Electric motorcycles and the Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome

Credit: Zero Motorcycles, Inc.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt hang over the TCO of electric motorcyles. Let's look at the math.

I like to ride, and with a helmet. I have two restored Hondas under my belt; another 1966 Yamaha sits in the driveway, dead. I'll get to it. I've also been lusting over electric motorcycles that I've seen reviewed. They're looking increasingly practical, fun, and perhaps cost-effective. They're so quiet that they're perhaps the antithesis of the Harley Davidson.

Imagine my surprise when my uncle — who restores a huge variety of motorcycles and has a mind-boggling 20+ of them in his stable — sends me an editorial drenched in lessons of how to push statistics to an edge so as to inject FUD rather than reality into a recommendation. It was to my practiced eye, the sort of thing that I had railed about in the 1980s regarding IBM's classic distortions.

Dave Searles, Editor of Motorcycle Consumer News took a Zero-DS electric motorcycle to task, giving it a fair-shake review. Then, surprisingly, he then did a mind-boggling editorial on its TCO over 36,000 miles comparing it to a current model Suzuki gas motorcycle.

Interesting, I thought, as I started to read the TCO editorial he wrote. I've seen Total Cost of Ownership/TCO articles done on hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, that gave interesting (if occasionally misleading) carbon footprint data on the lifecycle of ownership. Are electric bikes cheaper to operate than a comparable gas bike? What's the differential in TCO? As I read the editorial after reading the review, I noticed how strange it was.

First, I couldn't make Searles' math work. After six books on electronic spreadsheets, you'd think I'd be able to find the holes, but I couldn't. The data was a mess. The problems start with the base price, which is squishy because there are Federal rebates of 10%, and in some states, other rebates that reduce the base price. It's just over ten thou at retail, but in Colorado for example, it can be under six thou.

Then there's a price for electricity in his theorem. Searles cites 15 cents for a kilowatt-hour, on the high side (yes, some unfortunates pay forty cents; some of us pay under a nickel). He adds in maintenance costs that seem out of whack. But then he might be missing some, too. Citing some of his more inexplicable math, he decides that the battery pack must be changed within the 36,000 mile ownership estimation, adding a cool four grand to the cost. A quick check reveals that it's even more -- $5,100. But it's a worst case scenario, applied to someone with the highest possible demands that makes the most unwise charging choices. With all of the data pushed to one edge, the Zero DS becomes a poor second in cost per mile over 36,000 miles to the “comparable"Suzuki.

The casual skeptical observer might say, yeah, Searles is protecting his advertisers. But like Consumer Reports, there is no advertising. Others might accuse Searles of technical hubris. That's unlikely, as he's well versed in gas engine motorcycles and respected for his acute knowledge of internal combustion engines. My observation says that Motorcycle Consumer News is an advocate for consumers. Yet the data is bizarre.

I think what's happened is that Searles, like a lot of others, see electric vehicles as having range constraints — analogous to the distance supplied basic tank full of gasoline — that limits usefulness, as recharging will take time unlike a quick trip to your local fuel station. Four hours was what the MCN tests showed, but it's more likely that two and a half hours is what its lithium ion battery pack would need for most use cases. Then you get 20-50 miles of riding. For commuters, or for a quick run to the market, it's ideal. Unless your terrain is hilly, a 20 mile jaunt doesn't require you to recharge for another 20 mile jaunt. If you want to just get on your bike, and head out on the highway, looking for adventure, or whatever might come your way — you'll have numerous rest stops sitting next to an electrical outlet for about two and a half hours. Electrics don't have the range of a gas bike, but few people need it. And those that do are probably like me: have more than one motorcycle because they're cheap. I could throttle Honda for putting a two-gallon gas tank on my 1980 CX500 Custom. It's good for a 100mi, and not 101.

The Zero DS has the Zen of simplicity on its side. I can see why it might be feared: it's going to give gasoline-based drivetrains some rational competition — if they get the numbers right. Geez — then I might have three motorcycles. I wonder what I'm going to have to give to Goodwill to make room in the garage?

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