Electric motorcycles – promises, promises? | The Driven
The 2019 Zero FXS electric motorbike. Source: Zero
The 2019 Zero FXS electric motorbike. Source: Zero

I admit it. I’ve been considering buying a petrol powered motorcycle for the first time in almost 6 years.

Quite simply, I’m a madly enthusiastic but increasingly frustrated electric motorcycle owner and I rely on my Zero electric bike as my daily transport. But it is broken. Again.

My problem started shortly after a trip up the coast to visit some customers in 2018. On a recently re-tarred section of road I ingested a lump of tar and gravel into my belt/pulley which I managed to rectify at the time but soon after my motor started playing up.

It now appears that the shock to my motor caused by this event has damaged the motor position sensor and the “brain” of my bike can’t figure out what the motor position is.

That’s not really Zero’s fault but it does highlight a susceptibility in the design. As I understand it, this has been addressed in later models on the motor.

However, like all Zero owners in Australia, and indeed almost all EV owners, official support and technical expertise is very sparse or in our case non-existent expect for one shop almost 1000km from my home. This lack of support vastly diminishes the ownership experience and is a major barrier to sales growth.

On the flipside, I reached out directly to Zero and ultimately conducted a remote diagnostic analysis of the bike which is actually extremely cool.

With a laptop and a special diagnostic harness the very helpful support team dialled up my bike from the other side of the world and ran a bunch of tests, updates and system checks from the comfort of my own shed. When you can get them, they are super helpful and understanding, but can only do so much.

I was also very fortunate to get very generous support from local EV genius/maniacs ELMOFO, who did manage to get my bike running for a month by “tuning” the motor position sensor which they identified was slightly out of sync. Sadly, my problem returned though leading me back to the factory for help.

Currently, the status is

a) They recommend an entire motor replacement because for some reason just replacing the sensor is not practical and

b) They can’t allow me to do this myself due to the liability risks associated with the high voltages and danger if I install the motor incorrectly all compounded by the fact that I am not an insured motor vehicle repairer and thus

c) It needs to be shipped 1,000km to get the work done. It is not clear whether I will be forced to pay for a new motor or not yet.

It’s understandable, but Zero fun.

So, I have been seriously considering a decent second hand petrol bike again so that I can get back on the road and off the 2 hour each way bus/train commuting nightmare I currently have. I admit to being a little terrified that my substantial investment in my Zero may end up going down the drain.

This has been a fascinating exercise because although I can buy an awesome petrol bike for $5,000 (around the cost of a new motor for my zero), I constantly find myself analysing the and cost and probability of regular mechanical servicing and tuning.

I already know I have saved more than $5,000 in maintenance and fuel costs in just 3 years and I am really having trouble justifying such a false economy!

What I have enjoyed is envisioning myself on a bike that has almost endless range allowing me to tour more – but reality is I don’t get time for touring more than once every year or two.

And I’ve enjoyed the evocative memories that flood back when I imagine riding around on a classic Guzzi, or a mean RD350, a BMW off road tourer or perhaps even a near new Royal Enfield Himalayan – but the reality is I don’t miss the noise one bit.

If only I had a reasonable level of service and support, I wouldn’t even consider it.

In 2019 we will see much improved new electric motorcycles hit the market from Zero, Harley Davidson, Lightning, Energica, some interesting Asian and Indian machines, possibly Ducati and even the Australian made Savic.

Performance, range and charging capability is all much improved and price is slowly coming down.

Everyone is chasing slightly different niches but fascinatingly only Harley has talked about service and support, publicly anyway.

In a recent article, Harley Davidson executives were challenged on their relatively high price (around $30k) and low performance and range compared to their peers in the space.

Their justification was as fascinating as it was insightful; they essentially said two key things.

One, they were going to leverage their brand to sell a premium price electric motorcycle and that even then, profitability would be limited initially and two, they were focused on ensuring that their network of hundreds of dealers was fully prepared for the release to drive sales and assure service was well managed and readily accessible.

This is where despite the price premium, Harley may actually beat the other players at their own game at least in the medium term.

If, as they inferred, they have taken a lesson from all the social feedback from existing electric motorcycle owners who are demanding better support and actually deliver a really good mass market level of service they could be more influential on the wider adoption of electric motorcycles than anyone else yet.

Zero and the handful of other manufacturers have worked their backside off but the reality is you currently need to be a very understanding early adopter with immense patience to buy an electric motorcycle today.

I’m hanging in there but just want to ride. Electric.

(Editor’s note: Watch out soon for Nigel’s interview with the Savic people, and Nigel, while we talking about podcasts and Australian products, why not hop on an electric moped or electric scooter made by Fonzarelli. hear our podcast interview with Michelle Nazzari here).

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