Common Tread

Major motorcycle manufacturers carefully testing electric market

Jul 31, 2017

Will 2018 finally be the year that major motorcycle manufacturers begin introducing other electric two-wheeler options to the U.S. market?

There’s reason to hope. Last week, KTM announced a pilot program that would make its electric dirt bike, the Freeride E-XC, available in limited numbers at selected dealers at a special, low price. Last month, Honda CEO and president Takhiro Hachigo confirmed the company would produce an electric scooter in 2018 (though no word on whether or when it will come to the United States).

What’s interesting to me is that these moves by established motorcycle companies, as tentative as they may be, show attention being paid to areas where I believe electric motorcycles could really gain some traction. How many off-road riding areas or motocross tracks have been closed in recent decades due to urban sprawl? Rising land prices are part of the reason, but the biggest source of complaints is noise. Noise is very limited if you’re riding an electric dirt bike. Similarly, an electric scooter addresses the need for urban transportation just as more and more people, especially young ones, are living in urban areas, and cities such as London and Paris are restricting gas vehicles in the city center because of growing pollution concerns.

KTM Freeride E-XC
The KTM Freeride E-XC is one of three versions of the Freeride sold in Europe. KTM photo.

The electric orange option

KTM has been selling three versions of its Freeride E — a motocrosser, an enduro and a supermoto — in Europe for some time. KTM’s pilot program will make a small number of E-XC enduro models available from 11 selected dealerships with employees who have been trained to service the electric motorcycles. The good news is that the Freeride E-XC will cost just $8,299. The bad news is that those 11 authorized dealers may not be close to you. There are more authorized dealers in the pilot program in southern California than all the states east of the Mississippi River. Here’s where you will be able to buy a Freeride E-XC:

  • Moto City KTM in Avondale, Arizona
  • 3 Bros KTM of Orange County in Costa Mesa, California
  • CJ KTM of Murrieta in Murrieta, California
  • KTM of Roseville in Roseville, California
  • Malcolm Smith Motorsports in Riverside, California
  • Elite Motorsports KTM in Loveland, Colorado
  • Larsons Cycle in Cambridge, Minnesota
  • Edelman’s KTM in Troy, New York
  • Solid Performance KTM in Downingtown, Pennsylvania
  • Adventure Powersports KTM in McKinney, Texas
  • KTM of North Texas in Arlington, Texas

The most direct competition currently available in the United States is the Alta Redshift MX, though the two are sufficiently different that they probably don't even qualify as competitors. The Redshift MX costs $14,995 and is considerably more powerful.

KTM Freeride E-XC battery
The battery on the KTM Freeride E-XC is easily swappable, so you can put in a fresh one and keep riding. The bad news is that buying a second battery increases the cost of the bike by more than a third. KTM photo.

The biggest challenge for the KTM Freeride E-XC is likely to be the same one faced by street-going electric motorcycles: range. How many people will want to go to their off-road riding area, spend an hour riding and then spend more than an hour recharging (assuming you have appropriate electrical supply nearby, since the Freeride uses 220V). Gas-engine vehicles have the huge advantage of more than a century’s head start in terms of supporting infrastructure.

Hold that thought because it becomes an issue in the second half of this story, too.

Honda EV-Cub
Honda first showed the EV-Cub concept bike in 2009 with two-wheel drive. This version, shown in 2015, looks a lot closer to a production model. Honda photo.

Meanwhile, back on the city streets…

The other easy bet is that Honda will finally introduce the production version of the EV-Cub scooter it has displayed as a concept bike. I’m already on record as saying it could have a big impact similar to the original Cub (about 90 million sold since 1958). I can easily imagine the combination of retro style cues, an air of greenness, low maintenance requirements and high tech (tune it with your smart phone?) appealing to young non-motorcyclists throughout the developed world, as long as the price isn’t prohibitive. We are also still waiting for Yamaha to put its PES1 (street) and PED1 (dirt) electric concept bikes into production.

Those two Japanese companies have been working cooperatively on domestic-market electric motorcycles and scooters since last year and recently announced a partnership to create a rental service in Saitama City in Japan, and that goes back to the infrastructure issue.

The Saitama City experiment is more about building a system to support electric scooters than building the machines themselves. When Honda builds a new CBR1000RR, it only has to worry about the competitors’ products, not whether the consumer will be able to use it. There’s already a gas station located nearby in any country where consumers have the wherewithal to buy a CBR. Not so with electric scooters. Whether the Saitama City project will use swappable batteries, like the Gogoro scooter model in Taiwan and elsewhere, or fast-charging stations or both, is yet to be seen. Making the electric vehicle convenient to use is as important as building it in the first place.

Lots of experienced motorcyclists will scoff at a small scooter or a dirt bike that needs recharged after an hour. They’ll rush to read about the latest electric superbike that goes 200 mph and costs $75,000 (you can get your name on the list to buy one just by setting fire to sending $1,000 to the entrepreneur's Kickstarter campaign!). But an electric bike that allows an off-road riding area to remain open in a suburban area close to the population or an electric scooter that provides an attractive urban transportation option and entices non-motorcyclists to learn to ride will ultimately have more impact than another superbike that may never reach production.