Electric Motorcycles Don't Need More Range To Win The Hearts And Minds Of The Masses.
Words Eric Tingwall Illustrations Moron Eel
By the purest interpretation, electric motorcycles work. You trade your battery charge for miles, then trade your time for a battery charge, then you repeat. And electric propulsion certainly makes a convincing case with its characteristic differences from gas engines. At the roll of a wrist, electric bikes accelerate with the immediacy of stepping off the Grand Canyon's rim. They move with an uncanny quiet that funnels the sensation of speed into your pupils, and the relative mechanical simplicity of these machines means they require almost no maintenance.
For all their virtues, though, electric motorcycles still exist on the bleeding edge as defined by inventor Danny Hillis: "Technology is everything that doesn't work yet." Constrained by the limited range of today's lithium-ion batteries, electric motorcycles cannot provide the unbounded freedom that gas-powered bikes do. A motorcycle works best when its rider shirks responsibility and abandons plans, and you can't escape if you're tethered to the electric grid with a cord this short.
Consider that Zero's largest battery pack contains the same energy as a half-gallon of regular unleaded in a package the size of a combustion engine and its fuel tank. That electric bikes travel as far as they do — up to 200 miles in ideal conditions for the new Zero SR/F — is a testament to the efficiency of electric motors. While combustion engines turn just 30 percent of the energy in gasoline into forward progress, electric motors drive wheels with 85 to 90 percent efficiency.
Countless brilliant minds and billions of dollars are being poured into battery research with a focus on storing more energy in smaller and lighter packages. Emerging technologies, such as solid-state lithium-ion, lithium-metal, and fluoride-ion batteries, could pack more than double the energy density of today's lithium-ion batteries. In the interim, engineers continue to whittle away at lithium-ion's shortcomings by tweaking its chemistry. They also work the other side of the equation, stretching each electron's contribution by the optimizing aerodynamics, motor winding, and battery-management software to improve efficiency. For all this effort, though, any major battery breakthrough is at least a decade from reaching production. That's okay, though, because electric vehicles don't have a range problem; electric vehicles have a charging problem.
Justin Verlander could pitch at Little League speeds for a dozen lifetimes with no discernible wear on his shoulder, but he wouldn't last a year throwing at Major League velocities in each of 162 regular-season games. Lithium-ion batteries are kind of like that.
We need a national charging infrastructure where we're never more than 20 miles of riding and five minutes of recharging from adding 100 miles back into the battery. The industry needs only to look to any of the roughly 115,000 American gas stations where you can refill a 20-gallon tank faster than you can buy a roller-grill hot dog to understand the end game. Electric car and motorcycle manufacturers should be chasing the same model, but unfortunately, Tesla is the only vehicle manufacturer that currently recognizes the value of controlling and branding a reliable, widespread fast-charging network. The rest of the industry believes that home charging for five, six, or 12 hours on a 240-volt, 40-amp circuit passes as sufficient convenience. They're not wrong in most situations, but today's infrastructure is inadequate for edge-case users such as long-distance travelers, apartment dwellers, itinerant road warriors, and encyclopedia salesmen.
When it comes to refueling, plugging an electric vehicle into the standard 120-volt outlet is only more time-efficient than drilling an oil well in your backyard to gas your Gixxer. Fortunately, an electric motorcycle’s relatively small battery means even the longest charging times — about 12 hours — can still be completed with an overnight fill. That’s assuming you don’t trip a breaker plug-ging your motorcycle and Foreman grill into the same circuit.
Running at higher amperages as well as twice the voltage, Level 2 charging can more than halve the time to replenish a battery compared to a 120-volt circuit. The SAE J1772 connector is used universally in North America, meaning you don’t have to worry about compatibility at Level 2 stations like you do with DC fast charging. Find Level 2 equipment near shopping centers, auto dealerships, and parking garages, or spend the $500 to $1,500 for a home connector.
Power: 3.3—19.2 kW
Typical Charge Time: 3.5 hours
Average Cost: $4 per charge
Public charging stations are buckshot across the American landscape, in the parking lots of restaurants, shopping malls, and big-box stores, and the definition of "DC fast charge" is so broad that much of today's equipment only manages an 80 percent refill in a lengthy 30 to 40 minutes. The existing direct-current, fast-charging infrastructure squeezes juice into EVs from 22.5 kilowatts up to 350 kilowatts, but the vehicles you can buy today generally max out when fed 100 kilowatts of electricity. Because of these drawn-out recharge stops, public charging stations are too often blocked by fully fed EVs that annoyingly sit and wait for their owners to finish a fried-chicken dinner. Proper fast-charging will make the entire EV ecosystem more efficient and more viable by mimicking the limitless potential of the combustion-engine world we know, and it’s a far more pragmatic approach than simply supersizing the battery packs.
In EVs right now, technology development often outpaces product development, even if the R&D departments seem like they're barely making headway. While Harley-Davidson's LiveWire includes the industry-standard SAE CCS connector for DC fast-charging, Zero's newest bike can't connect at any of the more than 2,000 fast-charging stations that already exist in the country. That seems like a serious oversight considering Americans like to make purchases based on what we think we need rather than what we actually need; on any given day, count how many Ford F-150s you spot with empty beds and unoccupied trailer hitches.
For the moment, Tesla's Supercharger network is the closest thing we have to a next-gen service station. The California carmaker is in the process of more than doubling Supercharger power to 250 kilowatts, which provides 75 miles of range in just five minutes of charging for the most efficient Model 3. That rate slows as the battery nears a full charge, so it's not as simple as saying it can also provide 150 miles in 10 minutes. We'll see a second effort soon as Electrify America builds out cross-country corridors of DC fast-charging stations. Funded by Volkswagen as part of its penance for selling dirty diesel cars, Electrify America will up the ante with its most powerful equipment offering 350-kilowatt charging.
DC Fast Charging
If direct-current fast charging is the future of electric vehicles, it will have to look a lot different than today’s infrastructure. The current networks can be expensive and cumbersome, and are often incomplete, not to mention the brewing Betamax-versus-VHS format war. Asian automakers stubbornly cling to the bulky CHAdeMO plug while everyone else, including Harley-Davidson, uses the SAE Combined Charging System (CCS). For now, most fast-charging stations offer both connectors.
Power: 22.5—350 kW
Typical Charge Time: 40 minutes
Average Cost: $10 per charge
Tesla’s proprietary DC fast-charging network is as significant an achievement as any of its electric cars. Along many interstates, Superchargers are dense enough that drivers can comfortably leapfrog every other station. With a credit card on file and the vehicle identified through its charging port, refueling is as simple as pulling up and plugging in. The newest 250-kilowatt V3 stations feature a liquid-cooled cable and charge at a rate that can briefly peak at 1,000 miles of battery life per hour.
Power: 120—250 kW
Typical Charge Time: 35 minutes
Average Cost: $6 per charge
Of course, it's slightly more complicated than machine-gunning more and more electricity into a battery. Lithium-ion cells will happily accept high power levels, just as long as you don't mind compromising their long-term ability to store energy. Justin Verlander could pitch at Little League speeds for a dozen lifetimes with no discernible wear on his shoulder, but he wouldn't last a year throwing at Major League velocities in each of 162 regular-season games. Lithium-ion batteries are kind of like that.
Canadian startup GBatteries claims it can avert this degradation. Today's fast-charging equipment quickly ramps to a constant current and voltage for the bulk of a recharge, then gradually tapers off as the battery nears a full charge. GBatteries' algorithm is far more dynamic, modulating the magnitude, duration, and shape of the electrical current fed to the battery. The software simultaneously monitors the impedance, a form of electrical resistance within the battery that reveals when permanent damage is occurring. Building up to the impedance threshold, dialing the power down as necessary, and cycling over and over again allows GBatteries’ software to deliver high average power without doing harm to the battery pack. The goal is to accelerate charging so that it's as quick as a fuel stop.
When that day comes — at least five, but hopefully less than 10 years from now — electric motorcycles will capture that missing sense of boundless possibility. Battery-pack capacity will be only marginally more important than gas-tank size is today, and we'll treat battery-electric propulsion with the same indifference given to the internal-combustion engines. Lithium-ion-powered vehicles will no longer be technology, and electric motorcycles will finally — and fully — work.
This article was originally featured in Issue 036 of Iron & Air Magazine.