Zero is golden.
Zero emissions, zero trips to the gas station and zero decibels of noise. This is what many people think about electric vehicles and that's what brings them shopping.
But for Zero Motorcycles, that's all ancillary. For them it's about the ride. After all, that is what motorcycle riding is all about.
The electric motorcycle is not as new as the electric car, and now with more than a dozen companies manufacturing electric bikes in the United States, it's no longer a new concept. But, if making in-roads in the electric car industry was hard, try getting an already hard-to-please crowd to buy an electric motorcycle.
Founded in 2006 by a former NASA engineer, Zero Motorcycles produced its first motorcycle in 2009 and recently unveiled two new models bringing its total line to six. Prices range from about $7,600 to just more than $14,000 and the available range is between 82 and 197 miles depending on model and options.
With partners like Showa developing the suspension, Bosch providing the anti-lock brake system and standard Pirelli tires, the company is excited about 2016, the brand name is growing and the future looks promising.
Scot Harden, vice president of Global Marketing for Zero Motorcycles, sat down with MotoSport to discuss the company, their growing pains and succeeding in not only a small but niche market.
Zero S Streetfighter
Company: Zero Motorcycles
Founders: Neal Saiki
Year Founded: 2006
Bike Models: Six
Average range: Top of the line bike with power change feature installed is 197 miles in the city.
Average charging time: Standard onboard charger takes 7 hours using a regular 110w outlet. An optional charge tank feature drops that to about 2.5 hours.
Battery life: Zero provides a five-year 100,000 mile guarantee on batteries for the S model platform. Tests show 80 percent of the battery capacity remains after 300,000 miles.
Headquarters: Scotts Valley, CA
Zero FX Stealthfighter
Interview with Zero Motorcycles
1. What's the background of Zero Motorcycles? Who founded the company and why the focus on electric motorcycles?
Zero Motorcycles was founded in 2006 by Neal Saiki, a former NASA engineer who specialized in building bicycle frames. We were originally called Electricross and operated out of a strip mall essentially building mountain bikes with electric motors. At the time, people were playing around with electric design and motors, and battery technology. Neal wanted to be the first to experience applying electric power to a two-wheeled vehicle.
2. What's been the biggest challenge to success?
Obviously there lots of challenges to success. We're building a company from scratch so everything from the manufacturing side to building a factory and setting up the sales channel to developing the technology.
We're working in an all new area and dealing with things being built for the first time. You're also figuring out putting power in a relatively small space and then starting and developing the supply chain.
Then there's the market place itself and peoples' opinions of electric bikes who have a long standing impression with motorcycles. You've got a lot of people who come with preconceived biases and we've had to address all those things.
3. Producing electric vehicles is not really a novelty anymore however it still feels to be a small segment of the market. Do you see a resistance to electric or is the technology not there yet for most buyers?
It's changing every year. Five years ago it was quite negative, now it's quite positive. More and more people are seeing the product developing and the performance of it. If you test drive a Zero motorcycle you cannot deny it's a performance machine.
Until people actually experience and ride the bike it's hard for them to accept it. Even the most biased person comes back after a ride and admits it offers a unique power. We think electric is going to be an important part of the market going forward.
Zero DS Dual Sport
4. Electric cars is one thing, electric motorcycles is another. That does feel like a novelty but at the same time because of their size, should have been first on the market and accelerating at this point. What head winds does Zero face in getting consumers to buy in?
Does it feel like a novelty? I guess until you ride one. Once you ride it, it feels like a really kick-ass motorcycle. Our whole focus is getting butts on seats - that's our strategy. We've never had someone come back from a test ride and say this bike sucks. They are smiling and they say they've never felt the torque a Zero motorcycle offers before. The headwinds for us are simply getting people to try it and it goes back to the built-in biases of the motorcycle market.
Additionally, the motorcycle market isn't all that huge and we have to work within those constraints.
5. Zero once offered the Zero MX, an electric Motocross bike but it's no longer in production, what happened to this model?
We still offer a Motocross version for military applications but we had to pick and choose where we wanted to focus our efforts. Motocross is a small segment so we picked a broader audience. We still offer one for trail applications but going after a pure Motocross bike doesn't make economic sense.
6. There have been a few sanctioned electric motorcycle racing events, most notably the Time Trials Xtreme Grand Prix (TTXGP) series. Do you see a successful racing series that caters to electric motorcycles?
I think there were a lot of things working against TTXGP. What comes first the racing series or the actual segment? You have to have manufacturers engaged in the segment and until such time we get bikes on the road I don't see where the racing series can be supported. There's got to be volumes and sales to have enough riders to support a racing series.
The area where I see the most growth and success revolves around a SuperMoto format within the inner city. There is a promoter putting together a series for 2017 that's going to take place in inner cities all across Europe using electric motorcycles. It's put together well and we think it's going to be a huge success.
Zero DSR Max Adventure
7. An enjoyable aspect of riding is using the clutch and changing gears. Are customers embracing the clutchless drivetrain or having a hard time getting used to operating without gears?
I've ridden and raced professionally all my life and I've had to use the clutch and change gears because there's no other option. It is part of the way you had to in the past. We're getting rid of all the things that complicate a ride and we're making it more simple.
Once you ride one without a clutch and transmission you quickly forget you ever need one. You're always in the meat of the power band, the bike does everything for you. Then you can focus on the ride of the bike and the seamless control you have over the machine and the connectivity you feel. You're totally zoned in to how the bike is working and the power of the rear wheel. Every time you pull on the clutch you're stopping forward momentum for an instant. An electric bike is going to be a much more efficient way to get around. It's unlike anything else.
8. Another joy of motorcycles, for some, is the sound. You'll never wrench on a Zero to get that "throaty" sound. Do you get much feedback on this?
Again, there are all sorts of things people think they want. I get it, it's part of the visceral feel. But once you ride on one and understand the difference and you can focus on the machine, the environment and your own thoughts, you don't realize how much you give up. In many ways I feel safer because you hear what's going on around you. The sound on a regular bike inoculates the sound around you. I can hear a car with its brakes locked up behind me. I can also focus what's going on around me. There's not one study that shows loud pipes save lives and if you truly believe that you'd point your pipes forward so people know you're coming.
The lack of sound is one of the most beautiful experiences of an electric bike. But is it for everybody? No.
9. Range always seems to be an issue with electric cars. However, the Zero S gets just under 200 miles before needing recharging, pretty competitive to a regular gas bike. But you can't charge up in three minutes. So, do you see advancements in range or charge time for future models?
We've been pushing the boundaries on range and the charge time is coming down. We continue to see that progress in the future so we'll have bikes that charge faster and go longer. At some point when is enough is enough? We think we're getting close but we're still working on enhancements. Plus, our bikes meet the daily needs for 90 percent of the riding public. We're close to 200 miles before charging and we'll continue to see improvement on that as we go along.
(Note: The first generation of Zero motorcycles provided a range of 20 to 25 miles with 12 horsepower. Current models offer 67 hp with 106 pounds of torque and 0-60 in 3.6 seconds. Battery capacity has jumped from 5 kilowatts an hour to 13.)
10. What's the most successful model you're selling?
Two models, the SR (top photo) and FX are our two biggest selling models. Both represent our highest performance model of the line so it shows you where the market is. The FX is also a trail bike so it appeals to a wider audience. The FX Supermoto is new this year and we think that will sell very well. It's a fun bike to ride in the inner city.
Zero FXS Supermoto
11. Obviously, we've seen gas prices ebb and flow over the years. Currently, it's below $2 a gallon in many areas. Is this a concern? Does it impact sales?
We sell the bikes based on the experience you have when you ride it. The cost (gas and maintenance) is second and third level benefits of going electric. Our primary sales position is on the experience. If you ride a Zero bike it's about the way it feels, handles and the acceleration. Are low gas prices a concern? Not really. But does it impact sales? Yes in a certain way it can.
12. What's 2016 look like for Zero?
We're really excited about 2016. We're seeing an increase in web traffic and more leads to potential customers. We had a good year in 2015 with growth in our North American markets and abroad. The brand is getting more and more well known, the product is evolving and we've expanded our product line so we're excited about what our future holds. We're just trying to build on the growth of the last few years.