How to Make Electric Motorcycles Go Mainstream

Jun 28, 2022

If we compared the highway range of the best electric motorcycles out there, they would rank near the bottom compared to their peers with four wheels. The best, most-expensive bikes attain real world highway ranges of around 120 miles. That's less than half that of better-performing electric cars. For reference, the typical customer that rents a motorcycle on Riders Share puts over 180 miles per day on it.

The cost of the best electric motorcycles is over $20,000 and yields real world mileage that is not practical outside of city use. They are sporty, but heavier and slower than ICE-powered sport bikes that are available for a fraction of the price. You might as well ride a Bird scooter.

In short, it makes no practical sense to buy an electric motorcycle. It's no surprise that they are not selling well. They represented less than 1 percent of all motorcycle sales in the US in 2021.

So let's talk about the strengths and weaknesses of electric motorcycles. Then we can discuss how to use these to grow the market into something meaningful. If you love motorcycles, you already know these.

The Strengths of Electric Motorcycles

  • Torque: For 0-60s and straight-line performance
  • Beginner Friendly: They are (usually) automatic, and they don't need oil changes
  • No Gas: They cost less to use
  • Environment: They are the greenest personal vehicle on the highway

The Weaknesses of Electric Motorcycles

  • Cornering: Batteries are heavy!
  • Range Anxiety: 120 miles max on the highway eliminates the benefit of saving on gas costs and maintenance - you can't ride the bike much, anyway!
  • Upfront Cost: Electrification doesn't come cheap

There are several dozen electric motorcycle manufacturers, backed by millions of investment dollars. They are vying for dominance in a market that does not yet exist for their products because they cannot overcome these weaknesses.

So how do we fix electric motorcycles?

Follow the Tesla Model

Seriously, it's not that hard. Tesla did a lot of the legwork already and found a model that works:

Torque. Early Tesla vehicles sucked at the racetrack. They did one and only one sporty thing well: 0 to 60 times. They were the fastest vehicle in a straight line, at the expense of cornering. For many men with fragile masculinity (myself included), being the fastest is a huge selling point. As of this writing, only one production electric motorcycle can compete with Tesla on this front. Sadly, it also competes on price: it costs roughly $40,000.

Range. There are two principal ways to increase range, outside of improved battery technology, over which motorcycle industry leaders have little control.

  • More Batteries: Elon famously packed Lotus Elise cars with batteries. Modern electric motorcycles already have a similar battery KWh rating to vehicle weight ratio as modern electric cars. This won't solve the range because we have already optimized it.
  • Lower Drag Coefficient: At least two electric carmakers have drag coefficients of ~0.2. This is huge. Lower drag coefficients exponentially reduce the energy consumption of vehicles at highway speeds.

And that's the fundamental problem: electric motorcycles in the market have drag coefficients of at least 0.5. Riders add significant drag because the motorcycle does not encase them in a smooth cage.

Reducing Drag on Electric Motorcycles

Yes, we can reduce the drag on electric motorcycles. Maybe not as low as 0.2, but enough to clear the 200 miles of highway range at a realistic 80 mph. As a bonus side effect, you get faster zero to sixty times and even better EPA ratings.

Taking another lesson from Tesla, it's time to create a new category. Elon didn't try to be Enzo Ferrari, and the Model X didn't try to clone the F40. (Though it looks suspiciously close to the F12 Berlinetta, but that's an argument for another time.)

For some unknown reason, every highway-capable, production motorcycle brand is building sport bikes or naked bikes. The tall profile sacrifices range to improve cornering. The bikes don't have enough range for us riders to leave the city, find twisty roads to carve and head back to charge. Yet their cornering is still not good enough to compete with a Honda CBR600, which you could buy new for under $12,000.

Electric Motorcycle Prototype - Riders Share

The photo above is a representation of what a low-drag electric motorcycle would need to look like. Though we would need more fairings (and a professional designer!) you can get the idea.

Why are so many smart engineers and business leaders making the same product decision?

The answer likely lies in marketing. Riders of cruisers and touring motorcycles (which fit the low seat profile needed to reduce drag) are a traditionalist bunch, so they must have figured convincing them to ditch V-twins for batteries was a lost battle. They won't even ditch air-cooled engines for liquid cooled ones, just ask Harley. Sport bike riders are younger, and young people are more likely to embrace new technology.

The laws of physics don't care about marketing, though. To build a production motorcycle with over 200 miles in range, the motorcycle needs to have a very low profile. It must sacrifice cornering proficiency for aerodynamics. It needs to use fairings to push air around the rider's body and limit drag. And you heard it here first: the fairings need to be transparent, so that the rider can see. This will cause a very non-traditional looking motorcycle, or what riders would call "ugly".

Or worse. Definitely worse.

The fact of the matter is that most motorcycle buyers want a motorcycle first, and an electrified motorcycle second. So if it's too ugly to sell as a motorcycle, then it's dead in the water.

Which brings me to the next point...

Electric Motorcycles Aren't for Motorcyclists

They should be sold to beginners that can't afford $50,000 on a Tesla but can afford $20,000 for an equally fast vehicle. They should target young people that likely don't know how to shift. These people aren't married to an idea of what motorcycles should look like. In fact, they don't want to look like traditional motorcycle riders with their leather and patches.

We want these people to take advantage of lower operational costs by taking them on 200-mile trips. Riders that go on road trips become lifetime riders, unlike commuters. 

You will not sell these motorcycles by advertising in traditional motorcycle media channels that worked in the past. You are going to have to find new channels and take risks, channels where the audience cares about the environment, for example.

The solution to stagnant growth in the motorcycle industry is one product design and marketing change away.

Electric Motorcycles are a New Business Model

The average motorcyclist rides 3,000 miles per year, about 1/4th the use of a car. In the US, motorcycles are more power sports than they are mobility. People use them for fun, to go on road trips, to join communities. Only 10% or so commute to work or use them daily.

Based on NHTSA surveys, most people in the US ride only a few dozen times per year, usually short road trips. If you ride a motorcycle on 20 sunny (but not too hot) days, and you paid $20,000 for the are going to end up selling it. It is not cost effective to enjoy a motorcycle a few times a year at that cost.

Enter the sharing economy.

Offsetting the Upfront Cost of Electric Motorcycles

Owners have listed over 25,000 motorcycles for rent on Riders Share. We have single-handedly driven motorcycle rental prices down to where renting makes economic sense over buying. For those who rent often, we have opened subscriptions.

Renting is a much better alternative to ownership for casual riders that don't want to ride every week. With electrification, people renting out motorcycles on our platform would have lower variable costs and be able to charge even lower prices, attracting more riders into the sport. 

Instead of financing $20,000 worth of a bike with a $300/month payment, you could rent six days a month for the same amount and forget about insurance, tires, and other responsibilities.

On the flip side, if only 1-2 people rent your motorcycle regularly, the motorcycle will pay for itself (and then you can buy more!). By pairing electric motorcycles with the sharing economy, we can attract new and casual riders into the sport, as opposed to competing for an over-saturated market of avid riders.

In summary, to make electric motorcycles popular, the industry must do 3 simple things:

  • Focus on drag, not cornering
  • Market to non-riders
  • Pair it with new business models to offset high costs

We're here. We're ready to meet the challenge. Who else is ready to step up?