Electric motorcycles are “cleaner” than gas bikes, we’re told. Safer, lower maintenance, and more accessible for novice riders, too. That’s all well and good-noble, even. But what about those of us who only care about going fast? Not only are electric racebikes much slower than gas-fired counterparts, they also weigh too much and run out of juice too soon. Fail.
Our disappointment is not evidence of any inherent limitation with e-bike technology, says Marc Fenigstein, CEO and Co-Founder of Bay Area eBike start-up BRD Motorcycles, but, rather, a problem of application. Electric superbikes are a non-starter, Fenigstein says-the energy requirements necessary to compete with a 400-pound, 186-mph internal-combustion superbike are simply too high. But what if you draw a bead on something more accessible, like a 250cc, four-stroke motocross bike? This is what BRD has done with its forthcoming RedShift, and unlike eSuperbikes that pale in comparison to their I.C.E. competition, a short test ride confirms the RedShift could be the best Lites-class MX bike on the market—regardless of propulsion.
A competitive 250 MX bike weighs much less than a superbike, has a lower top speed and a shorter effective range, so the energy equation for an electric bike in this space adds up. The RedShift still doesn’t achieve range parity with its gas competition—it offers approximately two-thirds the range of a conventional MXer’s 1.5-gallon fuel tank, Fenigstein says—but it is beyond performance parity. “Our value proposition is this,” Fenigstein says: “Range is what it is, but if that works for you, there’s nothing faster around a race track.”
BRD has done extensive side-by-side comparison testing against 250cc four strokes, both off-road and on supermoto tracks, and claims that riders of all skill levels consistently lap faster on the RedShift electric bike. “Diving into corners,” Fenigstein says, “you’re not banging down gears, so the rear stays settled and you hit the apex every time. And out of the corner, once you find the limit of traction you just hold it there. There’s no shifting, so there’s no need to constantly reset traction. It’s like surfing—you just ride the wave of torque, from 15 to 25 to 75 mph.”
That’s the real reason why the BRD crew—all hardcore motorcycle enthusiasts—is so stoked about eBikes. Done right, an electric bike offers a superior riding experience to even the best gas bike.
“Everything we’ve tried to make gas motors do for the past 120 years—adding displacement, a transmission, fuel-injection mapping, traction control—is intended to emulate the smooth, perfect torque curve of an electric motor,” Fenigstein says. “‘It feels electric’ used to be the ultimate compliment for a gas engine. Our electric bike connects the rider’s wrist to the rear tire with a level of precision and immediacy that simply isn’t possible in a gas bike. We really believe it’s a better bike.”
Clean technology is cool, and an essential element of broadening motorcycling’s appeal to the general public, but for those of us who just want to ride fast, BRD shifts the debate over the efficacy of electric motorcycles into much more interesting territory. No longer are eBikes just for “the nicest people;” sometimes, nice guys wanna roost, too.
Battery Tech: The Elephant in the eBike Room
If there’s one barrier to electric motorcycle advancement, it’s battery technology: “A battery is not a better solution than a tank of gas, that’s the unfortunate reality,” says BRD’s Marc Fenigstein. “Tat’s what’s holding back a complete transition in the marketplace.”
Current battery technology is expensive—more than $1000 per kilowatt-hour, Fenigstein says. With some electric motorcycles demanding as much as 11 kWh of energy, you can understand why OEMs interested in the eBike space are investing in new battery technology to bring that cost down. BMW, which wants to become the world’s premier provider of eVehicle technology, is currently cooperating with Toyota to increase the capacity and performance of its lithium-ion cells, aiming for an improvement of 6 percent a year. This slim increase will have to carry the industry until so-called “ion-air” battery technology—promising 10 times the performance of lithium-ion with 25 percent less weight—is anticipated to appear sometime around 2020.
Waiting for technology to catch up is one strategy. Doing the best you can with currently available technology, which is the route that BRD has chosen, is another alternative.
“Our business model doesn’t depend on magic battery technology saving the day,” Fenigstein says. “We aren’t expecting anything more than incremental battery improvement into perpetuity. We’re just making sure that our bikes take advantage of the latest commercially available battery technology, and work outward from there.”