Embracing the Silence of Electric Motorcycles
The motivations to ride a motorcycle are very different than those to drive a car. A car is often used for utility and practicality. Riding is all about freedom, romance, passion, fear, and danger. The experience is visceral -- from the vibration of the engine to the sound of the exhaust pipes and the smell of oil mixed with gasoline -- topped off with a steady dose of adrenaline. In the saddle, you're in a symbiotic state with what any enthusiast would define as a living, breathing machine that feeds on combustible energy. Motorcycles are dangerous and seductive, making them irresistibly cool.
"Motorcycles are dangerous and seductive, making them irresistibly cool. Which brings us to electric motorcycles ... how to make electric bikes cool."
Which brings us to electric motorcycles. Beyond lacking the aforementioned stimuli, electric motorcycles share similar hurdles with electric cars: expensive battery technology, limited range, and longer than desirable charging times. However, between improved charging technology and infrastructure, it won't be long until these early inconveniences of riding electric are in the rear view.
All that's left to figure out is how to make electric bikes cool. Therein lies the dilemma for both manufacturers and motorcycle enthusiasts who are watching their beloved two-wheeled vehicles head down the road to electrification.
So, how did cars do it? I think we can thank Tesla for making electric cars into aspirational, yet obtainable products for the mainstream. Such success and demand has sparked a number of new startups like Lucid, Fisker and Rivian, aiming to follow in Tesla's footsteps by developing their own formula for a desirable EV platform.
"While motorcycle manufacturers represent a significantly smaller portion of the market, they have undoubtedly been caught in the crosswinds of the global shift away from petroleum."
Believe it or not, electric vehicles aren't new -- they've been around for over a century. In fact, the first-ever Porsche invented in 1898, was electric. Just short of one hundred years later, GM presented the 1996 EV1, an all-electric car that found some traction with devoted environmentalists and a few green-minded celebrities. However, it was eventually discontinued due to limited demand. Electric cars just weren't "cool" enough yet.
While motorcycle manufacturers represent a significantly smaller portion of the market, they have undoubtedly been caught in the crosswinds of the global shift away from petroleum. But what happens when you strip the motorcycle of its sound, smell, and explosive excitement -- will the same "uncool" stigma that plagued the EV1 be exponentially amplified when applied to the electric motorcycle?
"Electric motorcycles will also be cheaper to regularly maintain ... the key to success for the electric motorcycle market will depend wholly on designs that trigger emotional responses in new ways, independent of decibels and octane."
Harley Davidson's 2019 LiveWire was the first production electric motorcycle to be released by a legacy motorcycle manufacturer. The reception was mixed as Harley's customer base is still very connected to the traditional norms of the American cruiser. However the modern rider demographic is changing. While "boomers" are hanging up their riding boots, a new rider is coming into the saddle with a different set of values and new expectations.
A lot of what electric bikes have to offer will resonate with a new generation of rider -- even beyond the carbon-free emissions factor. Electric motorcycles will also be cheaper to regularly maintain as the technology is much simpler -- think no oil, coolant, or gasoline. And, the twist-and-go riding style requires less of a learning curve than the traditional fuel-powered throttle, giving newcomers easier access to becoming riders. Nevertheless, the key to success for the electric motorcycle market will depend wholly on designs that trigger emotional responses in new ways, independent of decibels and octane.
When it comes to hitting those right notes -- it's fair to say that Swedish-based CAKE is a frontrunner in defining the electric motorcycle experience. Their flagship model Kalk is an off-road enduro, built on the core concept of enjoying the ride and the environment. Rather than seduction by machine power and piercing exhaust notes, the Kalk embraces the silence of nature with an emission-free powertrain that makes it perfect for off-road exploration. Actually the model is so quiet it's being used to catch poachers in the African bush.
Beyond this, the Kalk's user-friendly interface, beautifully simple architecture, and modern design language make it equally rideable and desirable. Veering from more traditional platforms -- the controls are modeled after analog stereo equipment, making it look more audiophile, techy, and forward. With the Kalk, Cake has succeeded in making an electric motorcycle that is cool.
Damon Motorcycles: HyperSport.
The future of electric motorcycles will require a fearless approach that isn't trying to mask its product with familiar design cues. An electric bike dressed in traditional styling may leave purists with the impression that it is pretending to be something it's not. In order to make electric motorcycles cool, designers and manufacturers need to let go of the past and start designing for the future.