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Common Tread

Gasoline vehicle bans coming and motorcycling isn't ready

Jul 05, 2019

Motorcycles could be heading for a sea change, and I’m not convinced we’re prepared for it. A list of nations, many key to motorcycling, are planning to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles within the next 10 to 20 years.

The United States is not on that list, though bans in major markets could certainly affect the number of “normal” motorcycles being produced. 

The Center for Climate Protection lists 11 nations aspiring to ban the sale of new ICE vehicles in the not-so-distant future. The list includes China (2040), India (2030), and Taiwan (motorcycles by 2035, other vehicles by 2040). Quite a bit of Europe claims to be on board, as well. These markets are enormously important to moto-kind. Should they follow through with their goals, it would be something of a paradigm shift for our sport. If they don’t, well… what was all that about?

My aim here isn’t to scare you into thinking that motorcycling as we know it will be gone so soon. (It can certainly look that way sometimes.) So far, all these “bans” are just words of intent. But the words do exist. I just want to start thinking now about the proposed laws of tomorrow, because the transition away from ICE power would have an unprecedented impact on what we can buy and ride.

EV charge point
We're going to need a lot more of these if we have to give up gasoline. Tony Webster photo via WikiMedia.

In addition to the Center for Climate Protection’s list, other countries and major cities are announcing target stop-sale dates of their own, or incentivizing the sale of EVs to pull consumers away from ICE. Most bans are slated to begin between 2030 and 2040.

Look at the new bikes on the floor at your local dealership. Odds are, every one is powered by gasoline. So what will shops sell after new ICE bikes are banned? Electric motorcycles, presumably, but they aren’t yet ready to fully take over in the minds of many riders. Count me among them. Lemmy, Spurgeon, and Joe discussed some of these issues in the latest episode of Highside/Lowside

If I know Common Tread, someone’s already writing in to say that their local dealer carries Zero (or another brand’s) electric motorcycles, which is great. Could they carry the entire industry in 10 years? In a 2018 press release, Zero CEO Sam Paschel claimed they were selling more electric motorcycles than all their competitors combined. Business Insider quoted their annual sales at about 2,000 units for that same year. If Paschel’s numbers are right, that puts total electric motorcycle sales in the United States at less than 4,000 units for 2018. Zero and other EV manufacturers continue to grow, though they'd have a long road ahead, even with the help of larger manufacturers transitioning away from ICE. Most major manufacturers have at least shown EV concepts at this point, but they're nowhere near ready to replace all the ICE motorcycles on showroom floors with electric alternatives. Maybe we’d just have hellacious waiting lists if we want to buy new.

Of course, a ban on new ICE vehicles is not an end to the use or sale of used ones. Used motorcycles can last a very long time with some maintenance and care, though I can’t help but think that the spirit of these bans would prompt the gradual decline of used bikes as ICE is fully purged.

Not just what we ride, but how we ride

Again, I’m not trying to be an alarmist here. I just don’t think motorcycling is ready to ditch ICE on these very short, published phase-out timelines. Batteries are still a major bottleneck. Alternative energy sources, like hydrogen fuel cells, aren’t coming to the motorcycle’s rescue in any kind of hurry.

In more than a century of using ICE vehicles as our main mode of personal transportation, we have developed a vast infrastructure to support that. You can refuel in minutes and go just about anywhere, except really remote areas, without thinking too much about it. Not so with an electric motorcycle, which can't carry as much battery weight as a larger car. The existing EV infrastructure is heavily biased towards urban centers. Would you still try to take a long-distance trip on a motorcycle given the challenges of refueling? What about off-road riding away from the grid?

Phasing out ICE motorcycles would push riding more toward urban commuting. Electric motorcycles and bicycles are good at that. At least until the vehicles themselves and the infrastructure to support them improve, eliminating ICE motorcycles would change the way we ride, as well as what we ride.

Again, no phase-out date has been set for ICE vehicles in the United States. And for those other countries, the words are still just words until someone actually makes ICE vehicles illegal. What all this ban business really does is communicate to manufacturers that they’d better be spending some time looking past gas, because fossil fuels don't fit into zero-emissions aspirations very well.

Whatever happens, there was motorcycling, and it was great, and I was there for it.