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From Zero To Now

July 01, 2011

Electric Motorcycle Manufacturer Charged To Go Mainstream

By Jamie Elvidge

It was Zero Motorcycles’ first formal press introduction, and journalists from around the globe had gathered to sample the entire range of 2011 Zero products—from the motocross-intended MX to the new Cross Urban (XU) street commuter.

Changes to the Zero lineup are vast, and include a switch from chain to belt drive for the street, and for the dual-sport, D and DS models, as well as suspension and brake upgrades, and “a more intelligent and rugged” powertrain for the entire line. The all-new XU model, intended for local commuting, features a removable battery pack, allowing owners who lack a street-level charging option to tote them into their home or office for charging.

A day spent riding the new models revealed a line of motorcycles that is improved, yet still constrained by the limitations of battery-size-to-output ratios. That said, the bikes that make the most sense are the dirt models intended for backyard MX tracks and trail riding. They offer enough power and suspension to keep things exciting without annoying the neighbors.

The street-legal models have a little farther to go, literally. Still, they are viable for those with a round-trip commute under 20 miles—provided you’re comfortable with the $10,000 price range.

To find out where Zero is today, and where they hope to go tomorrow, we caught up with Abe Askenazi, Zero’s new vice president of engineering, who was previously the senior director of analysis, test and engineering process at Buell Motorcycles.

American Motorcyclist: Who is the Zero motorcycle buyer?

Abe Askenazi: On the dirtbike side, the thing that’s really neat is the lack of noise, even more than the fuel advantage and the environmental consciousness of the product. As everyone involved in the AMA knows, there’ve been a lot of land closures lately, and it’s largely due to the noise issues and neighborhood complaints. So the people who will be interested in this product are people who have backyard tracks or land with trails, who want to come home after work and ride, or ride on the weekends, without disturbing anyone. The other thing we’re finding is that people who trail ride together can really enjoy a conversation for once, and better enjoy their surroundings.
On the street side, the average commute in the United States is about 20 miles, so these bikes are perfect for that. Socially, it’s an environmentally conscious product, so it’s more about the transportation side, the practicality and the green aspect.

Abe Askenazi

AM: Do you think the electric motorcycle movement will have a positive effect on the political issues surrounding off-road motorcycle usage?

AA: Absolutely. Most of the debate is about the noise issue. There is the erosion factor, but many trails are established in a way to be protective of that, so in that situation, the noise is what keeps coming back to us, and is what creates a challenge. So I think addressing that issue is going to have a huge effect.

AM: Is there a safety issue because the motorcycles don’t make enough noise?

AA: There is some discussion going on around that, not only for electric motorcycles, but for electric cars as well. I think a lot of people are imagining these bikes are completely silent, and they’re afraid of what that means, but you can hear the tires rolling, and the electric motor does make a sound, it’s just not a mechanical sound. I think it’s an imagined perception, and less of a reality.

AM: Do you see Americans gravitating toward electric motorcycles the way they are gravitating toward electric cars?

AA: Will it take over as a primary means of transportation around the entire country? It can’t. There are too many places where you can’t ride year-round, but there are lots of places where it is a possibility, California being one of them. Whether you’re talking about a gas-powered motorcycle or an electric one, either is more efficient and more fun than a car, but the electric motorcycles are much more approachable than regular motorcycles. If someone is considering a move to a gas motorcycle from his or her gas car, it would be easier to feel intimidated by needing to learn how to shift, how to use the powerband, and just by the idea you’re sitting on a hot engine. The Zeros are much more approachable. It’s a sport. It’s fun. And if you can have fun in a way that’s socially responsible, that’s even better.

AM: Where do you see Zero Motorcycles in five years?

AA: We will continue to make strides to be competitive against internal combustion motorcycles, and in addition we’re going to continue to enhance the electric aspects. We’re going to be pushing the boundaries of fun, efficiency and social consciousness.

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