Electric Motorcycles: Nuts and Volts | DRAWING THE LINE

Should magazines test and report on electric bikes differently?

Show a new electric motorcycle, and you'll immediately raise three questions: range, range, and range. That's something of an exaggeration, of course, but you get the idea. Range remains the central issue facing electric vehicles today.

Once people buy electric vehicles and gain day-to-day, real-world experience, range becomes less of a concern. Experience will tell an owner, for instance, that the daily commute will leave the battery with a quarter charge, and overnight charging will replenish that by the morning. But longer trips or unusual situations can still create “range anxiety.” Where is charging available and when? Will there be a wait for hookup? Until batteries have a lot more power, range will remain a major concern.

For people who don’t own an electric bike but have an interest and want to know more, where can they go for information? The manufacturers make claims, but are they real-world accurate or exaggerated to hype the product?

That's when they turn to magazines, but how accurate is that information? Sometimes it's not even close. An interesting situation surfaced with Harley-Davidson's Project LiveWire prototype recently. Harley doesn't state kWh energy capacity or range in the specs, leaving one writer at another magazine to estimate capacity at about 14 kWh. I've designed the chassis for Mission Motors' electric bike and know pretty closely the volume and weight of a 14 kWh battery. I estimate the Harley battery at something closer to 6 kWh, so it's obvious that the magazines may not be as familiar with the new technology as they need to be to really help buyers understand these vehicles.

That’s why I suggest that magazines (and blogs) should test and report on electric bikes differently than they do internal-combustion machines. Unlike conventional motorcycles, where the manufacturers’ figures are generally pretty close to what magazines report, the situation is different when it comes to electric bikes. Measuring battery capacity, for example, isn’t like putting 5 gallons of gas in a tank to confirm its capacity. The magazines may never be able to accurately measure the kilowatt-hour (kWh) capacity of a battery without taking the bike to a sophisticated electrical laboratory, as this kind of measurement is complex and often dependent on variables including temperature and time. Different labs might even come up with significantly different figures. As a result, magazines might have to use manufacturers’ battery power figures without independent confirmation.

What magazines can do independently is carefully check range so potential owners have a reliable, repeatable benchmark. By laying out a route that’s part urban/suburban, part freeway, and part rural, and noting starting time and ending time, testers can report average speed and distance. By having a pickup available, testers could run the bike until it stops. If the bike has a “limp home” mode, the performance at the end of battery life could be noted, answering important questions such as whether the limp mode is adequate for freeway use or just too slow.

It would be best to run through the whole course two or three times to determine if the results are consistent and repeatable. Considered alongside motor power and torque figures from the dyno, and independent weight measurements, readers could begin to assemble the kind of mental picture of electric bikes that they already have for internal-combustion machines, relating specifications to their own experience of performance.

With better information will come predictability, and with predictability will come the kind of confidence that we already have with ICE bikes. Confidence is really what we lack with electrics at this point, and it’s something that the magazines can help build with testing procedures that are a bit different from what we’re used to. We still want to know about speed—straight line and cornering speed both—and about ergonomics and all the rest. That’s easy once we help to eliminate some of the mystery that still surrounds electric bikes.

The dyno doesn’t care if a bike is internal combustion or electric powered, like this Brammo is. Other tests are different.