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The Buzz About Electric Motorcycles

Would-be players have come and gone, but the corner has finally turned and electric motorcycles are now a viable alternative for powersports dealers.

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For more than a decade, we have heard the chatter about the emerging electric vehicle market, but it seems that battery technology and the challenges of distance and time between charges led to more short circuits than a real EV revolution. Would-be players have come and gone, but the corner has finally turned and electric motorcycles are now a viable alternative for powersports dealers. “It all comes down to building real-world bikes for a real-world marketplace,” says Scot Harden, VP of global marketing for Zero Motorcycles. “We are doing the best we can to deliver on the promise and to convince the world of the concept.”

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There is no question of the potential EV market. Ride To Work, the non-profit organization that coordinates the annual “Ride To Work Day” in early June, indicates more than 80 million cars and light trucks are used for daily commuting, yet only 200,000 motorcycles and scooters add to this mix on a good day. This is despite the fact that studies prove a commuting rider can reach their destination up to 20 percent quicker than those using automobiles. Ride To Work also notes two-wheelers require less resources per person per mile, and they take up less space on roads.

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Even with Ride To Work’s grassroots efforts, the number of motorcycles on the road any given day remains a staggering minority … and the expansion of electric motorcycles into the mix is still in its infancy. “That means almost unlimited potential for growth,” says Ron Luttrell, global sales director for Brammo (www.brammo.com). “The near-term future is very exciting.

“For example, the Empulse is the first purpose-built electric motorcycle … and by this we mean all the key components — motor, controller, batteries — are all specifically designed for that motorcycle,” he continues. “Nothing is an off-the-shelf repurposed part, which was the case with first generation products. This is only possible because of our confidence in the market. The result is an outstanding motorcycle that just happens to be electric.”

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There’s no slight intended to electric scooter pioneers like Vectrix (www.vectrix.com) or the emerging electric bicycle operations such as Optibike (www.optibike.com) looking to cross over into the motorcycle dealership channel. For the sake of apples-to-apples comparison, we will save the electric bicycle and scooter discussion for another time. Even with this distinction, there is some shocking growth opportunity in the electric motorcycle market.

Scope of the Market
According to a recent report from Navigant Research, sales of electric motorcycles will multiply tenfold in North America by 2018. Currently, the vast majority of electric motorcycles and scooters are sold in China, but that will begin to change in the next several years, claims Navigant’s principal research analyst Dave Hurst. “Sales of e-motorcycles and e-scooters in North America will grow from a little more than 4,000 units in 2012 to more than 36,000 in 2018.”

Hurst explains the growth will come because of companies ranging from Brammo to Zero. “The North American market is still very much in its infancy, but the United States will see strong growth, with a compound annual growth rate of greater than 50 percent through 2018. The market for e-motorcycles and e-scooters will grow as manufacturers provide more robust features, including longer range capability, better performance and, in the case of e-motorcycles, higher speeds,” he says.

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Speaking of speed, MotoCzysz (www.motoczysz.com) just demonstrated how far e-technology has come and how fast electric motorcycles can go at the historic Isle of Man TT. Once the ultimate proving ground for gas-powered motorcycles, the TT has become a great benchmark for electric bikes. “There is no clearer illustration of the extraordinary progress of the electric motorcycle than the first five runnings of the TT ZERO electric motorcycle race at the 105-year-old Isle of Man TT motorcycle racing festival,” claims Gizmag.com founder Mike Hanlon.

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The winning time for the electric motorcycle class in 2009 was just 87.434 mph, roughly the same as the lap record in 1936, set by a Norton Manx Special. “One year later, Mark Miller’s MotoCzysz won at an average speed of 96.8 mph for the 37.7-mile mountain course,” notes Hanlon. “Then, in 2011, Michael Rutter took the race on a new MotoCzysz at 99.6 mph, and in 2012, Rutter and MotoCzysz again triumphed at 104.056 mph.” This year, MotoCzysz pushed speeds close to 110 mph.

Speeds have increased every year, and the 109.7 mph electric lap record created by Rutter this year is the equivalent of Mick Grant’s 109.8 mph mark set on a Kawasaki 750cc three-cylinder two-stroke in 1975, according to Hanlon. “At this meeting just 48 months ago, electric racing bike technology was at 1936 levels (compared with conventional bikes). Now it is at 1975 levels at least, measured by the only thing that counts: the stopwatch!”

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However, hand-built prototypes to race the Isle of Man or the limited edition Lighting Motorcycle (www.lightningmotorcycle.com) that set a Bonneville speed record of 218 mph and is built-to-order at prices starting at $38,888 are a bit much for the average retailer looking to test the EV motorcycle market.

What’s In It for the Average Dealer?
Not every dealer is looking to set a land speed record, but winning over some new customers on the sales floor is another matter. “Dealers can get in on the ground floor of what will only become a much larger percentage of the overall motorcycle business,” asserts Zero’s Harden. “They can have the opportunity to engage with many new customers — prospects that they don’t currently engage with.”

Nor will it cost an arm and a leg to kick the tires of the EV bike biz. “Dealers can get involved at a low entry cost. Our inventory, parts and special tool requirements are quite low,” explains Harden. “Dealers aren’t required to stock large amounts of inventory. Currently, they can have the rights to significant new market territories. They have the opportunity to grow with us when it comes to fleet sales and the adoption by police and authority entities who are looking to add sustainable, low maintenance vehicles to their fleets.”

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Brammo’s Luttrell agrees that it is a great time for dealers to consider flipping the switch on electric motorcycles. “Brammo offers the dealer network an opportunity to partner with the fastest growing electric motorcycle company in the industry. Brammo strives to provide the dealer network with support and programs that are dealer friendly, unique and more importantly, drive sales for the dealer. At Brammo, we believe the dealer network to be one of our greatest assets.”

Better yet, Brammo wants dealers. “Brammo is currently developing our dealer network in key markets and seeking Tier One dealers in those markets,” says Luttrell. In fact, Brammo recently signed up San Diego BMW Motorcycles in San Diego, Calif.; Unique Superbikes in Miami, Fla.; Foothills BMW Triumph in Denver, Colo.; and Polaris of Portland in Portland, Ore.

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Zero is also looking for dealers. “We aren’t setting up dealers on every street corner, but we are looking for dealers in key markets,” adds Harden. “We are closing in on 60 dealers in the U.S. and Canada and should be at 75 total by the end of the year. We have approximately 30 dealers in Europe as well.” At the time of this interview, Harden was in the airport heading to Holland to do some more international dealer development work.

Zero is ready to crank up the rheostat on the EV motorcycle business. “We expect to see continued internal growth, aggressive product development, expansion on a global basis, continued success in fleet sales and, last but not least, don’t be surprised if our powertrain starts popping up in other products on a worldwide basis,” says Harden.

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