In the first eight parts of this column, we only touched on a few significant events of the past two centuries of motorcycle evolution. There have been many other developments that haven't been mentioned, in every part of the bikes; from tires to transmissions, from brakes to batteries, and from frames to fuel-delivery. There are hundreds of other motorcycles that were ground-breaking in one area or another; either faster than earlier models, or better-handling, or lighter, or more reliable, or with dramatically new design.
How will motorcycles evolve in the future? As technology progresses, motorcycles will certainly become more powerful through both larger-displacement engines and developments in turbo-charging and super-charging. Today, a 1000cc bike can be built as light as a 500cc bike was 40 years ago. Will the future develop a 2000cc bike that weighs 500 pounds? Will that happen in 20 years rather than in 40? Or might it happen in 10 years?
There are many do-it-yourself motorcyclists who prefer that bikes remain simple. Some prefer carburetors over fuel-injection, kick-starters over electric-start, and even cable-actuated drum-brakes over hydraulic disc-brakes. There are others who have found that modern bikes require less maintenance and fewer repairs. It's difficult to say what's better: to be able to work on your bike yourself or to have to work on it less often?
Superbike competition has developed from a racing series for street-bikes to mass-production race-bikes being sold to the general public. The science and technology of Moto GP has trickled down to Superbike and to the motorcycles we buy and ride in the streets. Developments in electronics have made ultra-high powered motorcycles safer for any of us to ride. Electronics have also become less expensive. Only a decade ago, anti-lock brakes were available only on the flag-ship top-of-the-line models from a small handful of the largest manufacturers for about a thousand-dollar premium. Today, ABS can be included on an entry-level motorcycle for about a $300 add-on. Will anti-lock brakes, traction-control, lean-angle sensors and electronically adjustable suspension be carried over to dirt-bikes? Would you want a motocross bike that you can quickly tune and adjust for mud, dunes or deserts, flat-tracks or mountains? Would you want a motocross bike that adjusts itself? Will the industry develop cleaner-burning two-stroke engines?
There is no doubt that we eventually need to end our dependence on oil and that someday, the internal combustion engine might be a thing of the past. Will this happen in 20 years or in another 200 years? The fuel cost for electric power is approximately 25 percent the cost of gasoline power. People have been experimenting with electric-powered bicycles and motorcycles for over a century now - since 1911.
Some of the drawbacks to electric motorcycles are speed and they have to be recharged often. Charging a battery is not as quick and convenient as filling up a fuel tank. It may have to sit on a charger overnight. As a motorcyclist who enjoys touring and traveling, there's nothing like the freedom of going out on the open road and exploring until I get tired. It might be quite some time before we can look forward to riding 500 or 1000 miles in a day on an electric motorcycle.
Another major drawback to an electric-powered motorcycle is that it is not perceived as being visceral. It doesn't deliver the same emotional rush as a fire breathing, heavy metal engine vibrating between your thighs and roaring out of your tail-section. I don't know anyone who is interested in buying a new motorcycle that is slower than the last one they had.
Things are changing. Electric motorcycles are now being raced at the Isle of Man TT, achieving speeds of 154 mph. MotoCzysz, a Portland, OR based company won the 2010 Isle of Man TT-Zero with an average lap speed of almost 97 mph. In 2014, the Mugen Shinden company of Japan won the TT-Zero with average lap speeds of over 117 mph, a 20 mph improvement in lap-speeds, in only four years.
The KillaCycle of New Zealand ran the quarter-mile drag strip in 7.864 seconds at 169 mph in 2009. In 2014, Lightning Motorcycles SuperBike set a land-speed record for electrics of 218 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
In 2014, Harley-Davidson exposed their Project LiveWire. Although this electric motorcycle is not in production, H-D toured their network of dealerships across the US with a fleet of LiveWire bikes allowing their loyal customers to test-ride and to receive feedback. Currently, The Project LiveWire tour is travelling through the H-D dealerships in Europe. Clearly, Harley-Davidson needs to know more about what consumers want before they put the LiveWire into production.
The Polaris company, known for their All-Terrain Vehicles and Utility Vehicles, bought the Brammo company in early 2015, to add to their portfolio including Indian and Victory Motorcycles. Brammo Electric Motorcycles of Ashland, OR had developed their Empulse model to sustain 100 mph and to run for 100 miles on a single charge. Hopefully, this means that if I ride at an average speed of 50 mph, I might be able to go 200 miles on a single charge, which is a respectable four-hour day of riding.
KTM, the Austrian motorcycle builder best-known for their dirt bikes, has introduced the Freeride-E in cross-country, Supercross, and Motard version. It weighs 198 lbs and will run for 90 minutes on a charge. 90 minutes is pretty good for a day of dirt riding. The idea of a dirt bike that doesn't make any noise in the forest will also get smiles from the Sierra Club. Zero Motorcycles of Santa Cruz, CA successfully tested the Zero-X in a 24 Hour, 500 mile, off-road endurance competition.
Racing improves the breed. When they start selling an electric motorcycle at a reasonable price that is truly exhilarating to ride, I'll probably buy one.
Fascinating Fact: The average speed of 97 mph achieved by Moto Czysz at the Isle of Man TT in 2010 is similar to how motorcycles performed on the same course in the late 60s and early 70s.Part Two: Early European and British Motorcycles
Part Three: The First American Motorcycles
Part Six: The Later 20th Century: The Baby Boomers Become Young Adults
Part Seven: The Super Seventies
Part Eight: The American & Italian Connection