penetrated in Europe where we will be this spring. But, they didn’t come to the US until last year and so we’re kind of on par with them. In fact, I’d say we’re ahead of them in terms of market penetration here.From a product perspective we really did a from-the-ground-up engineering job designing this motorcycle. Their bike is much more an off-the-shelf gasoline bike that they converted and put into production—so that’s why they’re 200 pounds instead of 150. And they bought battery sub-systems instead of designing their own.They basically took this great idea without actually engineering anything. They sourced parts, got it together and put it to market. So, because we designed this thing from the ground up, and Neal’s been designing mountain bikes and motorcycles for the past 15 years, we think we have a technical advantage both in terms of how may amps we can deliver to the electric motor—which is what gives it the performance, and the lightness of the frame. Our power-to-weight ratio is superior.