Electric Road Trip

Can electric motorcycles prevail? This maker says yes

SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. — Electric motorcycles are nimble, quick off the line — and hard to sell. One of the few pure-electric motorcycle makers is Zero Motorcycles, based in Scotts Valley, near the coastal California town of Santa Cruz.

I visited the factory because recent events piqued my curiosity. Electric motorcycles have come to wider attention with this summer's rollout of the Harley-Davidson LiveWire, that giant's first foray into electric vehicles.

Harley started its electric journey in 2014. Zero was founded all the way back in 2006.

Zero's office is nestled among firs. Inside, the factory is painted white and everyone wears black. Heavy metal is on the speakers and motorcycle helmets are on lots of desks. No Tesla robots here; everything is built by hand.

"We put more people on electric motorcycles than all of our competitors combined," said Dan Quick, the company's spokesman, as he showed me around. (Zero doesn't release sales figures, but Quick said at full capacity this floor could make 10,000 units a year.)

One reason for Zero's dominance is that its competitors have gone out of business.

Two pure-electric rivals, Brammo of Oregon and Alta Motors of San Francisco, failed to thrive and were sold to bigger companies, never to be heard from again. Lightning Motorcycles, a small-batch factory nearby in San Jose, is one of the only ones left.

Some people rave about the quiet, darting performance of electric motorcycles (so they say; I'm not a rider.) The instant torque is a blast, and the electric drivetrain can be precisely tuned with software, creating an experience that a gas-powered cycle can't match.

The problem is range. Zero's premium model, the SR/F, goes 161 miles on a charge; the others top out around 90 miles, and the charging stations are still few.

The company's motorhead vibe belies the complexity of what it has created.

"From a technology standpoint, we are three different companies. We are a software company, we are an industrial manufacturing organization, and we're an EV company," Quick said.

Almost every component Zero uses is custom, because its product is such a departure that off-the-shelf parts don't work. It designed its own cells and battery packs, with higher power density than electric passenger cars.

Zero is also finding customers among different kinds of machines that need precision electric motors. For example, it received an order from Duke Energy Corp. in North Carolina, to move the cherry-picker arms it uses to repair power lines.

While the ranks of small competitors have been thinned, Zero will face stiff competition from the incumbents. Harley-Davidson says the LiveWire is just the first of a new line of electric motorcycles. Polaris Inc. has signaled that it will relaunch the classic Indian Motorcycle line as electric.

"We are where Tesla was a few years ago," Quick said.

Tesla is the leader of the electric sports car category but may not be for long, as brands like Audi and Jaguar ramp up. "There's going to be a point where all the large manufacturers of the world will simply have more resources than us to throw at the problem," he concluded.

Zero sits on the outer boundary of Silicon Valley, where startups can dazzle or perish. Time will tell which fate awaits Zero.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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