Powering the Future

Tesla isn't dominating the electric bike market, but here are the players that might

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Key Points
  • Harley Davidson and Honda are among the dominant motorcycle makers with big plans in electric bikes.
  • Harley also recently announced that it is spinning off a nascent electric bicycle business.
  • Uber is among the top investors in electric scooter company Lime, which just posted its first quarterly profit, while competitor Bird is reportedly planning to soon go public via a SPAC.
  • NIU Technologies, which makes smart scooters, has seen its share price soar.
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle doesn't have big sales yet, but CEO Jochen Zeitz recently remarked during an earnings call, "It's also attracting new riders, new customers to the brand that might not have considered Harley-Davidson before."
Source: Harley-Davidson

Tesla reached a $500 billion market valuation this week, a sign of its dominance in the electric vehicle market. But Elon Musk has shown no real interest in one growing EV segment: battery-powered scooters and motorcycles. An accident he suffered as a youth on a motorbike — nearly fatal, Musk has said — turned him off two-wheelers, for now. But the manufacturing of battery powered bikes is growing and consolidating, which means it's likely to produce one or more dominant players in the years to come. 

The electric motorcycle and scooter market reached $30 billion in 2019, according to a June 2020 report by Preeti Wadhwani and Prasenjit Saha from the research company Global Market Insights (GMI). They estimated that the market — which includes everything from large motorcycles meant for interstate cruising to tiny stand-up scooters as used by Lime and Bird — will grow more than 4% annually for the next few years and hit $40 billion in 2026.

Concerns over vehicular emissions, increasing consumer awareness about air pollution, and increasing investments by government authorities in the development of EV charging infrastructure are all expected to keep the market growing. Another factor boosting electric bike prospects is the continued improvement in batteries.

E-bikes, scooters and motorcycles

Electric motorcycles and scooters are still relatively pricey, and none yet matches the range of the best gas bikes, but that's slowly changing. Lithium ion battery costs are down 85% in the last decade, said Garrett Nelson, senior equity analyst at CFRA Research. Within another 10 years, electric motorcycles can achieve price parity with gas bikes, he predicts. 

"The playing field is wide open," says Nelson. He noted that Honda, Yamaha and Harley-Davidson together control about two-thirds of the global motorcycle market, and are each developing electric motorbikes. So too are other big established players, such as the Indian-multinationals Hero Motors and Bajaj Auto, and some smaller electric-only startups, including Zero Motorcycles and Energetica.

Electric mobility is leading to a manufacturing boom for vehicles sized between small foldable scooters and full-on motorcycles, said Sam Korus, an analyst at ARK Invest, which is known for its big bet on Tesla. Uber led a round of investment in Lime earlier this year, while Bird is reportedly considering a public offering through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

E-scooters from the electric scooter-sharing providers Lime and Bird in Hannover, Germany.
Hauke-Christian Dittrich | DPA | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Troy Siahaan, a road test editor at Motorcycle.com, races a lightweight custom-built electric bike, giving him insight into the similarities and differences between gas and electric two-wheelers.

"The riding experience of an electric bike is similar to gas-powered motorcycles in that you twist the throttle and go," he said, "but you don't get sound, vibration or engine heat with electric bikes. By and large, they also don't require shifting, so they're easier for new riders than most gas bikes."

Siahaan also likes the torque output — a measure of the acceleration — of electric bikes, since it is all available at the outset.

Nelson noted that most growth right now is in the small- to mid-sized section of the electric motorcycle and scooter market. These are popular in China and Southeast Asia, where two-wheelers are more common as a mode of transportation, and pollution and noise reduction are socially and environmentally appealing.

Post-Covid-19 demand in urban mobility

Korus said Chinese scooter manufacturer NIU is among the promising players operating in the space between small folding scooters and large motorcycles. The company, which went public in 2018, sells its app-supported smart scooters in 38 countries across Asia, Europe and North and South America. Its stock has risen sharply. The stylish sit-on scooters offer up to 87 miles of range (140 km), multi-color dynamic gauge displays and GPS-based anti-theft systems.

NIU's primary competition are low-cost manufacturers in China, which make scooters that are less "smart" than its offerings, as well as the higher-end players out of Asia and Europe, which tend to be priced higher. A NIU model may sell for roughly $3,100, while a comparable Honda is over $5,000, a Vespa over $7,000, and a BMW anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000, according to Vincent Yu, a Needham & Co. analyst. 

NIU Technologies' stock price has risen sharply, and it is profitable, though questions remain about how large the two-wheeled electric scooter market will be.

Korus noted that NIU's software actively collects data that can be used to support fleet management, and allows the company to add value on top of just selling products. Fleet management could also be an important part of Tesla's business model, in its case with autonomous vehicles, which ARK Invest CEO Cathie Wood has pointed to in her bullish thesis on Musk's company. Yu said today there is high value in the smart features focused on theft prevention and vehicle maintenance, for example, knowing when parts need replacement. Its lightweight lithium-ion batteries are also an advantage over heavier, older electric scooters as consumers look for more portable batteries that are easier to swap in and out.

A big question for NIU is just how big the market can get and whether it can grow both manufacturing capacity and a retail store network along with it, Yu said. Asia is still heavily reliant on petroleum-based scooters, especially Southeast Asia, but that is changing. And, as the world emerges from the Covid pandemic, Yu is betting more travelers will shy away from mass transit and opt for scooters. In countries like China, they are much easier to obtain than cars thanks to lower costs and less regulation and permitting requirements, especially in larger cities.

NIU commands over 26% of the Chinese e-scooter sales market, and has risen in Europe to No. 3 over the past two years. Yu added that NIU is building a new factory, targeting major Southeast Asian markets like Indonesia, and adding more stores around the world to capitalize on the demand. In Q3, the company opened 182 stores and now has another 100 under construction.

Harley-Davidson and the electric future

In the U.S., smaller motorcycles suitable for urban transportation and only occasional highway use are not as popular as in Asia and Europe. Nelson said U.S. buyers tend to be older and favor larger bikes with traditional looks and the signature sounds of a combustion engine.

Harley-Davidson, the largest and oldest U.S. motorcycle manufacturer, has addressed these buyers with its LiveWire, an electric motorcycle with traditional cruiser styling and an impressive 105 horsepower that lets it accelerate to 60 miles per hour in a quick 3.1 seconds. The LiveWire is 7-feet long and nearly 550 pounds, giving it the size and weight to fit in with the company's mainstream gas-powered offerings, but, at $30,000, it's just too expensive for many potential customers.

With the traditional American motorcycle buyer aging, Harley sales are down almost 40% since their peak in 2006. "Demographics will be a problem for them," Nelson said.

We believe electric needs to play an important role in the future of Harley-Davidson.
Jochen Zeitz
Harley-Davidson CEO

Harley is committed to electric under a relatively new management team, led by CEO Jochen Zeitz, who earned high marks for his focus on sustainability as CEO of Puma. "We believe electric needs to play an important role in the future of Harley-Davidson," he recently told Wall Street analysts. He said sales volumes are low relative to traditional bikes, but added, "It must be an important segment in the long term future of the company and it's also attracting new riders, new customers to the brand that might not have considered Harley-Davidson before."

Craig Kennison, who covers Harley for RW Baird, said the priority for Zeitz and his team is to shore up Harley's finances and focus its business on the key markets where it can generate the most profits from core consumers today, and it will continue to generate the vast majority of its business from its V-twin internal combustion engine cycles (sales for LiveWire are not disclosed but the assumption is they remain very minor). "It's not a big number," Kennison said.

Similar to the path chosen by Tesla to first focus on the luxury consumer, Harley needs to perfect the electric motorcycle technology and given the price points today — it cannot alone control the cost curve in key areas like battery technology — only over time will it become more affordable to a larger consumer market. But if Harley makes the right decisions on current profitability centers, it will support the investment in electric vehicles over the decades to come, he said. "Right now Harley has a huge market and needs to make as much money as they can, and servicing the core customer, which is still highly profitable, is the focus."

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Harley is headed into the pedal bicycle market as well. It recently announced that it will spin off its electric bicycle effort, which has been in research and development for a few years, retaining a minority stake in the new firm, Serial 1 Company, a reference to its first-ever machine.

Targeting the e-bicycle market, with pricing below $5,000, is a smart move by Harley's new management, as it makes the brand affordable for the masses in a growing segment, said Brandon Rolle, Northcoast Research analyst. And similar to NIU's target scooter market, riders may not need a driver's license to operate these vehicles, which will help in Harley-Davidson's appeal to urban commuters and casual recreational cyclists.

High-end bicycle makers like Specialized have an early lead in this market — e-bikes which generate power that is multiplied by the human pedaling activity — and it does have the potential for widespread appeal in the future, according to Kennison. "It lets 'the everyman' get on the road …  especially during the pandemic people want to get outside and bicycling is a great way to do it, but depending on your fitness level, having the added electrical power creates a totally different experience. You can go 20 to 50 miles and it changes the appeal" he said.

Harley's motorcycle competitors

In the near future, pent up demand for outdoor products caused by Covid-19 could benefit motorcycle makers, including Harley, which has had a "rough last five years" according to Wedbush Securities analyst James Hardiman. "A lot of investors have looked at Harley-Davidson and the broader motorcycle one as not benefitting," from the new outdoors boom, the analyst said. But industry sales and used sales are both up, and those are precursors for a broader-based recovery in bike sales, Hardiman recently told CNBC. While the bear case about the aging demographics isn't going away, it has been that way for a decade already, he said.

Among Harley's competitors for the future full-size motorcycle buyer are not just traditional players like Honda and Yamaha, but Zero and Energetica, which have some of the most advanced electric bike technology currently available, Siahaan said.

Zero, founded in Santa Cruz, California, in 2006, isn't a household name, but it's one of the most established players in the field. It began selling electric motorcycles in 2009, making it one of the very first production two-wheelers (the earliest production electric motorcycles and scooters appeared in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively, but enjoyed limited success).

Zero's current all-electric line-up includes everything from the FX, a small on- and off-road capable "dual-sport" motorcycle starting at $9,300, all the way up to the SR/S sportbike which starts at $20,000. The 110-horsepower SR/S can reach 124 miles per hour and is capable of more than 200 miles of range when equipped with an enhanced battery. The FR/S is so advanced Road and Track alluded to Zero getting close to the being the Tesla of two wheels in its review. Zero offers it with an app that lets users modify the bikes maximum speed, power, torque and regenerative braking parameters.

A Zero FX electric motorcycle just after purchase in June 2019 at a Chicago, Illinois, store. Built in California, Zero motorcycles have been the best-selling electric motorcycle brand on the market. Harley-Davidson's CEO claims that since it introduced the LiveWire, its brand has selling well, but the Zero FX and a newer cheaper model, Zero FX/S, are as low as one-third the price of a LiveWire.
Scott Olson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Zero reached a 10-year deal with Polaris, a recreational vehicle powerhouse, that should give it the resources to further expand manufacturing and distribution. It will bring Zero's powertrain technology and software to Polaris' lineup of snowmobiles and off-road vehicles.

The high-end brand Energica was formed in 2010 as a subsidiary of CRP Group, a motorsport and aviation manufacturer based in Modena, Italy. It offers a small lineup of attractively styled bikes starting at $17,600 for the general-purpose Eva EsseEsse9, and ending with the top-of-the-line Ego+. The latter is a 145-horsepower sportbike with an eye-watering starting price of nearly $24,000, but a 150 mph top speed and up to 250 miles of range.

Saha of the Global Marketing Institute told CNBC that the company is investing highly in R&D and owns several patents related to electric vehicle manufacturing in Europe, Asia, and North America.

Of course, as the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, Honda Motorcycles of Japan, is not standing still. It recently filed patents for electric-powered versions of its CB125R and CB300R, these are small, easy to manage general purpose bikes with "café racer" styling.

Saha notes that Honda is also making large investments in the development of swappable battery technology for electric motorcycles to allow riders to quickly replace the batteries after use. These moves, and factors like its global dealer and distribution network will aid Honda, Saha said.

Tesla moving beyond cars

And then there is Tesla. Though Musk has said the company will not produce a road bike, he has announced plans to release an electric all-terrain vehicle, the Cyberquad, late in 2021, and has at least teased the possibility of one day making a two-wheeled electric bike. In the least, Tesla could easily pivot a portion of its battery business to supplying other manufacturers, says Nelson.

Generating revenue is a big concern for any start-up, but especially in the electric motorcycle space, where federal and state-level regulation abound and consumer expectations are high. Many of the companies that first entered the electric two-wheeler market place have failed or been absorbed by larger players. This includes Brammo, which launched in 2002 and sold bikes with six-speed transmissions like those in traditional gas bikes rather than the single-speed automatics most electric manufacturers use. It was first purchased by the recreational vehicle maker Polaris in 2015, then engine maker Cummins in 2017. Brammo-branded bikes are no longer sold, but its technology lives on with its purchasers.

A similar fate befell Alta Motors, a maker of technologically advanced off-road electric bikes. The company shuttered operations in 2018 and its assets were taken over by Bombardier's Recreational Products business in 2019 for use across its product lineup, which includes Ski Doo snowmobiles and the Can-Am line of three-wheel motorcycles.

"It's always difficult to predict the future," Siahaan said. "A lot of companies come out with big, bold announcements, but never even come to market."

"It's very early, so it is difficult to see how it all plays out, but that's typical of a true growth market," added Kennison.