For many years I wanted an electric motorcycle. It made more sense to me than an electric car. They would cost much less and their smaller batteries would be much easier to recharge. They wouldn’t need high power recharging stations and unusual plugs. They wouldn’t have the speed restrictions of electric bicycles. Perfect for a single person with a short commute in the city. But while electric cars have become well known and electric bicycles are now common, there is almost no sign of electric motorbikes in Australia.
About 20 million vehicles are registered in Australia, and nearly 900,000 of them are motorcycles. About 100,000 motorcycles are sold here each year, and almost none are electric. The big four, Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki haven’t manufactured any, though they have some prototypes. The main reason is the same as electric cars: range anxiety. Electric motorbikes have a short range, so petrol is still needed for cruising hundreds of kilometres in a day. But many urban riders travel much less than 100km per ride. So it would make sense that somebody has produced something for that niche. And once you begin to search the internet, you discover that there is an amazing diverse world of electric motorcycles, but mostly elsewhere in the world.
There is a point of confusion about scooters. It is the name given to little stand-up scooters (foot or electric powered), but it also applies to sit-down Vespa style motorcycles with a step-through frame (also called mopeds). I will use the standard marketing name and refer to step-through motorcycles as scooters. And we need some technical numbers. Electric motorcycles are basically defined by their battery size in kilowatt hours, and the size of the motor in kilowatts. An electric bicycle is small, with something around 400 watt for the motor and half a kWh in the battery.
The absence of (most of) the big players has left an opportunity for lesser known companies and new startups to create new electric motorcycles and find a market. It seems to be a trivial part of the transport industry, but the internet reveals an incredible amount of action overseas in the past two decades. Early development was mostly high performance racing machines, but there are many categories of motorcycle, from tourers to commuters to off-road trail bikes.
Unknown to most of us, the electric scooter industry has already taken off in Asia. The numbers are astonishing. Scooters have always been cheap and popular in poorer countries, and there are well over 100 companies around the world producing all kinds of scooters, making them the most common form of transport. For example, India sells 8 times more motorbikes and scooters than cars. Vietnam’s streets are always full of scooters. China is the big success story, legislating to remove polluting two-stroke motorbikes from their cities in April 2019. Shanghai has banned petrol engines from the city, so both smoke and noise has reduced dramatically. Honda in Japan is the world’s biggest motorcycle company, but the second biggest is now the (unknown in the west) Chinese company Yadea. They were founded in 2001 and grew rapidly until they sold about 9.4 MILLION electric scooters in the combined years of 2019 and 2020 (and slightly less electric bikes). China now has about 90% of the world’s electric motorbikes and scooters: an astounding 30 MILLION of them. Well, we have been dragging our feet.
Progress has been much slower in the west, but there are still dozens of electric motorcycle companies (also mostly unknown to the general public) developing, prototyping and selling their designs. Many of them attempted to compete with performance road bikes, but their bikes were a lot more expensive, and some companies have folded. Harley Davidson, the first of the well-known motorcycle companies to go electric, also aimed for the top rung with their ‘Live Wire’ road bike, which weighs 210kg, and has a 15kWh battery (half the weight of the bike) powering a 78kW motor. It can do 235 kph – briefly – but at sensible speeds has a range of about 200km. They are very expensive (about $50,000) and available in Australia.
The best known electric motorbike company in the USA is Zero, which began in 2009. They sold about 3000 electric motorcycles in 2018, increasing to 4000 in 2020. Their bikes were available in Australia but they withdrew from our market in 2017 due to poor sales. Their newest bike is the SR/F, with an 82kW motor, 14kWh battery, top speed of 200kph, and a range of about 200km.
And each part of the world tells a different story. In Europe, sales have been increasing at about 25% per year, but different brands. The top four early this year were Niu (China), V-Moto (Australia), Silence (Europe) and Askoll (Europe). Wait a minute, Australia? The internet reveals that V-Moto has its head office in Perth. They are a joint enterprise with Western engineering, and Chinese manufacture, with several different models, all available in Australia. For example, their CUx scooter costs about $5000. It has a 2.8kW motor, 1.3kWh battery (10.5kg), and a range of about 75km at 45kph.
The secret success story in Australia has been something unexpected: children’s electric motorbikes. They have obvious advantages: small size, low range, no need for registration in the backyard, or off-road, and very cheap. They were the safest, with no fuel or hot exhaust pipes. In the beginning they were just toys, but they have evolved from there. Children get bigger and want bigger electric motorbikes, so the toy motorbikes soon became bigger dirt bikes. Dirt bikes don’t always need size, speed, or long range, as they are usually ridden for one or two hours at low speeds. Over a dozen companies make electric off-road dirt bikes for children and youths (though many are not available in Australia). Some are known dirt bike companies (KTM, Husqvarna, Bultaco, etc) but many are new to the game. Electric dirt bikes now range in size from child to adult.
There was just one step left to get them on public roads: meeting Australian design standards to make them legal for registration. A couple of dirt bike riders from Sydney looked for a suitable bike to import, and chose Sur Ron, a Chinese company, and took their Light Bee through the process. Painfully slow, as the relevant government bodies didn’t quite what to do with this new electrical creature. The process was completed about a year ago, and now Sur Ron Australia cannot keep up with the demand. Each container of about 80 motorcycles is pre sold before it arrives.
So I got my electric motorbike. I ordered a Light Bee (about $6000) and waited three months for it to arrive. Registration was the same as a conventional motorbike. The Light Bee is clearly a trail bike. It is very light at 58kg, and has a 2kWh battery powering a 2kW motor. A lot less than the LiveWire, but very similar to the V-Moto scooter. Offroad, it has an endurance of about 2 hours and a range of about 80km. On road at higher speed, about 1 hour and 50km. I live in the country with lots of gravel roads so it suits me better than a scooter. It has enough range to get me to the next town and nearby locations, and I can carry the small recharger if necessary. The 10kg battery is also removable.
One of the great advantages of motorbike batteries is that they are easy to recharge, because they are so much smaller than car batteries. With their minimal frame, motorbikes have a fraction of the weight to move. Most electric cars get about 6km per kWh, but motorbikes can get over three times more; the Sur Ron Light Bee gets 25km per kWh. The recharger draws just 3 amps from a standard 240 volt socket to fully recharge in two and a half hours. The battery could be three times bigger and still suit a 240 volt circuit. To compare sizes, a mid-sized motorcycle battery would be about 6kWh, while a small electric car battery is about 30kWh (Mini Cooper) up to 100kWh (Tesla) – making a Tesla house battery look small at 13.5kWh.
I still have a petrol car for longer trips and bad weather. The electric vehicle industry refers to petrol and diesel engines as ICE – the Internal Combustion Engine – and we all know that addiction to ICE is bad for our health. So I use the new bike as often as possible.