Why electric motorcycles are the gateway electric vehicle | The Driven

The world is inexorably, if slowly, transitioning to an ever-larger fleet of all electric vehicles.

While most of the world’s attention is focused on electrification via cars, the two wheeler segment is already playing out as a fascinating market. And frankly, motorcycles are just more exciting!

Estimates of EV sales are complex, because the market is in such early stages and many of the smaller players are very cagey about sales numbers.

This makes electric motorcycle sales tracking even more difficult, but we can estimate the numbers based on some data points (like registration or tax credit data), financial statements from manufacturers, press announcements and information from the small but closely connected owner’s groups.

So, although not strictly scientific, I think the data below is a reasonable estimate of global sales by the major electric motorcycle brands in 2017 – but be warned, the numbers should be considered estimates only.

To the average person almost all the names in this data set will be unrecognisable. The electric motorcycle market is almost exclusively made up of innovative start-up companies, each going after very distinctive market niches.

I’ve broadly categorised these niches in the table below, as an indication of where the focus is.

Tellingly, the total sales from these eight start-ups is only 4,650 bikes – and I could easily be out (high or low) by at least 25 per cent, I estimate.

Although a lot of press and noise has been made by big name manufacturers, real sales aren’t forecast until 2019 or 2020, so I have excluded all of them (except KTM) for now. KTM are the only big-name manufacturer who have (by my estimates) sold reasonable numbers in 2017.

I have also left out a few notable names, such as Lightning motorcycles (because their volumes are less than 25 units), and Brammo (because they are no longer sold despite being relatively successful up until ceasing production).

You may notice I have included Australian start-up Fonzarelli, which sells electric scooters. On the other hand, I have excluded Chinese electric scooter manufacturers.

This is due to the fact they are arguably in the “premium technology” segment more akin to motorcycles than the majority of budget electric scooter sold in China and their volume is material (according to statements made by Fonzarelli recently).

For reference, we estimate that between 100,000 and 150,000 electric scooters were sold in China in 2017.

I am also aware of a number of other start-ups in the space but have no sense of their volumes – so please forgive me and correct me if you have data!

The big names talking about production include Harley Davidson, Vespa, Yamaha, Honda, Kalashnikov and, of course, KTM all of which have announced production motorcycles due in the next 1-2 years.

Each of these electric motorcycle start-ups has achieved varying degrees of success in terms of volume, profitability and market reaction and we have already seen collapses exits and share price volatility in a number of them.

A global market of perhaps 5,000 sales makes it almost impossible for electric motorcycle start-ups to be profitable, no huge surprise. The key will be survival and amalgamation over the next few years, as technology and market growth (hopefully) realises more sustainable volumes.

Clearly, Zero continues to lead the pack by a mile, despite no major changes to their line up since 2014.

Its pretty clear that, among other things, their strategy of minor incremental improvements and “keep it simple stupid at the price of performance” seems to be working, despite frustration from owners that evolution has been minimal.

Alta motorcycles are also worthy of a mention, due to their volume position after such a short time and almost universal applause for their great looking and very high performance off-road prowess, albeit at the expense of range.

They successfully filled the demand for high performance off-road bikes where Zero doesn’t quite compete and even announced a partnership with Harley Davidson in 2017.

Sadly however, that deal fell through and only this week multiple industry sources are claiming they are winding down operations. This would be a great tragedy, but appears genuine.

Canadian based Brutus and Lito Sora are both purely custom high end builders but do have a small and loving fan base in several countries.

European Johammer makes the most bizarre looking electric motorcycle I’ve ever seen, but has sold a decent number of bikes over the years, has a loyal fanbase of “Johammeristi”, and has – I must admit – an extremely cool modular design.

Tacita (like Energica) are from Italy and seem to be targeting the extreme off-road and police/military segment.

I’m wildly speculating about their volumes, under the assumption that some of their public imagery around fleet sales may have been successful.

Energica are well placed in the high performance segment and, indeed, have developed the world’s first eMoto production race bike for the 2019 inaugural race series.

This has cost them big money in development (recently resulting in suspension of their shares from trading) but undoubtedly has the objective of development and brand positioning, which could play out well if they can sustain the cash burn and huge brand risk associated with supporting a race class.

At around $50,000 Australian, this is an exotic high-end bike with impressive performance. However, the US made Lightning motorcycle has, it would seem, failed to make this segment work after many years of trying, with almost no sales reported in 2017 despite its truly mind blowing performance and a slew of world records to its name.

When they were available in Australia they were reportedly selling for in excess of $70,000 Australian dollars.

Fonzarelli are worth a mention, too, for several reasons. Firstly, because they have survived for more than five years and are Australian based.

Secondly, it would appear they have sold more electric two-wheelers than anyone else in Australia’s history, and trialled a number of different channels to market, finally settling on direct to consumer sales strategy only from a smart retail showroom Sydney.

Although based on Chinese equipment, they have invested heavily in R&D and lifted the performance, specifications and range of their product to decent levels after something of a shaky start.

I recently attended an open night at their showroom and had the pleasure of hearing from their impressive founder Michelle Nazarri. Nazarri grew up in her father’s bus manufacturing business and clearly has a passion for construction and innovation.

One of the most appealing aspects of electric motorcycles is that they can achieve extremely high-performance levels and greater range for less than 50 per cent of the cost of most basic electric car – they are a “gateway EV”.

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