Test-driving the new generation of electric motorbikes

From Harley-Davidson's LiveWire to a 218mph superbike, battery power is setting the pace

Harley-Davidson LiveWire, £28,995
Harley-Davidson LiveWire, £28,995 | Image: Clutch Studios – Chicago

Goodwood Festival of Speed, summer 2019: I’m at the head of the queue of cars and motorcycles waiting to sprint up the famous Goodwood “hill”  in front of thousands. Yet despite my decades of riding experience, and the benefit of having tackled this short but deceptively tricky course several times, the bike I’m sitting on is making me feel extremely nervous.

It’s not so much that I haven’t previously ridden it, or that it’s a valuable prototype of a model projected to cost £90,000. Nor is it that it can accelerate from standstill to 60mph in around three seconds. It’s to do with the fact that I’m on the start line and it’s ready to go… but, unlike the roaring, growling, thrumming machines behind me, the ARC Vector is eerily quiet. Because it’s electric. 

Energica Ego – 0-60mph: 2.8s. Top speed: 150mph. Range: 90 miles €23,083
Energica Ego – 0-60mph: 2.8s. Top speed: 150mph. Range: 90 miles €23,083 | Image: Marcello Mannoni

Riding it is a revelation, not just because of the instant, rocket-like acceleration, but also because of the lack of vibration, lack of gears, lack of weight and lack of sound – save for the sci-fi hum from the motor that rises and falls with the opening and closing of the throttle.

With development almost complete and a clutch of deposits already in the can, the ARC Vector’s designer Mark Truman is optimistic that he will be able to put the British-built bike into full production. He aims to sell each machine as a package comprising the bike plus a fighter pilot-style Hedon Zenith “head-up display” helmet and a riding jacket fitted with audio-type haptic amplifiers that will alert the rider to potential hazards.

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Until recently, the majority of viable electric two-wheelers have been bicycles or urban-orientated maxi scooters such as the Vectrix VX-1 (€8,250) and BMW C-Evolution (from £14,035), with Piaggio adding to the mix with a £6,549 battery-powered version of its celebrated Vespa lightweight. But now riders of full-sized motorcycles are beginning to accept (albeit sometimes reluctantly) that electricity may well be the fuel of their future.

In 2015, I tested an experimental electric motorcycle from what many might consider to be the most unlikely manufacturer of all – Harley-Davidson. Afterwards, a batch of prototype Harley LiveWires were taken on a world tour and tried by 12,000 riders to assess the potential market for a battery-powered Harley. The results surprised many; it met with an enthusiastic reception in major markets, especially from the younger riders the brand is especially keen to attract. As a result, the £28,995 LiveWire entered full production this summer and went on sale in the US and Europe in July. It will become available in further markets next year.

Lightning LS-218 – 0-60mph: 2.2s. Top speed: 218mph. Range: 100 miles. $38,888
Lightning LS-218 – 0-60mph: 2.2s. Top speed: 218mph. Range: 100 miles. $38,888 | Image: Corbin-Pacific Inc

The so-called “H-D Revelation” electric powertrain offers a catapult-like 0-60mph time of three seconds, with regenerative braking helping to top up the batteries for a range of 95-146 miles. And despite lacking the rumble associated with petrol‑engined Harley-Davidsons – that’s substituted with a visceral whine – the LiveWire produces the equivalent of 105bhp, making it the most powerful model in the maker’s entire line-up. Traditional Harley critics will also be surprised to learn that the LiveWire offers impressive handling, too, despite the inevitably heavy battery pack and motor giving a weight of almost 550lbs.

A standard plug stored beneath the LiveWire’s seat means it can be recharged from a household socket, but there’s also a fast charging unit that’s compatible with public power supplies and can completely regenerate the bike’s battery in just one hour. Harley-Davidson has appointed 250 dealerships worldwide to sell the bike (12 in the UK), all of which will be equipped with fast charging stations and technicians trained to maintain the model.

Simon de Burton at Goodwood on the Arc Vector
Simon de Burton at Goodwood on the Arc Vector

But while the LiveWire is the first full-scale production electric motorcycle to have been launched by a major manufacturer, California-based Zero Motorcycles is heading the charge as the current market leader. Founded in 2006 as a maker of electric off-road machines, it switched to road-bike manufacture a decade ago and has grown into the largest producer in its field, with a five-model line-up and dealerships in the US and Europe. 

Zero’s latest, the flagship SR/F, retails for £20,990, but entry to the range starts with the £11,490 FXS, with one of the most popular bikes being the £16,590 DSR Black Forest that’s designed for on- and off-road riding. All models can connect to the Zero app to tweak performance for sportier or more economical power, display battery condition and update the bike’s firmware.

Zero SR/F – 0-60mph: 3.2s. Top speed: 124mph. Range: 110 miles. £20,990
Zero SR/F – 0-60mph: 3.2s. Top speed: 124mph. Range: 110 miles. £20,990

Jerry Thomas, the Netherlands-based sales manager for Zero’s EMEA operation, says the firm is experiencing an “immense” increase in interest for its machines and is now the world’s largest producer of premium electric motorcycles. “Sales have been growing at the rate of 50 to 100 per cent annually, and we are expecting that to continue for the foreseeable future,” he says. “Government incentives have helped considerably – in the UK, for example, there is a £1,500 grant towards the purchase of an electric motorcycle – but the majority of our buyers are still in the 40-plus age group because the entry price is still a little high for younger buyers. Now that pre-owned Zeros are coming onto the market, however, we can see that there is interest from people in their 20s and 30s and, as electric vehicles become more mainstream, they should become more affordable.”

But while Zero currently heads the field in electric motorcycle manufacture, the number of competitors is growing fast. In addition to Harley-Davidson, decade-old Lightning Motorcycles of San Jose, California, has made a significant impact by developing the world’s fastest electric bike in the form of the $38,888 LS-218, which has a top speed of 218mph. Lightning also offers the 150mph Strike sports bike, from $12,998, and has developed a fast charging system that can replenish its batteries in just 35 minutes. 

Zero DSR Black Forest – 0-60mph: 3.6s. Top speed: 98mph. Range: 100 miles. £16,590
Zero DSR Black Forest – 0-60mph: 3.6s. Top speed: 98mph. Range: 100 miles. £16,590

Italy, long renowned for producing high-performance petrol-engined motorcycles, has also entered the electric arena with models such as the 150mph Energica Ego superbike that’s been developed by a firm with 40 years’ experience in the Formula One field, while the T-Race Enduro is a rugged-looking on- and off-road machine from Turin-based Tacita that’s named after the Roman goddess of silence and offers a five-model range.

And “silence” is something that’s quickly spreading among the once-large contingent of naysayers in the motorcycle world who used to be vociferous in their objection. When the first TT Zero competition for purely electric machines was held on the Isle of Man in 2010, American rider Mark “Thriller” Miller recorded the quickest average speed of 96.82mph around the 37.7 mile course on his MotoCzysz machine. This year, however, Michael Rutter completed the white-knuckle ride at an average of 121.91mph on a Mugen Shinden Hachi. They may be quiet, but the future of electric motorcycles is moving at a clamorous pace.

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