Can Zero Motorcycles survive the fight ahead?
Words Chris Nelson Images Aaron Brimhall & Toby Grub
The march to the front lines of the electric motorcycle revolution is over. It proved fatal for many — Alta Motors, Brammo, Mission Motors, et al, abisti non peristi — but not Zero Motorcycles, now America’s only “mainstream” all-electric motorcycle manufacturer. Zero spent $250 million over the last 13 years to keep pace with rapidly changing EV engineering, help establish the electric motorcycle market, and build the strength necessary to take on its most formidable challenge yet. CEO Sam Paschel believes it's likely that, at some point in the next five years, electric motorcycles will account for at least 40 percent of all new model sales, which is why the world’s most moneyed manufacturers are now clawing into the ripe industry.
Yet there’s an eerie sense of calm inside Zero’s clandestine headquarters in the redwoods outside of Santa Cruz, California, because each of its 150 employees understands and appreciates the realities of their situation. Paschel says, “There will be winners and losers on either side of a shift like electrification, which is creating more liquidity, fluidity, and market share than has ever existed in modern transportation. If we don't make this work, and we don't make the best electric bike in the world, we don't survive. That's it. This is all we do every day, and we are fighting for survival.”
"What if this amazing electric experience — the hand of God pushing you forward, the ability to build speed in a way that is counterintuitive relative to vibration and noise — what if we could not just work on but grow that, and completely transform motorcycling? That's the reason we’re all here."
That Zero survived this long is a feat in and of itself. When its founder, ex-NASA engineer Neal Saiki, built the original Electricross dirt bike in 2006, there wasn’t a single mass-produced EV for sale in America. When Zero brought on its first investors, the total number of plug-in electric vehicles in the United States was under 3,000. Now over a million plug-in vehicles have been sold in America, and rates of EV growth and adoption are even more impressive overseas; of the fewer than 3,000 Zeroes produced last year, half were sold in Europe. With every year that came and passed, Zero better understood the never-before-addressed needs of the all-electric industry, waiting for the EV revolution to reach an inflection point when conversations shifted from “if” this revolution would happen to “when.” Zero needs to prepare for its last stand — in case the odds of failure become too overwhelming and the opposition grows too strong — but not before readying itself for unprecedented success in a new era of motorcycling.
Chief Technology Officer Abe Askenazi recalls his first ride on a Zero and says, “If motorcycling has a future, this is it.” Like most of his colleagues, Askenazi felt like a reborn convert to some fascinating new religion after he lost his electric virginity. He says, “We’re creating a very transformational experience, and our goal is — this is gonna sound weird, but it's absolutely true — to make the motorcycle go away. What if this amazing electric experience — the hand of God pushing you forward, the ability to build speed in a way that is counterintuitive relative to vibration and noise — what if we could not just work on but grow that, and completely transform motorcycling? That's the reason we’re all here.”
The single largest group at Zero Motorcycles is engineering, with a staff of about 50 engineers across five departments. Engineer Eddie Smith says, “What drew me to Zero was the possibility to create motorcycle designs that were impossible to achieve with gas powertrains. With electric vehicles, there is a whole new set of technologies that we get to explore and innovate with. It’s about finding the unfair advantage and developing a better motorcycle.” When Askenazi started at Zero in January 2010, there were only ten engineers and no one in the company but him had experience in the motorcycle industry. Now, motorcycle helmets sit on almost every desk and there are defectors from BMW Motorrad, Harley-Davidson, Triumph, and more. “If there's one thing at Zero that has impressed me the most over the years, it’s the talent that we've been able to attract," Askenazi says. "The more you build momentum as a brand, the more people want to be part of it, and all of the sudden we have people knocking at our door.”
It used to be that Zero begged and pleaded to be heard by potential dealers and suppliers who wouldn’t risk getting involved with an unproven startup in an inchoate industry. Now many of those same deaf companies want to be part of the movement, but Zero has to be strategic when picking allies. “When you're hungry, you want to say ‘yes’ to everyone, but at some point you realize that you can't do that without disappointing,” Askenazi says. Zero answers “no” a lot these days, looking only for partners on the bleeding edge of their fields who want to co-develop new EV technologies and advance the industry.
One of Zero’s strongest relationships is with local battery supplier, Farasis Energy. The partnership started in the formative years of both companies and has since grown into an intimate collaboration, with Farasis working to create a battery chemistry specific to Zero; since the size of a battery is limited by a motorcycle’s compact dimensions, the battery cells in EV motorcycles must be incredibly energy-dense, requiring a unique chemistry unlike that used in electric cars but rather similar to the chemistry used in power tools. The battery chemistry is constantly changing and improving with ongoing research, and Zero has to trust that Farasis will do everything possible to keep its partner at the top of its industry. Unions like this will be essential for long-term success in the chaotically fast-paced world of EV engineering, where the best possible solution today could very well be rendered obsolete by the end of the week.
Due to the high turnover rate in EV tech, Zero’s engineering team has a mandate that any advancements must be backwards compatible to the platform they were designed for, ensuring that early-adopters don’t get left behind when new features debut on future models. Over the past decade, Zero had to be very calculated with improvements to its product lines and make only small, serial upgrades to its existing models. Not six years ago, Zero still used skinny, brushed axial-flux “pancake” motors instead of smaller, lighter, and more powerful interior permanent magnet (IPM) motors, which are now standard equipment for most on-road electric vehicles. Askenazi says, “For a very long time we took mental notes, and knew how would we do it different if we ever get a chance to design a clean-sheet.” They got that chance when it came time to develop the recently released 2020 Zero SR/F. It’s the company’s first ground-up build since ‘09, when the Zero S launched as the first electric street bike to go into mass production. “Industrial design, mechanical engineering, powertrain engineering, electrical engineering ... everyone collaborated to build the thing they want,” says Askenazi.
The Zero SR/F is a 485-lb, $19,000 streetfighter with a steel trellis frame, adjustable Showa suspension, Pirelli Diablo Rosso III tires, J.Juan regenerative brakes and Bosch stability control; available 3.0- and 6.0-kilowatt on-board charging systems; a 14.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion “monolith” battery pack good for about 100 miles of range; smaller, lighter controllers with higher processing speeds; and a brushless IPM that produces 110 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque.
The SR/F also showcases Zero’s new vehicle control and electrical systems architecture, Cypher III. The outgoing software had become limited by bandwidth, memory, and processing power, so engineers redesigned the vehicle’s MOSFET-based controller and swapped in a more sophisticated, more capable processor running a RTOS (real-time operating system) environment, which responds to inputs without buffer delays. Cypher III also allows the SR/F to better relate to its owner via a mobile app, letting riders create custom ride modes, personalize the bike’s digital display, run remote diagnostics, schedule charging times, and review real-time ride data — like route, speeds, lean angles, power output, etc. — and share digitally with friends.
“We're three companies," says Paschel. "We’re a motorcycle company, we’re an industrial company building bikes in America, and we just opened up this whole other avenue as a software company, which allows us to do things with this motorcycle that haven't ever been possible.” Zero also functions as a powertrain supplier, selling its propulsion system to companies building anything from go karts to cherry pickers, but is careful not to make that a cornerstone of its business. “Mission Motors was supposed to be a powertrain company, and look what happened to them," Askenazi explains. "Brammo was supposed to turn into a powertrain company, and look what happened. Alta spoke of turning into a powertrain company ... whether that or other partnerships killed them, who knows. I think for us, it's another leg of our business, but no one is treating it as a primary leg.”
“We don’t have an insurmountable lead,” Paschel admits. “Depending on how much time, energy, money, and resources people throw at it, we can be caught, but we have a head start, and we have the wealth of all the lessons we've learned along the way that help us aim in the right direction.”
Zero clearly knows what it is and what it isn’t, which matters on the eve of what promises to be the most hectic melee ever experienced by the motorcycle industry. What matters more, though, is that the select few buyers willing to shell out big money for the most primitive versions of electric motorcycles also understand what Zero is — and what it isn’t. “This space is going to get messy, and as a leader in the space it's our responsibility to not spread misinformation,” Paschel says, worried that “vaporware” produced by naïve startups will hurt the industry at large. “That's the scary thing, that they can do damage to this transition to electrification for motorcycles that has nothing to do with us. People that haven't put in the time, energy, and effort, making a run for the money now that the market's here, and they aren't ready.”
Is Zero ready? It’s wonderful to have dedicated employees from diverse backgrounds, a growing distribution network, innovative partners committed to collaboration, and an in-house factory building and testing every bike sold, but Zero isn’t guaranteed success in a quickly maturing market that will soon be saturated with motorcycles produced by better-known brands. Askenazi sighs, “That's what keeps me up at night now: can we grow fast enough? Now that things appear to be taking off, can we keep up?” Paschel smiles and says, “That's the fear I want Abe to have ... it makes me happy. The reason we're in a leadership position is because Abe's a little paranoid, which I think all great leaders in a role like that need to be, so that's the right place for his head to be. We'll get more than our fair share.”
In this indefinite transition period preceding mass electrification, traditional motorcycle manufacturers will struggle to ramp up engineering efforts and strike a balance between current internal-combustion motorcycles and soon-to-debut EVs, giving Zero even more time to prepare for the battles ahead. “We don’t have an insurmountable lead,” Paschel admits. “Depending on how much time, energy, money, and resources people throw at it, we can be caught, but we have a head start, and we have the wealth of all the lessons we've learned along the way that help us aim in the right direction.”
Zero Motorcycles is planning its opening moves in the EV revolution, but it can’t know when it will hear the war drums of bigger, more imposing challengers. Lessons learned on its long march to the front lines will be invaluable but not indomitable, and Zero Motorcycles will need to be nimble, smart, and scrappy to survive the early days of fighting. And it will, because Zero has proven it knows how to fight and survive.
This article was originally featured in Issue 036 of Iron & Air Magazine.