From zero to 60—in silence

Not your typical hog, the world’s first electric motorcycle will save plenty on gas

Photograph by Blair Gable

Loud pipes save lives.

This phrase, stencilled on the back of T-shirts of weekend outlaws worldwide, is something of a mantra for the two-wheeled set. The idea is simple: on the road, nothing catches the cellphone-talking, latte-drinking, iPod-fiddling driver’s attention like the blast from a pair of straight pipes—thus preventing the owner of said pipes from becoming the casualty of distraction and a four-ton SUV. Motorcycle riders are a varied bunch, yet this much unites them: noise is golden. Noise is a saving grace.

So it’s a little disconcerting to be cruising down the highway at 90 km/h straddling the Zero S, a full-size electric motorcycle manufactured in (where else?) California. A twist of the throttle brings nothing but a Jetson-esque whir of its electric engine, audible only to the angels who will greet you as you are sucked underneath the tires of a lane-drifting tractor-trailer. Yet if you can keep your wits about you—remembering that, like unicorns and British haute cuisine, “loud pipes save lives” is a myth—the payoff is considerable: no gas burned, no emissions emitted, no carbon footprint to guiltily offset. Refuelling is as close as the nearest 110-volt plug and, according to the company spiel, it costs less than one cent per kilometre to ride.

The Santa Cruz-based company is the first to produce electric motorcycles, and it has targeted a juicy market segment: motorcyclists are typically well off and fiercely loyal to their respective brands, meaning you often have a customer for life should they fall in love with the product.
As well, the Zero has a strong environmental argument to make: gasoline motorcycles are considerably more polluting than cars, emitting an estimated five times the smog-producing pollutants. The trick, of course, is to lure folks off their current rides—which means competing with the almighty combustion engine in all its dirty glory. Does the Zero manage? Sort of.

First, the good news. At 120 kg, the Zero S is roughly 13 kg lighter than, say, the similarly sized and styled Yamaha WR250. Steering is a cinch even at low speeds, and it snaps around corners with Pacman-like ease. If the dirt bike aesthetic is your thing, then the Zero will impress. With a seat height of 86 cm, the bike feels like it could clear a felled log or a small child (though neither is recommended). Save for the lack of a gas cap, there is little to suggest that the Zero is anything but your run-of-the-mill bike. It even has a “gas” gauge, indicating how much juice is left in the 43-kg battery. It looks as a bike should: taut, menacing, ready to pounce. And then you crank the throttle.

Not having the advantage of noise at a traffic light is one thing. Getting beat at that traffic light by a Subaru Forester full of soccer balls? Quite another. I’m not sure if it was the tester, but the Zero S’s off-the-line performance was underwhelming, to say the least. There are certain pleasures to cruising along silently at 60 km/h—you can practically hear the bird crap hitting your helmet visor, for one—but the effect is diminished without the usual neck-snapping burst to get to that speed.

On the highway, the bike performed about as well as any smaller motorcycle. (This isn’t a highway bike, says Zero CEO Gene Banman, but “a city bike that can go on the highway for one or two exits.”) The problem at high speeds is battery life. The bike is advertised as having a range of 40 km on the highway; I managed 12 before that gas gauge was at empty and a red danger light started flashing. Banman termed this a “misidentification problem” with the gauges on some of the bikes, and said there was actually plenty of power left. Small comfort, especially with a Ford Escort four feet from your rear end.

Banman realizes there are certain kinks to iron out. Much like Tesla Motors, a company that manufacturers high-end electric sports cars, Zero Motorcycles is currently going after “early adopters”: enthusiasts who are daring or altruistic enough to see past the growing pains of the product, and who will (hopefully) spark a trend. With a price tag of $11,495, it’s a considerable leap of faith, yet—given the ever-mounting environmental damages inflicted by the oil and gas industry—arguably a necessary one. Like it or not, one day loud pipes will be a thing of the past.

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