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Renewed U.S. Tax Credit Gives E-Motorcycle Market a Boost

— December 29, 2015

An important federal tax credit for electric motorcycles (e-motorcycles) expired at the end of 2013, but has just been reinstated as part of the enormous $1.1 trillion spending package approved by Congress in December 2015. The federal tax credit will offset 10% of the purchase price for qualifying plug-in two- and three-wheel vehicles (must have a top speed of at least 45 mph and a 4 kWh battery or larger). The maximum credit available to consumers will be $2,500 and the credit will apply retroactively to all e-motorcycle purchases since January 1, 2015.

This effort, reportedly spearheaded by California-based manufacturer Zero Motorcycles and non-profit Plug In America, will likely serve as a sales boost for the e-motorcycle industry in the United States. However, e-scooters and e-bikes do not receive the same tax advantages since these technologies generally have a top speed limit of 30 mph and 20 mph, respectively. So why are lower speed electric vehicles (EVs) left out of the incentive regime?

Highway-Capable and Gas-Powered Vehicle Replacement

Part of the reason is likely due to the fact that only on-road or highway-capable vehicles are considered to be worthy of tax credits, based on the larger volume of emissions being avoided from these vehicles. Another explanation specific to e-bikes may be that the technology is seen as replacing bicycles (already a clean technology), not cars. However, this assumption may not be entirely accurate.

A consumer survey conducted by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) demonstrates that the primary reason respondents bought e-bikes was to replace some car trips (see Figure 1 below). Additionally, the main reason cited by respondents for using an e-bike was to commute to work or school (see Figure 2). The survey from OTREC suggests that e-bikes are used for commuting and to replace car trips much more than lawmakers think or even recognize. Speaking from personal experience, my e-bike replaced both my traditional bicycle and my gasoline-powered car—with the primary purpose of using the e-bike as a commuting vehicle.

While the tax credits are welcome news for the e-motorcycle industry, e-scooters and e-bikes continue to be under-incentivized and under-utilized technologies in the United States. If the primary goal of tax credits for all EVs is to replace or reduce the number of gas-powered vehicle trips, then e-scooters and e-bikes should be considered in the future.

Figure 1: OTREC Survey Respondents’ Primary Reason for Purchasing an E-Bike

Ryan Blog Fig 1

(Source: Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium)

Figure 2: OTREC Survey Respondents’ Main Purpose for E-Bike Trips

Ryan Blog Fig 2

(Source: Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium)

 

With Its E-Motorcycle, Harley-Davidson Outdoes the Automakers

— June 20, 2014

This week Harley-Davidson unveiled a battery-powered electric motorcycle concept, called the LiveWire, that has surprised the transportation world.  Crankshafts, engine oil, and the smell of gasoline are all integral parts of the Harley-Davidson identity, so most expected the company to be dragged kicking and screaming to the electric vehicle (EV) party.  Instead, Harley revealed a concept vehicle that’s better looking, better designed, and might one day be better selling than most automotive company attempts at EVs.

First, a personal detour: I’ve never been a fan of Harley-Davidson.  Its motorcycles are beautiful to behold and intimidating to hear.  But I’ve always disliked the design ethos of a company that decides to sacrifice performance in order to cosmetically alter the sound that a machine makes.  Harley-Davidson’s notorious engine rumble comes from the single pin engine design that can’t match other performance bikes on speed and torque.  Additionally, Harleys are tuned to have a low idle speed in order to give them a more distinct popping sound when not moving.  This, in turn, leads to excessive wear and tear on the engine, leading to lower expected lifetimes of Harley-Davidson engines compared to their peers.

Lag Gone

Which is why I was surprised to view the videos of the electric concept bike.  Instead of trying to market a machine for environmentalist two-wheelers, the company designed a bike for its core market: people who love motorcycles and the power and freedom they represent.  The drivetrain design provides 52 foot-pounds of torque, which for a vehicle that weighs less than 500 pounds is like strapping a Scud missile to a Smart Car.  The resulting power allows the machine to reach 60 miles per hour in less than 4 seconds.

Motorcycle reviewers note the other element of EV drivetrains that can’t be matched by internal combustion engines: instantaneous torque.  An electric motor responds to the driver’s command immediately, with zero torque lag.  Even the most expensive Ferrari or Lotus has a noticeable buildup to full torque, which is inherent in the nature of how combustion drivetrains work.  I’ve noticed instant torque when driving the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF – albeit much less dramatically than it probably feels on the Harley LiveWire or the Tesla Roadster.

Sound and Fury

Harley-Davidson has done something that no other incumbent vehicle manufacturer (we would expect EV-only companies like Tesla Motors, Brammo, and Zero to get these things right) has tried to do: it has built an EV around the strengths of the drivetrain.  There are, of course, weaknesses too (most notably a 30- to 60-mile range and a 3-hour recharge time), but in the end people like their motorcycles (and cars) for what they can do and are willing to live with the compromises that have to be made for what they can’t do.  Here’s hoping that the design executives from the major automakers take the LiveWire for a test ride and get inspired to make the next generation of muscle cars and hot rods – with electric drivetrains.

And how about the signature Harley-Davidson sound (which the company once unsuccessfully tried to trademark)? Well, this thing sure sounds different.  Thanks to the high frequency electric motor, it sounds more like a jet engine than a traditional Harley.  But it still makes you instantly respect and appreciate the power and fury that the bike is capable of.

 

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