Electric motorcycles: The future on two wheels

Motorcycles and mopeds are currently regarded by many as too loud and dangerous. In the future, two-wheelers will represent an efficient, quieter and accident-free alternative.

1923 ist das Geburtsjahr des ersten BMW-Motorrads. Mit der VISION NEXT 100 zeigt BMW dem ­Betrachter die Dreißigerjahre des 21. Jahrhunderts. Foto: BMW

1923 was the birth year of the first BMW motorcycle. With the VISION NEXT 100, BMW offers insights all the way into the 2030s. Photo: BMW

Traffic gridlock is imminent – indeed, in Asian megacities such as Shanghai, Bangkok and Jakarta it’s already the status quo. Smog and tailbacks are a part of everyday life. The situation is not yet this extreme on American and European streets, but nevertheless: according to US traffic data analysts at Inrix, the average Los Angeleno spent 104 hours in traffic jams last year. In Moscow it was 91, and in Munich 49. The trend? Rising. The problem could possibly be alleviated with a switch to two-wheelers. Considering factors such as topo­graphy, road conditions and ranges required, some locations would benefit from using bicycles and pedelecs, while motorcycles and mopeds can also be used to provide respite, as proven in a 2011 study by consulting firm Transport & Mobility Leuven. In the city of Leuven, the analysts calculated that were one in ten car drivers to switch to riding a motorbike, overall time lost in tailbacks would be reduced by forty percent.

Better two-wheeler safety a no-brainer

Several large European cities have already cottoned on to the fact that motorbikes and mopeds play an active role in preventing traffic jams. Cities such as Rome, Milan and London allow their riders to use bus lanes. In Paris, cunning entrepreneurs even offer moped and motorbike taxi services. Two wheels are more agile, quicker and require far less room to maneuver than four – a regular car needs more than four times the amount of space. That’s just too much in the increasingly dense traffic of larger cities. “If you put 50 people in individual cars, you would easily fill a street,” explains Professor Karl Viktor Schaller, Development Chief for BMW Motorrad in Munich. “If you put them all in a bus, then they take up far less space. The best option is to put them all on motorbikes. Then they need less room while retaining their individual mobility.”

Schaller forecasts that the two-wheeler will play an increasingly important role in the future: “A key reason that we aren’t currently trying to convince everybody to switch to motorbikes is safety.” While the safety of motorized two-wheelers has improved considerably in recent years thanks to ABS and traction control, there is certainly room for improvement. BMW made inroads with regards to this with its C1 concept in the year 2000 – a moped with a roof that could be driven without a helmet. While the idea was a good one, it was too far ahead of its time and flopped.

Karl Viktor Schaller. Foto: Sebastian LaMotte

Karl Viktor Schaller. Foto: Sebastian LaMotte

“Motorbikes will soon ­feature a digital safety cage”, Karl Viktor Schaller, Development Chief at BMW Motorrad

Last year, the team from Munich presented the ambitious “Vision Next 100” study, with a flexible chassis, emission-free engine, and tires that adapt to current conditions. This futuristic motorbike also has another couple of tricks up its sleeve – gyro sensors prevent the bike from ever falling over, and it is intelligently connected with both its rider and surroundings. If, despite all the cutting-edge tech, the rider or another driver makes an error, an armada of digital assistants intervene to prevent an accident.

BMW Development Chief Schaller is convinced that parts of the project will be implemented in the not-too-distant future: “Motorbikes will soon feature a digital ‘safety cage,’ which safely prevents accidents and falls,” he asserts. Helmets and protective clothing will become obsolete. A riding suit made of intelligent materials will be capable of adapting to the climate to warm or cool the rider. The helmet will be replaced by a headset that presents the rider with information relevant to the current driving situation.

Vito Cicchetti. Foto: Honda

Vito Cicchetti. Foto: Honda

“The heroes of the e-sector will be so-called Urban Commuters”, Vito Cicchetti, General Manager, Honda Europa

BMW isn’t alone with this concept. The world’s biggest motorbike and moped manufacturer, Honda, also took a look into the future earlier this year and presented a motorbike that balances itself and, on command, follows its driver like a loyal dog. “Motorbikes and mopeds are becoming ever more important,” Vito Cicchetti, Head of Motorbikes for Honda Europe assures us. “We are investing heavily in this area.” Other manufacturers are also buying into the consensus that an ‘electro-boom’ is coming, and developing vehicles or already launching products accordingly. Even tradition-steeped Harley Davidson intends to launch its own electric model by the end of 2017.

“The heroes of the e-sector will be so-called Urban Commuters – mopeds designed specifically for inner-city operation,” offers Honda Manager ­Cicchetti, “this will especially be the case in Southern Europe and Asia.” While there are already an estimated 200 million e-mopeds on the roads, they are only slowly gaining wider acceptance in Europe. A key factor here is price. Many Chinese e-mopeds run on cheap lead-acid batteries and have limited performance. The trade-off is a lower price. Electric two-wheelers in industrialized nations, however, feature Lithium-Ion batteries, high performance and equipped with plenty of extras. This is reflected in the price: “Modern electric mobility isn’t cheap. The energy storage system for a motorbike costs 50 euros if a fuel tank is chosen, or over 1,000 euros for a battery,” explains Development Chief Schaller from BMW.

Livia Cevolini. Foto: Picasa

Livia Cevolini. Foto: Picasa

“While refilling a fuel tank requires a visit to a gas station, ­electricity is virtually everywhere”, Livia Ceveloni, Founder of Energica

For the Munich-based brand’s C evolution e-moped, you’ll fork over around 15,000 euros. The Ego electric sports bike from Italian manufacturer Energica meanwhile costs more than 30,000 euros. Customer hesitation is therefore not surprising, especially with today’s vehicle charging infrastructure, the weight of current batteries, and the fact that nobody knows what resale values will be in a couple of years. Smaller producers such as Energica will therefore need to wait with bated breath. Energica Boss Livia ­Ceveloni is convinced that electric mobility will flourish: “While a fuel tank needs to be filled at a rest stop, electricity is virtually everywhere.” It’s only practical that we use it.

Bikes not welcome here

Industry consensus is that the electric mobility concept of the more industrialized nations will prevail, with the cheap e-mopeds gradually vanishing, even in China. The biggest urban centers, such as Beijing and Shanghai, have recently moved to ban them, as manufacturer trickery has resulted in many of these mopeds officially being classed as bicycles, for which no driver’s license is required. While this makes them especially popular, it also leads to an excessive number of fatal accidents. “The transport and market situation for motorbikes in Asia is entirely foreign and cannot be compared with that of Europe,” explains Honda Manager Cicchetti.

In other news out of Asia, the Vietnamese capital Hanoi recently decreed that all motorbikes will be banned from its roads by 2030. Hanoi’s about eight million residents flood the city with five million motorized two-wheelers every day. There is also an upper limit for such small and agile machines, as they too cause tailbacks and generate smog. In the Vietnamese capital’s announcement, it also committed to developing the rudimentary public transport system as a viable alternative. Following extensive protests, the city distanced itself from original claims – they only plan on limiting access to certain areas of the inner city.

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