The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 16, 2011

RALPH COUEY | Raise a cheer for big electric bikes

Ralph Couey
For The Tribune-Democrat

— The concept by which your car’s engine works has been around, at least as an idea, for more than 800 years.

The first concept of an internal combustion engine was done by a Mesopotamian named Al-Jazari in 1206.

The Chinese, Mongols and Arabs developed a working model in the 13th century. Da Vinci produced a design in 1509. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a single inventor, but a long roster of contributing inventors and engineers.

But in the 21st century, the internal combustion engine is living on borrowed time.

Gas and diesel fuel are proving too vulnerable to political and environmental pressures that make its supply and price unstable. There is also a question of how long the current reserves will last in the face of ever-rising demand.

In response to these conditions, electric vehicles are attempting to move to the mainstream. But high cost, limited range and the fact that electricity still flows mostly from coal-fired power plants make them novelty items in the minds of most consumers.

Hybrids have been a good compromise, combining the emissionless value of electric motors with the range of a traditional engine. No one has yet given me a satisfactory answer to the question of what happens to the toxic battery packs after they wear out.

I’m still holding out hope for hydrogen fuel cells and the technology that would efficiently convert ordinary materials to hydrogen, either for combustion or electrical generation.

But the technology mountain that must be climbed to make this technology cheap and safe enough means that the hydrogen economy is still decades away.

Electricity is now beginning to take on its toughest market: Motorcycles.

This will be a difficult task, since the two requirements for a successful bike are that it be fast and loud.

Electricity is fast, but I’m unsure if bikers will surrender that soul-satisfying throaty roar for a nasal whine.

Companies like Zero and Brammo Enertia are producing motorcycles powered by electric motors for street use, and another company, KillaCycle (cute name, that), has produced a drag-racing bike that delivers 0-60 mph acceleration in one second.

But range – limited to around

60 miles – is still the biggest drawback.

Sixty-mile rides are completely antithetical to the whole motorcycle philosophy: The limitless freedom of the open road.

Plus, these designs are mostly scooter types and converted dirt bikes rather than traditional street machines.

They’re small and, from the perspective of an “old guy,” look murderously uncomfortable to ride. And no saddle bags, either.

I’m a “go-far” rider. For me, a short ride is 150 miles. I not only commute, but run errands, go shopping and perform most of the other duties for which one uses motorized transport. So for me, an electric ride is simply impractical.

What bothers me is why the hybrid hasn’t made it into the motorcycle market. When I look at big touring bikes, like Honda’s Gold Wing and BMW’s K1200LT with their massive frames and long wheelbases, it would seem to be a perfect fit.

A hybrid touring bike I think would be an instant hit, and would likely expand the pool of possible buyers. But the so-called Big Four (Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki) and BMW seem reluctant to take the leap, even though Honda already has that technology in several car models. These firms traditionally have been forward thinkers, which makes their reluctance even more puzzling.

If they are just waiting for the right time, I would respectfully submit that time is now.

For now, people are willing to tolerate a motorcycle’s meteorological limitations in favor of better mileage. A few years more and that tolerance will disappear. And that has serious market implications.

Fortune favors the bold, as they say, especially those with the courage to seize the obvious moment. And for a hybrid motorcycle, that moment is here.

I have abundant faith in humanity’s capacity for pushing back technological barriers.

But for now, electric vehicles are definitely the future for human transport.

It’s only a matter of how soon that future will arrive.

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.