EVs: an editorial

I was driving (yes, in the car) down US Route 1 last night and we passed by Longwood Gardens, a well known arboretum and conservatory in Kennett Square, PA. As we were driving by my wife was telling me about a news article she read which explained that Longwood was creating a solar farm on their property in hopes of being 100% solar powered in the near future. They hope to be completely “off the grid” by 2018, the planned completion date of the $6.6M project. As we were talking, she made a comment about “… taking a while to recoup that kind of money…” and I commented back that it’s not about recouping, it’s about getting off the grid and reducing dependencies on the power grid.

But, what does this have to do with motorcycles and EVs (electric vehicles), you ask? Plenty, and lots of it. While some people and companies might want to unplug from “the grid”, many vehicle enthusiasts and companies want to avoid the gas pump.

When discussing electric motorcycles you often hear people complaining of the cost (and “paying for itself”), or of the limited range, or of the apparent lack of utility, of the high cost of batteries, of not having a charging location at work, and a host of other reasons. In fact, I rather take exception to people who have a whole laundry list of reasons why they can’t buy an EV. There’s no reason to have a list. Any one reason is enough. I thought we could take a few minutes and explore some of that, maybe help myself come to an understanding of some of these complaints, and what I see as some of the answers to that, as well as sparking up some conversation on the matter.

With the clear and obvious understanding that I’m not an EV designer, I’m not an energy infrastructure expert and I’m not an economics wizard by ANYONE’S definition, I’m going to take a crack at verbalizing some of my layman’s opinions on those things. So, let’s get started.

First, we’ll start with a few assumptions. We’ll use some nice round numbers in the conversation… let’s assume a 40-mile range for our imaginary electric motorcycle, let’s assume a top and normal cruising speed of 60 MPH, thus allowing easy math (one mile per minute), and let’s use Zero Motorcycles‘ claim of “about $.48” (we’ll round that to exactly $.50) to recharge the bike for normal use. Let’s also assume a fixed cost of $4.00 per gallon of pump gas with a 200-mile range for gas bikes. For the electric bikes, let’s make the assumption that the range needs to support a round-trip commute, including a slight “out of the way” errand on the way home from work. Got all that? I know that’s a lot of information, but I’ll repeat that as we go along.

Let’s talk about some of the reasons NOT to buy an EV bike.

They cost too much. People often bring up the subject of initial cost of purchase when talking about electric or hybrid cars. This is a valid and obvious point. In late 2007 when I bought my gas powered Corolla, I really wanted to get a hybrid Prius; the idea of cutting back on gas usage and the hopes that my purchasing dollars would help bolster the EV and Hybrid market were very appealing to me. The initial cost of $24,000 – $27,000, especially compared to the $17,000 Corolla, definitely made me step back. At the time I wanted an inexpensive car that was “good on gas”, and considering that for 8 months out of the year, I’m probably doing 80% of my miles on the bike, it made more sense for me to spend less on the car. I still stand by that decision. And I’m sure that’s a similar kind of thinking that goes on when most people are considering vehicles.

With my Corolla returning a pretty consistent 28-30 MPG in real world use, and the Prius returning anywhere from 40 MPG to 70 MPG (depending on your use case and who you believe), and doing so at ~1.5X the price of the Corolla I purchased, it doesn’t take an economics genius to understand that per mile, it’s similar enough (based just on purchase price), but in cash outlay, it would take a while for the Prius to “pay for itself”. So, I chose to spend less on initial cash outlay and stick with my gas car. I feel ok about the decision.

But here’s the rub… when was the last time science, or the free market, or an industrial sub-segment (like EVs) was ever advanced by worrying about “paying for itself”? I’m going to pull an answer out of the air and say… oh… “never”. I’m guessing that people don’t buy and drive hybrids and EVs because they pay for themselves, they do so to get in on the movement, to embrace a choice and a lifestyle, and to be a part of something. Advancing the EV market is  a worthy goal. Others just like the apparent “green” nature of EVs.

I guess what I’m getting at here is, if you’re buying strictly on price (which I was when I got the Corolla), you’re never going to find yourself being attracted to purchases like EVs, hybrids and other early-adopter market segment purchases. That’s absolutely OK… there’s nothing wrong with operating in the mainstream. In fact, I would say the benefits of buying and using mainstream products FAR outweigh the negatives. So you (and perhaps I) are not the target demographic. So saying “they cost too much for me” excuses you (and me?) from having to further justify any reasons you have for not buying. One reason is enough. It’s clear many people are not going to buy it on price along. Nothing wrong with that.

They don’t have enough range for me. This complaint, and the initial cost concerns, are often competing for first place on the list of reasons not to buy an EV motorcycle. And once again, it is a very valid and reasonable concern. At our sample bike’s per-charge range of 40 miles, I would not be able to ride the EV bike to work and back. I work ~28 miles from home in a mix of highway, stop-n-start and country roads. No matter what path I take, I would still range between 24-30 miles each way, with some amount of high-speed and congested traffic. My company, as progressive as they are, does not provide ready access to EV charging in the parking lot or garage. While I’m sure I would be able to ask them to snake an extension cord out to where we riders park out motorcycles, the bottom line is that this is outside the normal use-case and it’s nothing that I can count on as normal. In short… I can’t definitely charge the bike at work. So, at 28 miles out of my 40-mile range just to go one way on my commute, I’m clearly not the target demographic. So there it is.

My friend and show partner James lives roughly 10 miles from his place of work, and his commute is almost 100% “city” type traffic; red light to red light, urban traffic and congested surface streets. At 20 miles round trip, work to home, with still almost 20 miles of available range as a buffer, he’s apparently a perfect target demographic. He has a private home just outside the city where he can charge an EV, he rides a short distance to work and during the week may run some errands on the way home. He’s well within the range of the EV and on those days when he may need to ride further, or has planned events, his EV wouldn’t be his only vehicle.

So, urbanites and some subarbanites are the demographic. Think of whatever your closest city is; how big is it? How densely populated is it? How much of that city is ever really driven through by the average motorist? For those who live outside the city, how far do they really need to go? When I lived closer to Philadelphia and worked in town, I was about 15 miles from door to door… I used to fit right into the demographic. I bet a large and measurable percentage of urban commuters would easily be able to use an EV bike (or car!) and still have plenty of potential range available at the end of the day.

So again, if you don’t fit the demographic, there’s no reason justify not purchasing an EV. You only need one bullet item on your “no” list. That’s enough. And it’s valid.

I can’t carry everything I need on an EV bike. This may or may not be valid, but I think it would apply to bikes in general. I would say this… if you’re carrying stuff you need for work on any conventional gas motorcycle, then you can do so on an EV bike. Any argument one has in this category probably applies to ALL motorcycles, not just EVs. So… if this your reason, let’s say you probably aren’t commuting on your gas bike, either, and that pretty much ends this topic.

The batteries cost too much when they die. I hear this one a lot. It’s probably the third most common reason I hear and to my way of thinking, this is just a convenient excuse of justification, and not at all a real reason. It’s an excuse of fear and uncertainty, more than of reality. And that’s valid, too! Uncertainty about a product’s lifetime and how robust a product is can be a very valid reason for not purchasing that product. But I will say this… I’ve never bought a car or motorcycle or refrigerator based on what I feared about replacing a core, major component of that product. Have you priced out engines lately? They’re expensive, car or bike. Honestly, I think given the increasing number of hybrid and EVs on the road, if the batteries were consistently dying leaving people on the side of the road, and were having to be replaced out of warranty by taking a second or third mortgage on your house, there would be a bit of public uproar.

Personally, I wouldn’t buy a Ducati motorcycle (as my primary bike) based on the cost, complexity and short duration of the maintenance intervals, but I also wouldn’t turn one down based on the cost of replacement engines alone. Yes, batteries for EVs cost a lot of money, but I see that being an end-of-life cost of the vehicle, rather than an ongoing, periodic cost. I know some friends who have had to replace the engines in their 10- or 20- year old cars or bikes. This is unusual, but it’s also after what has usually been a very successful service life for the vehicle. In short… this is a non-issue, but again, if this is a real fear for someone, then by all means, make this your one reason not to purchase. There’s nothing wrong with relying on the robustness of over 100 years of gas power engine design and refinement. They work and they’re a well-known quantity in the market place.

I can’t charge it anywhere. Once upon a time this would have been a major reason, perhaps THE reason, not to buy an EV. But these days, most modern EVs charge right from a standard home electric circuit, from a portable converter that plugs into normal home circuits, or by standard format charging stations. Unlike, say, cell phones of a few years ago where each individual model of phone had a model-specific charger, standards and ease of use for the consumer will, and will continue to ensure that this becomes a marginalized concern. In fact, some recent news articles support the notion that EV charging stations are becoming more accepted in the mainstream. The city of Los Angeles is adding EV charging stations to many transit points and hubs, and Walgreens is adding EV charging for its customers. In addition, many federal, state and local municipalities are offering financial incentives to consumers and businesses to promote adoption of EVs.

So, while it’s true that today you can’t just plug in and charge everywhere you go, the increasing number of business centers embracing EVs combined with the current short-commute target demographic, this becomes less and less a concern. If your commute, one way, is at the limit of an EV range, and you know that charging will be an issue, by all means, stick with gas. But if your company or other local businesses support EV charging, it may be worth investigating. The day is coming when you can pull into a restaurant and plug in for an hour while you have dinner.

There are lots of other reasons to support or to be skeptical about purchasing an EV. No argument. It’s a decision that is – and should be – very involved and has many facets. So, let’s talk some numbers. Again, the context here is urban and suburban commuting.

The 2011 Zero S fully electric motorcycle sells for $9,995 and the Zero X sells for $7,450 before any federal, state or local EV incentives. Comparable gas commuter bikes might include the Honda CBR 250 R for $4000, or the Suzuki Gladius for $6,899 or the Kawasaki Ninja 650 for $7,195. Yes, it’s a given that EVs cost more when comparing performance and options, as previously discussed, but they’re not out of line in an absolute sense. Federal incentives include a tax deduction for the cost of EVs, and an immediate tax rebate of 10%. Other incentives are available.

Factoring MPG and cost per gallon is not really valid, so we’ll stick to cost per range and cost per mile. This will only include fuel, not maintenance and mechanical consumables.

The EV (Zero S), at a cost of $.50 to charge to net 40 miles, returns a per-mile cost of $.0125 per mile, or just over a penny per mile.

My SV650 returns about 50 MPG, netting me 200 miles from about 4 gallons of fuel, for a total cost of $16.00 per fill up. At 50 MPG, this nets out to about $.08 per mile.

I have no data to support any claims, positive or negative, about the environment impacts of battery construction or the gathering of the raw materials for making the batteries. The affects of gas engines on the environment are well known, and getting cleaner all the time, but are not zero-impact products.

For me, the bottom line is this – while I still can’t see myself spending close to $30,000 for an EV or hybrid car, the notion of spending “bike money” on an EV bike for general use is very, very attractive to me. I also believe that battery technology advancements and advancements in other areas of efficiency will net longer ranges on EV bikes, making it easier for me to slot into the target demographic. EV bikes are coming, they’re becoming more mainstream and lots of companies are making EV bikes their primary and secondary product focus. Like all things – the rule is adapt or die. Gas bikes aren’t going anywhere (at least for a long, long time), but ignoring electric bikes is akin to sticking your head in the sand. They’re not as prohibitively expensive as they once were, and they’re not as limited or limiting (for certain people) as one might think.

Check them out – they’re part of our future. Adapt or die.

Episode 5: Reasonable and Prudent

Episode 5, for November 22, 2009