Why are electric bikes dragging the chain?

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Words: NZ Autocar
11 May 2020

All the major luxury car makers are gearing up for or are already producing EVs, and even the mainstream car makers are now heading in that direction. So why are bike makers so tardy?

There are several reasons for the change, the main one being that emissions targets are becoming increasingly stringent and that ICE engines will be outlawed from about 2035 onwards, particularly in EU countries, and the UK too. The US? Not while the current administration, in cahoots with big oil, remains in power.

As for electric motorcycles, so far only the 200hp+ electric superbikes are being made, so it will be a top-down scenario. There are few mainstream entrants. Zero has a foot in the door but its offerings remain expensive compared with similar performing conventional machines.

And there are a handful of others, but essentially the motorcycle makers are way behind where the car makers are at. Is there a good reason for that, aside from the fact that these companies are all much smaller and risk averse?

Well, kind of. Recent studies have shown that in most countries, regardless of how electricity is generated, four-wheeler EVs overall are better for the environment. But an article from MCN UK indicates the situation may be different for motorcycles because the battery comprises around 40 per cent of the weight of the bike.

A 2018 report from the European Environment Agency indicated battery EVs generate between 1.3 and two times as many greenhouse gases during manufacture as their petrol counterparts.

This relates to the energy requirements for raw material extraction and producing the batteries themselves.

The latter accounts for almost half of the emissions during EV car production. On bikes, that percentage is higher because the battery represents a much bigger part of the total weight.

Where a battery pack accounts for 16 to 26 per cent of a car’s weight, it’s twice as much for a motorcycle. And once on the road, there are emissions to be considered from electricity generation. In places like Sweden, electrics emit the equivalent of roughly 9g/km of CO2 while in places where electricity comes primarily from coal, it’s estimated to be at least twenty-fold higher.

Studies suggest that large EVs emit less greenhouse gases than petrol equivalents after about 44,000km. Smaller vehicles need 70,000km to reach that same point because of the reasons above.

Battery cars make sense given they do about 15,000km per year and last for a dozen years, meaning a potential lifetime mileage of 180,000km. Since motorcycles tend to do less mileage and the breakeven point is 70,000km, it may be that electric motorbikes are not a viable green option, at least in the short term.

Electric vehicles will prevail in the end because maximum efficiency for a heat engine is rarely more than 50 per cent whereas electric motors can operate at 95 per cent efficiency levels or higher. With more efficient battery production, electric bikes will eventually make sense.

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