American inventor Sylvester Roper invented a steam-powered motorcycle over 140 years ago. The concept of two-wheeled propulsion has come a long way since. How will the motorcycle evolve in the future?
In 1869, Massachusetts inventor Sylvester Roper built what is credited by most as the world’s first motorcycle. Powered by a twin-cylinder steam engine, the 25 mph machine was stoked to life via a charcoal-fired stove located under the rider’s seat. Flash forward seven score years and we have 150-hp production motorcycles capable of over 180 mph with computer controlled fuel injection and ABS. Quite a bit of technological ground covered since the days of Sylvester Roper. Which begs the question – what does the future hold for motorcycles?
Due to environmental concerns and the fact that $4/gallon gas is now a reality, the desire for alternatives to the internal combustion engine are more in demand than ever before. So, like automobiles, future motorcycles figure to be greener, more efficient machines. Who knows, 50 years from now riders may look back at our gas-engine beauties the same way we look at Roper’s steam-powered relic.
Plug-in electrics, hybrids, fuel cells and even compressed air all hold promise in the years to come. And the next big thing in motorcycle design may already be out there. So let’s take a fresh look at the alternative two-wheelers.
Electric powered motorcycles are the most developed alternative technology available. And electric power seems well suited to a two-wheeled design, as a lighter overall weight means smaller motors and fewer heavy batteries are required than those on an electric car. The electric motor also figures to be a good application for a commuter motorcycle, with immediate torque delivery for quick spurts of power (in theory, as we have yet to sample any electric-only designs yet, although we’re working on it.)
Electric vehicles like the Vectrix ZEV scooter, produce no emissions and operate at a high level of efficiency.
Right now the biggest drawbacks to electric motorcycles are low top speeds and short ranges. Most bikes are limited to 50 mph top speed, or less, with ranges under the 50-mile mark as well – usually under 20 miles. Breakthroughs in battery technology, however, may solve some of these shortcomings, with new Lithium-based batteries promising lighter weight and more potential power.
On the plus side, those few miles traveled will be affordable ones for the operator, as some estimates place the electric cost per mile as low as $0.02 or less. (Compare that to a 25 mpg gas car, which at $4/gallon costs $0.16 per mile – at $4 gas even a 70 mpg conventional gas scooter is over a nickel per mile.)
Another advantage to electricity as an alternative source of motorcycle power is the delivery infrastructure is already in place, with electric bikes needing only an empty socket to get juiced back up. While charge time takes longer than filling up at the pump, getting to the station is a lot quicker and the monthly payment of one utility bill would replace all those depressing, budget-shrinking fuel stops.
The environmental benefits of the electric motorcycle come from zero emissions produced. The catch being that while fossil fuels are not burned directly during the operation of an electric motorcycle, the majority of electricity in the U.S. is still generated from coal-burning powerplants. Electric designs are not wasteful, however, with claims of up to 90% efficiency and the big green pay-off comes with the future development of renewable energy as a significant contributor to the electric grid – still decades away but a growing sector nonetheless.
A fold-away commuter and internet connection, the BOBBY is still a Yamaha prototype, but a quirky example of two-wheeled electric transportation.
In its infancy, the electric motorcycle industry is being developed by intrepid start-ups and large volume manufacturers alike. Here are a few designs that we’ve come across:
The Big Four have dabbled with electric designs in the past, often revealing them as concept bikes at yearly bike shows. Yamaha unveiled a handful of electric designs at last year’s Tokyo Motor Show, with our favorite from the tuning fork engineers being the BOBBY. An all-black electric scooter that resembles a fold up bicycle, the BOBBY was designed as a stow away commuter. The futuristic design sports some interesting features, including the ability for the owner to turn it on and off with their cell phone. The scooter is also internet capable, endearing it to an online site such as ourselves. The BOBBY remains a prototype.
The Vectrix ZEV scooter is currently available for $10,999, with the New York City and Sacramento both utilizing the electric design as a fleet vehicle.
With a top speed of 62 mph and 35-55 mile range, the Vectrix ZEV (Zero Emissions Vehicle) scooter is one of the few production electric motorcycles currently available. Weighing in at 510lbs, the Vectrix can accelerate from 0-50 in 6.8 seconds powered by a brushless DC motor connected to Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries. Resembling a large-displacement maxi-scooter the Vectrix takes 3-5 hours to recharge.
The Vectrix became available in the States as a 2007 model and is catching on. Following the lead of New York City, Sacramento is currently experimenting with the Vectrix scooter as a fleet machine for parking enforcement and police department duties. The Vectrix scooter also has that extra cachet of celebrity endorsement, with Jay Leno and Leonardo DiCaprio both new owners. Available for $10,999, California residents are eligible for $1500 rebate from CARB (California Air Resources Board) for the Vectrix due to its zero emissions status.
Looking more like a conventional motorcycle, the Brammo Enertia delivers 18 horsepower to the rear wheel via a DC motor wired to lithium-ion-phosphate batteries.
Located about 15 miles from MotorcycleUSA HQ, the Ashland, Oregon-based Brammo Motorsport produces a more conventional motorcycle with its Enertia bike. A chain-driven design, the Enertia features a lightweight carbon fiber monocoque chassis surrounding a carriage of Valence Lithium Ion Phosphate batteries. Wired up to a DC motor, the Enertia claims peak performance numbers of 18 horsepower and 28 lb-ft of torque. Weighing in at 280 lbs, the power figures equate to a top speed of 50+ mph with a 35-45 mile range. Recharging the Enertia takes less than three hours and the company promises that, even if the electricity comes from a coal-fired plant, there is a 92% reduction of CO2 emissions compared to those from a standard car.
Founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Craig Bramscher with the Enertia’s designer Brian Wismann, Brammo Motorsports is accepting reservations for the $11,995 Enertia, with plans for delivery to customers in the second half of 2008. The firm also has a serialized limited production model available for $14,995. Stay tuned for more info about the Enertia motorcycle on MCUSA.
The electric Zero X is powered by lithium-ion batteries lasting 40 miles and rechargeable within two hours.
A potential solution to one of the biggest enemies of off-road riding, sound regulation, the Zero X live up to its name with zero sound and zero emissions. The unique electric off-road design is the brainchild of Neal Saiki, a mountain bike designer and the founder of Zero Motorcycles.
Powered by a brushed permanent magnet motor and Lithium-Ion batteries, the Zero X claims an impressive 23 horsepower peak. A 40-mile range equates to more than a couple of motos at the local MX track and the Zero X can be recharged in just two hours. With suspension and braking similar to a standard gas MXer, the Zero X tips the scales at a freakishly light 140 lbs with an 18-lb aluminum frame.
We haven’t had a chance to sample Zero Motorcycles’ wares, yet, but a recent test ride by Jeff Emig left the former MX star impressed. And the Zero X is a commercial success too, with the company having trouble keeping up with demand for its $7450 design (a version with 10% more powerful motor is available for $8350). Reports have also surfaced that the Santa Cruz, California, company may release an on-road street-legal version of its promising design.
Electrobike founder Marcus Hays makes a call celebrating his all-electric design’s new Land Speed record oft 64.848 mph at the 2007 Bonneville Speed Trials.
We met Marcus Hays and his San Francisco-based electrobike crew at the Bonneville Salt Flats, where the Bay Area resident got his all-electric 139-lb design up to an impressive 64.848 mph. Described on the firm’s website as “the gateway from an automobile dependent world to a brighter, cleaner, less polluted world with lower CO2 and a lot more smiles” the electrobike is available in a number of forms, as the electrobike can be kitted as an all-electric, human/hybrid or gas/hybrid with prices ranging from $7,500 to $17,500.
With short-distance urban commuting in mind, the Pi features a 30-mile range at 20 mph – the all-electric Pi E unit incorporating a brushless 48V motor with NiMH battery power. The last time we spoke with Hays, he was working on a portable Lithium battery system that would work similar to the removable electric battery packs for electric power tools – allowing a commuter to ride to work and pop out the battery to plug into a portable charger. Oh, and to make the electrobike as green as possible, Hays recently unveiled a portable solar charger. We hope to test the electrobike in the near future.
Did we say the electric motorcycle has low top speeds? Well, the Killacycle is the obvious exception to the rule, with the electric-powered drag racer having logged a dizzying 7.824 quarter-mile run with a top speed of 168 mph. The wild design of owner Bill Dube, many people may recognize the Killacycle name from the Youtube video, which showed its operator attempt a burnout only to slam out of control into a parked minivan – almost living up to the bike’s moniker.
The Piaggio HyS hybrid system is slated to be fixed on the three-wheeled MP3, with an electric motor assisting the traditional gas-powered engine.
So where does the Killacycle’s dangerous electric potency come from? Described on the bike’s website as basically a “a giant cordless drill with wheels” the Killacycle sources the power of “374 volts of electricity stored in 1210 small, but powerful, ‘nano-phospate cells (batteries) provided by A123 Systems.” Routed through a motor controller from Cafe Electric, a pair of motors transfer a mind-blowing 500 horsepower to the rear wheel via chain drive. But perhaps the most amazing thing about the Killacycle is the fact that each run down the drag strip burns up less than $0.07 worth of energy!
Piaggio HyS Hybrid
Alongside the development of all-electric motorcycles have been gas/electric hybrid designs like the Piaggio HyS, which we have already featured in our Piaggio HyS Hybrid Scooter – First Look. Planned to be utilized on the Vespa LX and three-wheeled Piaggio MP3, the HyS hybrid system incorporates a regular gas-powered scooter engine, mated to an electric motor attached to the rear wheel hub on the swingarm.
The idea for the HyS is to incorporate the advantages of both electric and internal-combustion power, with the torquey electric motor acting as a supplemental power source. Piaggio claims the surge of juice from the electric motor supplies “about 85% extra performance” when coupled with the gas engine. The wasted energy of a traditional gas engine is also saved on the HyS with the electric power charging at regular cruising speeds, as well as during braking, making the Piaggio design extremely efficient.
The electric juice on the HyS is transmitted directly to the rear wheel when quick acceleration is needed.
The bottom line, according to Piaggio, is a 140 mpg fuel economy. The HyS system can also be switched between three modes, one of which is all-electric, and with a 12-mile electric-only range, the HyS can effectively run as a plug-in electric for short-distance commuters.
Fuel cells are yet another alternative energy power source for motorcycles. Producing electric current from a constant fuel source, fuel cells can be created from a number of materials, but the most common system is a proton exchange membrane (PEM) utilizing hydrogen as a fuel. The short and simple explanation for the PEM fuel cell process is it takes in hydrogen and oxygen, producing the electric current used as power source, with the byproduct being that most common of molecular compounds – H2O.
While water is the lone “pollutant” coming out of the tailpipe, instead of CO2, the environmental catch is energy must be consumed to produce the hydrogen fuel. The widespread use of Hydrogen as a transportation fuel source would also necessitate a new infrastructure to store and deliver it. Still, fuel cell-powered vehicles are being developed in both the four- and two-wheeled variety. Many Japanese manufacturers have displayed fuel-cell prototype motorcycles, but Suzuki may have the fuel-cell bike closest to production.
With its single-sided front and rear suspension and exposed unconventional frame the Suzuki Crosscage created a stir at its Tokyo Motor Show debut. The real story, however, was the Hydrogen PEM fuel cells located underneath the wild styling.
Making its debut at the Tokyo Motor Show, the aptly-named Suzuki Crosscage prototype drew the most attention for its unconventional exposed frame and futuristic styling lines. But the big news was inside, with the Crosscage running off hydrogen-fed PEM fuel cells, which produced electric current routed to a motor attached to the rear wheel inside the swingarm.
The Crosscage’s fuel cells are produced by the British firm Intelligent Energy, which announced last month that it has further strengthened its collaboration with Suzuki. In a press release Intelligent Energy stated its “high performance fuel cell power systems coupled with Suzuki’s commitment to low-emissions transport mean the reality of hydrogen powered motorcycles is closer than ever.”
IE has already created its own fuel-cell motorcycle dubbed the ENV and is also an innovator in small-scale hydrogen production systems, which create hydrogen from various liquid fuels or natural gas. Now with the backing of a large-volume manufacturer, the likelihood of a commercially viable production fuel cell motorcycle is looking much brighter.
Intelligent Energy is collaborating with Suzuki for the Crosscage, but IE has created their own fuel cell bike too – the ENV.
Compressed air powering a motorcycle? The idea behind an air-powered motorcycle may sound strange, but the technology is straightforward and been around for a while now. Compressed air stores energy in high-pressure tanks, which is then shot into an air engine producing mechanical energy. The application is being applied now to four-wheeled designs and for a very informative video about the nuts and bolts of an air engine check out this video about the air car.
The compressed air is produced by, surprise, a compressor, which is most often powered by electricity. So, like its electric and fuel cell alternative cousins, an air-powered motorcycle produces no direct emissions, but does contribute secondary C02 from fossil-fuel derived electricity. Disadvantages, especially for a motorcycle application, include the safety and storage of compressed air tanks. On the plus side, however, compressed air shows great potential, as storage in metal tanks would be less costly and more eco-friendly than the production and disposal of electric batteries.
(The concept of using compressed air as an energy storage system is being put into effect on a large scale at the Iowa Stored Energy Park, which stores the extra energy generated by a wind farm during off-peak use for release during times high-demand.)
Top speeds of 18 mph and 7 mile range may not be headline grabbers, but British inventor Jem Stansfield’s air-powered moped is a clever, green two-wheeled design.
As far as air-powered motorcycles go, there aren’t a whole lot out there but we did stumble across one inventor. Described on various websites as a “former sheepherder and current rocket scientist/inventor” Jem Stansfield made a rudimentary air-powered bicycle, basically a single-piston air cannon launching a stationary bike. One of the British hosts of the Planet Mechanics television show, Stansfield has since upgraded his original design to a more sophisticated ride.
The latest Stansfield special is powered by compressed air stored in carbon fiber scuba tanks. Air is then routed through rotary air engines, which get the modified Puch moped up to it 18 mph top speed. The pneumatic design gets only about seven miles before needing a recharge. You may not see Stansfield’s bike in dealer showroom anytime soon, but it’s a bit of garage eco-gearhead ingenuity deserving of recognition!
So, while riders won’t be trading in their ’08 superbikes for air-powered mopeds, the era of alternative motorcycles is creeping into the mainstream. Stay tuned to MotorcycleUSA.com for updates about the motorbikes we will be riding into the future.
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