Lessons from the two-wheel electric world

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I frequently pass our local Harley-Davidson dealer. I’m always amazed at the dozens of Harley owners who gather in the parking lot every Saturday and Sunday, with a big smoking grill serving up burgers and dogs, live music setting the mood, and owners talking about bikes and riding.

Last weekend that scene reminded me of big changes ahead in the motorcycle industry, and I couldn’t help wondering about changes in boating, too. What changes in motorcycles? How about this:

You flick a switch, twist the throttle and go. It causes an immediate stream of voltage-powered torque that launches you forward. As you ride, the wind is louder than the motor, and when you stop there’s silence. The motorcycle is electric.

Called e-mobility or EV (electric vehicle), electric motorcycle startups are accelerating into the U.S. motorcycle market. Italy’s Energica and California-based Alta Motors and Zero Motorcycles are revving up promotion, distribution and sales. So we can expect to see these electric bikes cruising our roads before we see electric Harleys or EVs from other major motorcycle brands at those weekend parking lot gatherings.

There are some notable parallels with boats and motorcycles, albeit boating has fared somewhat better. Since the Great Recession, new motorcycle sales have dropped roughly 50 percent. It also happened to boats, but the marine industry has seen a slow but steady annual increase every year as the economy recovered. Not so with motorcycles.

Equally notable, motorcycles showed sharp declines in ownership by people younger than 40. The main market is now aging baby boomers who still uphold the Harley motto: “Live to Ride. Ride to Live.” But the riding days for that demographic are dwindling. Sound familiar?

There are two bright spots: women and resales. Women are reportedly one of the few growing ownership market segments. And an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study showed total motorcycles on the road have actually increased from 2008 to 2017, though nearly 75 percent of those registrations are for bikes older than 7 years. So while motorcycles sales appear to have grown, the buyers aren’t scooping up new ones. Sound familiar?

One might surmise that the two-wheel giants haven’t been watching things change or perhaps assumed significant change wasn’t going to happen. Either way, when it comes to e-mobility, the biggest manufacturers haven’t been players in the EV movement. Right now, none of the biggest names — Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha, BMW — offer a production electric street motorcycle in the United States. But America’s iconic Harley-Davidson announced it’s committed to having an EV in dealerships by August 2019.

Energica already offers three models in the United States: the EVA ($26,240), EVA ESSEESSE9 ($24,940) and the top-line 145-hp, 150-mph EGO ($26,460). They feature a patented cooling system to optimize performance and high-energy lithium polymer batteries. The company is expanding its dealer network from California to Illinois, Florida to New York.

Alta Motors focuses primarily on electric off-road vehicles. Alta is marketing five models that are designed for dirt riding, although three of those models are also street legal. This EV startup reportedly raised $45 million, including investments from Tesla co-founders Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard. Alta is also developing a new approach to manufacturing lithium-ion battery packs.

As a side note, Harley-Davidson has taken an equity stake and entered into a co-development partnership with Alta.

Zero Motorcycles has six base models, distribution in 30 countries, dealers throughout the United States and claims it’s the No. 1 full-sized electric motorcycle builder in the world. Its Z-Force battery powers an internal magnet-driven motor controlled by a proprietary processor. There is no transmission, so it needs no compound cooling system or routine maintenance. The Z-Force powertrain draws on a lithium-ion battery and features a sealed motor with a single moving part, synchronized with proprietary hardware.

The powertrain is available in a variety of configurations. Moreover, the systems can be scaled up or down to fit precise battery storage and motor output needs.

So is what’s happening in the motorcycle industry hinting at the boating industry’s future? With advances in battery technology, scaled up or down electric motor outputs and proprietary processors to control it all, it’s logical that a future dimension of boating could very well be electric. Certainly, this technology has applications beyond two- and four-wheel vehicles.

We’ll look at some possibilities in Dealer Outlook on Thursday.

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