Electric motorcycles are already here — and more are likely on the way

Key Points
  • Iconic motorcycle company Harley-Davidson said it would bring an electric motorcycle to market sometime next year.
  • But, smaller brands like Zero Motorcycles and Alta Motors have been making electric bikes for years.
  • "There's an inevitability to electric," says Zero Motorcycles CEO Sam Paschel.
Source: Zero Motorcycles

In his Austin, Texas shop, Alan Stulberg has about a hundred motorcycles.

About 30 of them belong to Revival Cycles, a high-end, custom motorcycle shop of which he is a co-founder. And about a dozen are part of Stulberg’s personal collection. But one of the Stulberg's favorites is his Zero S Motorcycle, an electric street bike.

“There’s something so much more pure and so much better about an electric motorcycle,” he told CNBC recently. “And I’ve ridden everything.”

The seasoned rider added that “it’s like flying without leaving the ground,” speaking about the motorcycle that can go from zero to 103 miles an hour without shifting gears. “It’s like being a superhero. All you hear is the wind and you’re just floating down the road on this thing,” he said.

In an era where two and four-wheel electric vehicles are gaining momentum, iconic motorcycle brands like Harley-Davidson and Polaris are getting in on the action.

In March, Harley invested in Silicon Valley startup Alta Motors and recently said it would bring an electric motorcycle to market by next year. Polaris's Indian Motorcycles announced it would have an electric bike within approximately the same time period.

Still, what some riders appear to not realize is some brands have offered electric motorcycles for years. It’s just that no one knows who they are.

Coming to the party late

Source: Zero Motocycles

Zero Motorcycles, which opened up shop in 2006, is a niche electric brand . The privately-held, California-based company sells between 2,000 and 10,000 motorcycles a year, both domestically and internationally, and is growing fast, with a compounded annual growth rate of about 40 percent each year. Other electric motorcycle makers include KTM and Alta Motors.

While electric bikes only take up a small portion of the motorcycle market at present, the electric motorcycle industry is expected to grow nearly 42 percent by 2021, according to a market research firm TechNavio.

“There’s an inevitability to electric continuing to grow as a percentage of global transportation,” said Zero Motorcycles CEO Sam Paschel. “The question is, would you rather be early, having developed really robust technology and power-train systems? Or, would you rather come to that party a little late?”

In fact, electric vehicles have helped reshape the transportation industry globally, some experts pointed out.

“What Tesla showed with the Model S, was that once you have performance superiority and pricing parity, where there’s product availability, the market shifts dramatically to electric,” said Marc Fenigstein, Alta Motors co-founder and chief product officer.

In the U.S., the vast majority of Zero sales are in West Coast cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paschel said, cities that already have the infrastructure to support them.

At present electric motorcycles remain a niche market: Riders are typically city dwellers in their early 40s, slightly younger than the average age of a U.S. motorcycle rider — which is 47, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council’s U.S. Motorcycle Owner Survey — and uses the bike to commute.

The kind of people who “tend to have both the discretionary income to go and just buy a brand new electric motorcycle and have the mindset to be an early adopter of technology," Paschel said.

All you need is 'air in the tires'

Source: Zero Motorcycles

Zero sells street, off-road and duo-sport electric bikes, priced between $8,500 and $16,500. Alta Motors' and KTM's off-road electric bikes are between $8,000 and $10,000.

Despite the slightly higher price tags — used gas-powered motorcycles can be as low as $1,000 to $2,000 — electric motorcycles have lower operating costs compared with gas engine bikes, since they don't need to be refueled or require regular oil changes.

The engines also don't heat up as fast, which means the riders legs won’t feel the heat next to an engine on extended rides, electric bikes are quieter than traditional motorcycles and some electric bikes don’t have gears that need to be shifted.

“Essentially all you have to do is put air in the tires,” Fenigstein said.

In addition, younger consumers tend to prefer smaller, edgier motorcycles, which fit the electric bike model, said David Beckel, a senior analyst at Bernstein, who tracks companies like Harley.

He said the problem with smaller brands like Zero is that the distribution is too low. “It doesn’t resonate like a Harley,” Beckel said.

Zero has approximately 100 dealer locations in Europe and another 100 dealers in the U.S., and distributes products in more than 30 countries internationally, according to Paschel. That's still a far cry from the bigger brands: Last year, Harley-Davidson had 1498 dealers worldwide.

“A lot of investors point to Zero as why electric bikes won’t last,” Beckel said. But he said that if bigger brands like Harley-Davidson start to produce electric motorcycles, then awareness of the market and smaller brands would also increase.

“Electric motorcycles are quite a bit more approachable.If you’re an amateur that doesn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, you know how to ride a bike and you certainly can get on a little electric scooter and pull the throttle
Alan Stulberg
motorcyle enthusiast and shop owner

Still, current interest in electric motorcycles is hard to ignore. Grant Dudson, an electric vehicle distributor, said he sees more and more people buzzing around his London home base on electric motorcycles and scooters, including people stopping him in the streets asking him about his electric bike. Meanwhile, an electric moped sharing service was launched in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Electric motorcycles are quite a bit more approachable," Stulberg said. "If you’re an amateur that doesn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, you know how to ride a bike and you certainly can get on a little electric scooter and pull the throttle."

Stulberg, who spends his days making custom-built gas motorcycles with six-figure price tags, said he sees a day when the majority of motorcycles are electric.

“In 40 years, there’ll be some segment of the motorcycle industry that thinks those internal combustion engine motorcycles are cool,” Stulberg said. “But for the most part, those people are dinosaurs.”

Source: Zero Motorcycles

The biggest drawback of electric motorcycles, critics say, is the range, or how long the bike can last before it needs to be recharged.

Zero’s largest capacity motorcycle, the Zero SR, can go about 223 miles on a single charge. A standard gasoline engine on a motorcycle can go around 300 miles on a single tank.

But Corinna Mantlo, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said this makes it difficult to go on long treks across country on an electric motorcycle when there are no charging stations around. “Once you buy the bike you’re on your own to figure out how to plug it in so you can keep using it," the veteran rider said.

Mantlo liked the idea of electric motorcycles, but also said that without the infrastructure to support it, it’s difficult to have one in a place like New York City.

“I live in a fifth floor walk-up,” said Mantlo, who test road a Harley LiveWire back in 2014 while it was in New York. “Am I going to pay $300 extra a month to have the parking spot outside my building and then run an extension cord from my window?” she said.

Paschel said Zero Motorcycles can be plugged into any 110 outlet nationwide, although the batteries last longer if charged on a traditional charging station. And as battery technology improves, range is expected to increase as well.

“Not everyone rides motorcycles to go on a 700-mile journey,” said Stulberg who bought his Zero four years ago. “Most people ride motorcycles 10 miles a day, to commute. Or, ride 50 miles in an afternoon. Or, maybe we’ll take a 3-hour Sunday ride. That’s a hundred miles and that enough on an electric motorcycle.”