Kilowatt Conversion: Riding Electric

August 2, 2011
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
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Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

Our final shakedown test at THunderhill helped to get baselines settings for the upcoming ReFuel event at Laguna Seca.
Those of you who think e-bikes are just a fad better think twice. At the current rate of development, electric motorcycles are set to fast replace ICE designs.

I’ve suddenly found myself at a rather strange crossroads in my motocycle life. And like most major milestones, this one seemed to come out of nowhere, staging a ninja-like silent (literally) attack on my senses! Since signing on to race for electric motorcycle manufacturer Brammo in the 2011 TTXGP Series, several of my most strongly held two-wheeled opinions have begun to change. 

Typing this column, I have a handful of tests and the opening double-header race weekend under my belt so far. My desire to get back in the super-(ion)-charged saddle increases exponentially after every session aboard the bike and every day spent working with the stellar team of guys from Brammo. Mere days ago I was attempting to wring every last kilowatt-hour of juice out of the Empulse RR around Laguna Seca in the recent Speedventure ReFuel event (see Part 4 of the Brammo feature for details), yet I already find myself counting down the days until our next race, Round 2 of the TTXGP championship at Laguna. Heck, I’m even looking forward to the sure-to-be-over-crowded-and-probably-sketchy trackday that will be our final pre-event shakedown; this is the kind of event that typically represents the down side or “work” part of racing motorcycles for a living.

Why is this desire to ride so surprising? A quick glance at the Brammo Empulse RR’s spec sheet reveals a motorcycle that in the world of spark-and-flame could be mistaken for a middleweight cruiser or an older, entry-level standard (think pre-fuel injection Suzuki SV650) at best. So how has such a numerically-unimpressive motorcycle even begun to win over the most die-hard motojournalist, one with a decade-long tenure that includes testing

Unlike some of the one-off  ultra-expensive competition they could potentially be facing  Brammos racebike is based on their soon-to-be-released Empulse production model.
Though its stats read like a tame entry-level standard, the Empulse RR still has a few surprises up its sleeve.

everything from fire-breathing flat trackers on the Mile to World Superbike and MotoGP machines around Europe’s best circuits? Not to mention a road racing background that includes professional level podiums as well as a pair of TTXGP wins.

How can the prospect of swinging a leg over an 85 hp (at best) machine possibly get such a life-long horsepower junkie’s blood boiling to this extent? If I could break it down and tell you in one simple way, I would, but it’s a tad more complicated than that. Not to mention it’s something I’m still trying to fully figure out myself. There’s something so different and strangely intriguing about riding a sportbike propelled by a giant oversized (and liquid-cooled) radio controlled car motor which is powered by a load of computer batteries all piggybacked together that ticks several boxes, providing new sensations that traditional motorcycles are unable to accomplish after so many years of similarity. What exactly those boxes are, what it is that an electric sportbike produces that is so compelling, well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

If electric vehicle development keeps progressing at its current heightened rate, some day (relatively soon) possibly taking over as the primary source of propulsion for our daily transportation and even recreational needs, today will likely be looked at as the beginning of the revolution, the spring board into the golden years. I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads. All this EV technology is just something to please overly-cautious environmentalists and government officials who are trying to garner as much of the green vote as possible, right? Ponder this: There are currently 1.2 trillion barrels of assessable oil left embedded in our earth’s crust. And while this sounds like an utterly massive amount, plenty to last well beyond our lifetime here on planet earth, at our current rate of consumption there’s might only be enough of that glorious black gold to last another 35 years! Forget about the “future,” the world as we know it will run out in our lifetimes. Now how far fetched does the idea of an all-electric MotoGP Series sound?

The models planned for the new lineup are the Empulse 6.0  Empulse 8.0 and Empulse 10.0
Today’s new electric designs have Steve Atlas brimming with excitement as they begin to offer competitive acceleration. The models planned for the new lineup are the Empulse 6.0  Empulse 8.0 and Empulse 10.0.

Thankfully, after experiencing the electric racing world first-hand, I can attest that if this is our fate, it’s far brighter than you probably think – I know it has opened my eyes. The Brammo Empulse RR I pilot is merely the very tip, of the tip, of the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If EV motorcycle progress were plotted along the internal combustion timeline, we would currently be in the early 20th century – only one or two manufacturers making production bikes for consumers and boardtrackers racing is the big ticket. This is roughly the phase where electric motorcycle development currently sits, and yet in many ways it’s still very impressive in comparison to today’s Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) machines.

There’s no question that electric sportbikes, when technology allows them to be produced with even the same power to weight ratio as today’s middleweight ICE bikes, will undoubtedly leave your flabber-well-and-truly-gasted the first time you twist the right grip. The seamlessly instant acceleration and sheer torque provided by a powerful electric motor, pumped through a multi-gear transmission and driving a relatively lightweight bike (think Yamaha R6), should very likely produce 0-60 mph times of sub-2 seconds and get down the quarter mile in the low-eights, and will do so with ease so long as the front wheel can be kept on the ground. The potential alone sends blood rushing to my fingertips and leaves a half-formed expletive hanging in my throat.

What is it Like to Ride?

“What is it like to ride?” “How does it compare to a ‘normal’ motorcycle?” These are the first questions I’m asked by all who enquire about electric motorcycles, so let’ s take a look at this. First of all, the basic principles of riding a motorcycle are exactly the same. The execution and resulting sensations, however, are quite different.

First is the feeling of acceleration when twisting the throttle of a nearly silent two-wheeler. While one would likely think a lack of noise would reduce the resulting feeling to the rider, the opposite seems to hold true. The sensation of that much acceleration with a near complete lack of any sound whatsoever greatly increases the feeling of speed due to the way in which it builds — in complete stealth (think really fast rollercoaster). Though I also think some of this comes from experiencing something we never have before, something so completely foreign, that initially it feels far more dramatic.

The Empulse claimed weight is 390 lbs  less than the curb weights of a typical Supersport  with the bikes profile quite narrow.
One of the biggest differences between gas-powered motorcycles and electric bikes is the lack of engine braking on the battery-powered machines.

Next up in the “whoa, dude, hold on a second” department is the complete lack of engine braking. I’m talking so little that it makes a Yamaha TZ250 two-stroke feel like an ass-dragger! How can this be? No transmission, that’s how. While a two-stroke engine doesn’t create any back-torque through engine compression, it does have a multi-speed tranny that causes drag, as well as far more moving internal engine parts that add up to give it more drag. The Brammo Empulse free-wheels so well with so little back-torque that upon letting off the throttle it actually feels as it it’s accelerating. It also requires a massive amount of braking force and effort to get slowed down as you don’t have the engine helping at all.

Riding an electric bike with zero engine braking can also creates a wide variety of new situations at times, requiring far different lines, very precise throttle control and adaptive techniques. Because this is so new, I’m still learning these things in leaps and bounds every time out, another reason I so look forward to getting back in the saddle – the rate of progression is massive. Also, many of the solutions are a matter of personal preference and technique, and I’m going to keep the good tips and tricks I’ve gathered tucked away until we have a championship or two in our back pockets. One small hint: Where there is elevation changes, one needs to factor in Sir Issac Newton’s laws in a whole new way. I’ll let you figure out the rest.

Because there is no transmission, you have to pay a bit more attention to what speed each corner is and adjust how aggressively the throttle is opened, as you cannot select a different gear to obtain the desired exit rpm. One simply has to adjust with their right wrist. This is made easier by proper programming of the machine’s motor controller as well as all electric motors’ ability to produce instant torque. Throw in having to train your left hand to not go for the clutch when

Style-wise  the Empulse delivers a more familiar-looking motorcycle feel than its predecessor
All differences aside, the experience of riding an electric motorcycle remains much the same as any other ICE design.

decelerating and keeping your left foot from pawing at the shift lever when under power, and, as you can see, there is more to going green than one might think. But before all of you die-hard motorcyclists with “ICE” in your veins get too afraid, the reality of the situation is that all of the nuances described above still equate to a total difference of maybe 10%. Everything else required to ride a motorcycle safely and properly remains the same; it is a motorcycle with two wheels and a right-hand twist throttle, after all.

So when the time comes, and it looks increasingly more likely, that you find yourself swinging a leg over a two-wheel machine that plugs into a socket and produces power measured in kilowatt-hours, fear not, for you will likely have just as much fun as you do now, if not more. And it will cost mere pennies to refill the tank with “juice.”

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