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Backroad Ramblings July 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010
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!
Recent Backroad Ramblings
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Our Rambling Man ruminates on batteries – the bane of his powersports existence during the long New York winters. Future batteries might return to concepts developed by Mr. Edison more than 100 years ago.
Backroad Ramblings: Moto Decision Overload
Our Backroad Rambler considers the countless decisions modern motorcycle customers face and decides to trim his stock-pile of toys in a quest for simplicity.
Backroad Ramblings: Singletrack State of Mind
Distracted by the summer heat and other obligations, our Rambling Man shakes off the rust with an update on his balmy backroads adventures.
Backroad Ramblings: The Racers Almanac
In this month’s edition our rambler shakes off winter’s inactivity by subjecting his body and equipment to the harsh demands of motorcycle racing.
Backroad Ramblings: Conflict on a Grand Scale
Our rambler gets a lesson on the finer points of literary conflict when nature threatens to rob him of his KTM 450 EXC.
Backroad Ramblings: The Acrobatic Carport
Our Backroad Ramblings contributor returns with a winter tale of the Amazing Acrobatic Carport.
Backroad Ramblings: Operation Resuscitation
After ignoring one of his ATVs far too long, our rambler's negligence catches up with him during a jaunt through the local woods.

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selly -Crapping in your backyard  August 5, 2010 01:12 PM
I love the sentiment that somehow the days of tinkering and getting soaked in oil are something to missed. Please. Electric motorcycle will provide more "riding" time than tinkering time. Oh, and bikerrandy, feel free to crap in your own backyard, I don't want you spoiling mine. That comes from me not the government. I pay taxes and I don't like paying for oil spills and jerkoffs who want to spew crap in the air. You want to live like a pig, be my guest, just do it in your own house, not the public's.
Marc -electrics are actually MORE tunable  August 2, 2010 01:52 PM
Jason, While I appreciate the sentiment, your fears stem more from unfamiliarity than from reality. Electrics are actually tremendously tunable and hotrod-able, not to mention far simpler and therefore MORE accessible than internal combustion motors. Without getting into specifics, you need only look at everything from RC cars to gaming computers to see that folks are able to customize and soup up these machines at least as easily as gas motors. Sure it's a different set of skills and knowledge than tuning a carb, but it's still highly mechanical and the electrical side will be much easier than say creating a fuel injection map. To get a little more specific, electric motors are limited in output only by their ability to dump heat and how much battery you have on board. So you can tune the same bike to put out twice as much power if you only need to go half the distance. Try that with a gas bike. It'll be awhile, because we're still waiting on batteries, but the good news is that motor heads will always have plenty to play with.
AM -ELECTRIC HAS FUTURE  August 2, 2010 10:18 AM
Electric motorcycles and cars for that matter have a future. But only when they invent a charging system as fast as filling up your tank, with at least, an equivalent range and cost.Until then, they are definitely not an alternative for replacement. I can only imagine the cost and time involved to replace gas stations with electric charging. Maybe another 50 years of more. It's not even close yet.
CliveP -I look forward to electric  August 2, 2010 04:21 AM
No petrol, oil changes, air filters, spark plugs and an engine like a rattling bag of bolts.

Think electric produces torque pretty well also.

I tried briefly a Vectrix scoot and I have to say I liked it.

What about a bike with a mini nuclear reactor or something built in. No refueling for several lifetimes!

Yea I think pistons and so forth are getting a bit Iron age. I'll still have fun on a bike what ever powers it and if its less hassle to maintain then all the better.
Brent Meeker -Adding weight?  July 31, 2010 06:43 PM
As an engineering student - and teacher, I can tell you that the weight of a vehicle has almost no effect on its fuel efficiency IF you can recover its kinetic energy when you stop. And that's what adding batteries and an electric motor do in a hybrid like the Prius or the Volt. The electric propulsion system is reversible and can be used in place of brakes to stop the vehicle while recovering the energy and putting it back into the battery. This recovery isn't very efficient, but it's efficient enough that it more than makes up for the added weight.
Irv H -Borg drone  July 31, 2010 05:33 AM
Electric cars have been tried many times over the past century. They never worked before, and they're going to continue not working in the future. How does adding 500 pounds of batteries and electric motors to a GAS POWERED VEHICLE improve its mileage? Any engineering student can tell you that less weight means better fuel economy.
bikerrandy -electric motorcycles  July 29, 2010 09:30 PM
I'm a lot older than you and have the same feeling, Jason. Glad some younger guys are coming to the same conclusion.

The sad part is the only reason things are getting so sophisticated now is not by consumer demand, but by requirements from governments world wide in the name of pollution controls. We are being forced to accept their clean air demands or give up riding as we know it.

I feel sorry for the MC manufacturers too. I have no plans to buy any newer designed MCs. As long as I can ride what I already have I will, knowing their demise is coming.........
Ian -Festiva info  July 29, 2010 09:40 AM
Hi Jason, You'll be able to find lots of help regarding the issues with your Festiva at www.fordfestiva.com There are a lot of knowledgable people there that should be able to help you track down the source of the short. Good luck