Mugen Shinden | The God of Electricity | Drawing the Line

Those involved in the electric motorcycle scene have all asked the same question for some time: When will one of the established manufacturers step in? BMW has shown a serious electric maxi-scooter that appears ready for production. It looks to be a smart compromise, treading a middle ground between small scooters and full-sized motorcycles and giving the German company a chance to approach electric performance in a series of steps rather than a great leap. Other OEMs are testing the waters with concept bikes and test vehicles, but they’ve left it to the smaller start-ups to explore what it takes to build a serious electric motorcycle.

Until now: Mugen recently held an introduction at Suzuka, showing its Shinden (named after the god of electricity) racer. Mugen? “Without limit” in translation, the Japanese company was started in 1973 by Soichiro Honda’s son Hiritoshi, who is currently the controlling stockholder in Honda—so the connections are very close. Mugen specializes in performance versions of Honda products, nowadays mostly automotive.

At the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, Honda displayed an electric racing motorcycle concept called the RC-E. The Mugen, while not identical, is recognizably developed from a similar base. What Honda appears to be doing is testing a new technology that might be seen as a risk to the company’s reputation if it should fail, so it’s using a name that will allow it to save face should things not go according to plan. If it succeeds, expect the Mugen Shinden to quickly morph into the Honda Shinden.

And in one major, high-profle area, Big Red is stacking the deck. John McGuinness, 17-time winner at the Isle of Man TT, has been brought in to pilot the Shinden at the 2012 TT Zero. There is still a £10,000 ($16,000) prize for the frst electric bike to average over 100 mph for the full lap. MotoCzysz just missed the mark last year, leaving the prize up for grabs. McGuinness can probably do 100-mph laps in his sleep, and the bike certainly looks capable. Output is said to be 122 bhp, a fairly conservative number, and weight is listed at 573 lbs., which suggests that the battery is probably over 15-kwh capacity. The combination should easily produce a lap at over the “ton.”

What of the other e-bikes? The winners of the 2011 FIM e-Power Championship, the German Münch team, will be leasing nine updated versions of its 2011 bike, the TTE-2, to teams in 2012. This bike makes just under 110 bhp, but is a relative featherweight at 462 lbs. Lease price is about $65,000.

Other electric motorcycle companies have not yet shown hardware or revealed plans for racing in 2012, but with the announcement by Mugen-Honda, things have really changed in the development feld. Companies like Brammo, Zero, MotoCzysz, Lightning, Mission and others are tiny compared to the major motorcycle manufacturers. Will the pace of innovation now radically accelerate?

Maybe not: The specs on the Mugen racer are not spectacular, and several of the other companies mentioned have been running much more powerful motors. The Shinden’s relatively heavy weight also indicates that the battery is not some trick, lightweight, new development. The package looks to be quite conventional, with the effort aimed at a balance between motor output and battery energy that will give the kind of average speed over distance needed at the Island.

But regardless of the apparent conservatism of this initial foray, Mugen-Honda is a big dog in a group of puppies. The small companies have been tough, creative and innovative, and the playing feld has remained relatively level. That’s about to change. My hope is that Mugen-Honda acts to inspire, rather than discourage, the inventive spirit that has so far characterized this fedgling industry.

John McGuiness will almost certainly become the first eRacer to break the 100 mph lap record at this year's TT Zero, riding Mugen's thinly veiled Honda eSuperbike.