Jun 042010
Blue 2010 Zero S electric motorcycle

Try one. Now!

So what’s up with this whole electric motorcycles thing? That’s what I had been wondering for a while, so I decided to set up a test ride and find out for myself. And since this Motorcycle News Guy happens to live about 100 miles north of the headquarters of Zero Electric Motorcycles, I figured what better way to try out an electric bike than with a visit to their company headquarters?

A quick call to the number listed on Zero’s website for demos, and I got Bryan on the phone who was more than happy to schedule a visit for me to come in and try out a Zero S street bike. Three minutes and one email later, I was all set to meet up with Jeff, Zero’s factory coordinator/customer service guy/man of many hats. The whole scheduling process couldn’t have been easier and it really seems like Zero is happy to have people come in and sample the electromechanical wizardry they’ve been brewing near Santa Cruz, California.

It's even curvier than it looks

Loading up Google Maps and planning my route to Zero, I see this map:

And I start getting giggly. Looking at that map just brought up memories of my last ride to Santa Cruz 5 years ago – a gorgeous route through tree-lined hills and 70 mph sweepers that keep going for miles. Highway 17 is one sweet stretch of road, and the perfect way to prep for my visit to Zero.

But besides a nice ride there, I really didn’t know what to expect from my visit to Zero – motorcycle test rides are a rare commodity these days – but I hoped that it wouldn’t be like a typical pushy car test drive. Honestly, I was a little afraid that since Zero is such a new company with relatively few bikes on the road, their factory staff would be pressured to try to make sales from anyone that tries out their bikes.

Once arriving at Zero, all my fears about pressure were totally wiped away. The guys there seemed to genuinely enjoy what they were doing, and Jeff, the factory coordinator, was totally friendly and enthusiastically showed me all the great stuff going on at Zero. At one point, while Jeff was grabbing release forms, a guy was walking by me and suddenly stopped and asked if I was wearing BMW City Pants (which I was, and which I frickin’ love, by the way.) He introduced himself as Richard, the new heard of customer service at Zero (and another really friendly guy.) Turns out, he used to work for BMW and was responsible for designing the pants I was wearing. Cool stuff.

My favorite casual motorcycle pants.

In the hour and a half I spent at Zero, I got pretty much the whole tour – from the shop where bikes get fixed up all the way to the separate assembly building where the guys there can churn out about 12 bikes a day. (And if that doesn’t sound like much, just do that math and you’ll see that a few thousand bikes a year is actually pretty damn good for a company only a few years old trying to introduce a new transformative technology to an existing market.)

What really impressed me was that Zero seems to have a good plan in place for the future. They’re already pushing bikes in some European markets and are getting a lot of great feedback about what works and have been drawing up some new bike ideas from that. The thing that gets me most excited, though, is the possibility that advances in the next few years will improve the engine and battery life of these bikes to a level where they can really start to compete with gas-powered engines on the street.

Riding the Zero S

Once all that tour business was done, and I signed my release form, it was time for what I had really come to Zero for: my first electric motorcycle ride.

Turn the key and the Zero fires up, running through a series of electronics checks, and produces the sound of… silence. Press in the engine cutoff switch near the throttle and the bike, though still dead silent, is ready to go. There’s no clutch to pull in, no neutral to shift out of – just twist the throttle and the bike goes. Close the throttle and the bike slows down and stops. Easy as that. And unlike, say, a car with an automatic transmission, the Zero’s idle speed IS zero, which means on a flat road you don’t even have to hold a brake to stay stopped.

With all this, and a pretty friendly power curve, I kept thinking that the Zero would be such an easy bike for someone to learn on. No shifting and no clutch means that a newbie can focus on the most important skills: throttle control, keeping the bike upright, and lane/car awareness. There is a huge possibility here to introduce a new generation of riders to motorcycling – ones who would otherwise be too intimidated by a typical 600cc sportbike to even think of hopping on a motorcycle.

So after Jeff and I got the bikes started up and sorted out, he took me on a little ride through some windy roads near the Zero factory. It really gave me a chance to get a feel for the bike and begin to appreciate the unique riding experience you get from it. Twisting on the throttle there is some noise; the bike isn’t 100% silent. You can hear the chain going, and the Agni DC engine does produce a quiet buzz/whirring sound as it’s RPMs increase. But the vibration is almost nonexistent, and once you get up to speed you barely notice anything other than wind noise. And that’s when I started to see the beauty in a quiet electric motorcycle. Diving into curves, and gently rolling on the throttle without worrying about a clutch or gears, the riding experience was more about the road. And without loud engine noise and vibration, riding began to feel more like gliding along the road. Or even flying. For me, it felt like I was connecting more deeply with the essence of two-wheeled riding.

I liked it. A lot.

Now, that isn’t to say that I’m going to ditch my 600cc inline four tomorrow and get a Zero. Electric bikes still have a ways to go to reach the performance levels of production sportbikes. But they’re on their way. The fact that they are cheaper to operate and are better for the environment is a big plus for me too. And you know, if I was living in a city like San Francisco, I would be all over getting a Zero S for riding around the city. Federal and State tax breaks make buying one a lot more economical.

Really, though, riding a Zero makes you aware of how close we truly are to zero emissions electric vehicles for everyone. Imagine LA without smog. Imagine not having to worry about putting so much CO2 into the environment. Imagine cleaner power. A more sustainable future is our future, and electric vehicles and going to be a big big part of that.

I think Zero is going to be a big player in that future, and look forward to even more innovative electric motorcycles soon.

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