Backroad Ramblings July 2010

July 29, 2010
Jason Giacchino
Jason Giacchino
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

A freelancer and published novelist Jason is currently the editor in chief of Mountain Bike Tales digital magazine and holds a State University of New York degree in applied science with a minor in journalism. When not hunched over a computer monitor, he can be found playing outside in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York.

The electric motorcycle is partly irksome because it crosses a clearly defined line that has always separated motorheads from computer geeks.
The electric motorcycle is partly irksome to our Rambling Man because it crosses a clearly defined line separating ‘motorheads’ from ‘computer geeks.’

Wide Open Rheostat

I don’t know about you, but I feel a strange sense of conflict whenever a company proclaims having harnessed the future by creating an all-electric motorcycle. And please don’t misunderstand, I’m all for leaving as minimal a carbon footprint as possible and our reliance upon fossil fuels is a hot subject made even hotter with recent events taking place in the Gulf of Mexico.

Surprisingly, what troubles me has less to do with the oft-laughable performance figures some of these electrical-powered scoots are boasting. I realize that in time as battery-technology advances and inevitable shavings of weight come to pass, perhaps today’s fairly dismal spec sheets will become more reasonable (and I suppose little things like the time between chargings and the duration of the recharge period will improve as well). These improvements are all but inevitable and there’s no need to take my word for it; just compare today’s literclass horsepower ratings to those of, say, your average internal combustion 4-stroke mill of the early 1900s. Or for that matter, compare today’s numbers even to those only a few years ago. Technology, it seems, marches on in accordance with our calendar.

No, what bothers me about the whole premise of the electric-motor powered motorcycle is a lot more superficial, shallow, and perhaps even hypothetical; namely who in the world is going to be able to tinker with these things?

Until now the motorcycle has traditionally represented a more-accessible alternative to the ever-increasingly complex automobile. Many of the principles small-engine and backyard mechanics had discovered and honed throughout the years transferred easily to the motorcycle, allowing for routine maintenance and moderate repairs to be performed at home for a fraction of the cost of dealer-hourly rates. No need to reiterate the simple idea that bikes, not unlike cars, have been getting steadily more and more complicated as time goes on; anyone with even moderate knowledge of motorcycles realizes that concepts such as electronic fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, fuel and air sensors, pollution controls, fully programmable ignitions, and even throttle-by-wire systems have been creeping steadily into our realm. Sure some of these innovations are credited as improving reliability and making for a safer riding experience, but again the trouble is that many of us non-certified technicians (read: backyard mechanics) simply cannot adjust as quickly as the technology is advancing.

The electric-powered motor may have a drastic affect on what it means to be a motorcyclist. Gone will be the days of backyard mechanics performing work on their own machines.
The electric-powered motor may have a drastic effect on what it means to be a motorcyclist.

The problem with the electric motorcycle, in my opinion anyway, is that it finally crosses the line that has always separated the “motorheads” in high school from the “computer nerds”. The line has been steadily dwindling for the past decade or so as indicated by the fact that racetracks, once lined with oil-stained folks boasting grease under their fingernails and a set of wrenches at the ready, have been disappearing. Replacing them are individuals in pristine lab coats with laptops and thick wiring harnesses dangling from them.

I’m all for the “change is good” campaign, but can’t help but feel that the electric-bike is going to shift the very dynamic of what it means to be a motorcyclist. No, really, think about it for a moment: Take away the noise, the smells of un-burnt hydrocarbons, and, at least now anyway, much of the performance of the motorcycle and what are you left with? An adult-sized version of your kid’s Power Wheels would be my guess.

But perhaps the biggest disgrace of all could come in the form of hop-up-potential or in this case, lack thereof. Most human beings with even a moderate knowledge of the internal combustion process have some concept of freeing up a restricted exhaust, opening up a choked airbox, or increasing the size of the cylinder/piston are means of boosting output, but how many of us have even the faintest idea how to extract extra ponies from an electric motor?

I can speak fairly intelligently on many failed attempts in hoping to do just that back in my slot-cars/ model railroad days. For me, and many of the kids in my neighborhood, going from a battery-powered RC car to a gas one wasn’t just an upgrade; it was a rite of passage! Once you learned the nuances of properly mixing your gas and oil and mastered the art of firing those little two-strokes to smoky life, there was simply no going back to the battery-powered variation you got at Sears.

For many the process of working on their motorcycle is a fulfilling process. Electric motorcycles jeopardize this enjoyment by placing repairs out of reach for the average motorcycle enthusiast.
For many, working on a motorcycle is a fulfilling process. Will it be the same when there’s an electric motor instead of a conventional internal combustion mill to wrench on?

Maybe I’m being pessimistic here. Maybe the day will arrive when pulling up to and sliding your electric hog into a diagonal parking position in front of the roughest biker bar in town will result in comments like, “sweet oversized voltage cables” or “where did you snag that trick power controller unit?”

After all, a quick Google search does reveal a fairly active tuner scene on such current electric-powered goodies as golf carts, scooters, and electric bicycles, even if the common denominator for increasing performance seems to be simply bypassing factory-installed governors.

Perhaps I’m just especially sensitive about this whole subject on account of the fact that at this article’s writing, I’m in the final phases of throwing in the hat on diagnosing an electrical anomaly that’s been plaguing my trusty but rusty 1992 Ford Festiva (with only 86,000 miles on the internal-combustion clock). Despite painstakingly checking every wire, connection, and switch, I’ve been unable to lock down the short resulting in blown fuses whenever the headlights or turn signals are activated. Yeah, tinkering with the flow of electrons has never been my strong suit, but I suppose I can’t speak on behalf of everyone: Just look at the car audio industry!