The Electric Superbike: The End of the Beginning?

2 years ago by Ted Dillard 12

The Amarok

The Amarok

In a fairly strident story for Canada Motor Guide, Michael Uhlarik (of Amarok motorcycle fame) gives a pretty interesting and brutally frank picture of the electric motorcycle history since 2009 or so.  A quick browse through the comments will give you an idea of the response from the community, as well as the industry, that he’s getting.

Uhlarik isn’t shy about calling out the current state of affairs: “Brammo, absorbed into the Polaris Industries empire last year, joins Mission as just another corpse in the heap of motorcycle brands that died attempting to kickstart the electric revolution.”  He’s also quick to heap praise on one company who he feels has stuck to the knitting:

All of which leaves one company standing tall.  Zero Motorcycles from Scotts Valley, California. It not only survived through the hell of the great recession, passing the road legal certification process, recalls, outgrowing its founder, and overcoming the challenge of building a working factory, it came out the other end a stronger, scaled up and fully fledged motorcycle manufacturer. Zero, and Zero alone can claim to be an electric motorcycle company, one that is readily available via a solid dealer network, with after-sales care, and one presenting a bright future of robust growth.

More interestingly, he offers his own perspective on what went wrong:

It seems obvious that being a motorcycle company is about manufacturing motorcycles, but startup culture in 21st century America has been built around internet business, where physical products aren’t the core focus. The Silicon Valley template is to go from prototype to high volume delivery as fast as possible, to secure later venture funding. This, in the vernacular of venture capital, is called scaling, the end goal of which is either the sale of the fledgling company to a larger one, or to float stock on the market in an IPO (independent public offering).

It’s a formula that’s made tens of billions in the dot-com and app universe, but unfortunately translates very poorly into businesses that actually make things. Physical devices in the tech world, if required, are outsourced to contract manufacturers because they form only a tiny part of the consumer experience. But with motor vehicles, the physical product is the experience.

Uhlarik isn’t a stranger to the motorcycle industry.

Originally from Sudbury, Ont. Michael is an industrial designer who specializes in creating style and function. After working with Piaggio, Yamaha, and Bombardier, Michael moved to Halifax last year with his wife Michelle, who is originally from New Brunswick.

Since 2010, Michael has been working to develop his prototype electric racing motorcycle, the Amarok P1. In 2007, he went to a motorcycle show in Milan, where he saw a modern electric scooter produced by a U.S. company. He wasn’t impressed with the design, but the idea of the electric motor intrigued him.

Is it the “End of the Beginning”?  Well, why do you think we’re writing this book, now?  We have to agree, if not with the tone, certainly many of the observations and criticisms.

Finally, Uhlarik concludes: “The electric motorcycle revolution is coming, but it will be a slow-burn transformation instead of an explosive one.  Given the volatility of the motorcycle market, that is a good thing.”

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12 responses to "The Electric Superbike: The End of the Beginning?"

  1. Djoni says:

    It will come.
    So far not so much as a public succes, but traditional motorcycle ain’t either.
    Except for a surge of bicylinder taste of late boomer that is already exhausted, motorcycling is just not what it was for many.

    1. You’re speaking strictly in terms of the united states, which is less than 5% of the planet’s population. If you go visit france, south america, or most parts of asia, motorcycles are everywhere — like rabbits in heat!

  2. ggpa says:

    Electric motorcycles have scaling issues.

    They work great at the low end, for instance, in my visits to China I saw how electric scooters are displacing the gasoline scooters in the cities.

    Superbikes are a very different proposition and will take some time.

    1. Mike I says:

      Electric scooters are where the emphasis needs to be in order to make a difference in 2-wheeled transportation. I don’t care so much about the CO2 impact, it’s the alphabet soup of emissions (CO, NOx, HC, PM, etc.) from the millions of low priced gas scooters in Asia that have relatively poor emissions controls. I see China trying to push for New Energy Vehicles (cars) but I think the emphasis should be on heavy vehicles and scooters that don’t have modern emissions controls. It is easy to just require modern ULEV controls on cars, but those other segments are harder to tackle.

      1. Michael Uhlarik says:

        Mike I

        100% agree. The two bookends of the road transportation spectrum are where the low hanging fruit are : heavy commercial transport (trucks, lorries) and low speed motorcycles (scooters, mopeds).

        The simplicity, performance envelope and scale of those makes electrification on a mass, global scale cheap and easy with today’s (yesterday’s) technology.

  3. DdavidD says:

    I wouldn’t say that the sale of Brammo to Polaris is like throwing the business in the heap of trash. Let’s see what Polaris can do with the bike. They have already made a very slick TV ad for the Empulse – and they have the necessary infrastructure.
    That said, I have a 2015 Zero SR –a very sweet ride indeed.

  4. Roland Stone says:

    The Michael Uhlarik article is interesting history but politely skirts one of the more glaring of the nascent Electric bike industry dilemmas such as scam-artist, quick-buck “Plug-in” manufacturers, their mis-management cadre and sycophant apologists who dirty the EV cycle market with their deceipt, obfuscation and blatent, self-serving BS.

    Would you buy another two-wheel electric from Craig Bramscher ilk?

    It’s already well into the “second half-of-the-year”, – where are you going to get your neo-antique Empulse serviced?

  5. ZeroPride says:

    Explosion. With the major brands brimming with prospective electric models the Zero will face a serious test as the market becomes exponentially bigger. Polaris will be hard pressed to keep up.

  6. G2 says:

    I wish the best if luck to Michael for he has chosen a ‘tough row to hoe.’

  7. Richard Harmon says:

    It has long been my thought that Zero’s long-term goal is to create a respected and established product and eventually sell the company (so that their investors can cash out and then invest in something else) to a major Japanese motorcycle company who might want to jump into the electric motorcycle market without having to start from scratch. Right now I don’t see the market being large enough to interest them. But some day it will happen.

  8. Make it look more like a Harley and it may have a better shot

  9. Petah says:

    Motorcycle riding is very dangerous for states like California. Electric bikes are so quiet which adds additional element of risk. Anyone can drive a Tesla, no everyone can handle a bike 🙁