Four-hundred-nine comments and counting. This the response by the readership on this site five days after Kate Murphy posted news about Kawasaki’s intention to have a full non-internal-combustion-fueled lineup by the year 2035 in developed countries. Commenters were as heated as if the issue was abortion, climate change, or Ducati’s adoption of valve springs. Much rage and rhetoric for a story about a manufacturer’s intention for its lineup 13 years down the road. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Vehicle electrification is the latest instance in which technological change has been amplified into political divisiveness.
Some older readers were so gleeful they’d be dead before Kawasaki’s electrification deadline they taunted those who’d have to live through it. The debate and its divide were succinctly summed up in two comments: one wrote the “transition away from fossil fuels makes this an exciting time to be alive,” while another suggested the electric motorcycle be shoved up the behinds of the hipster crowd.
How is it that a motorcycle’s propulsion system has become a line-in-the-sand, with-us-or-against-us proposition? Supporters of electrification are cleaved into the tofu-munching, Prius-driving, liberal “elites” camp, while proponents of internal combustion are right-wing, anti-vaxxers, and climate change deniers.
For this column, I’d considered researching what would have been a tediously time-consuming piece to write on electrification and how it’s seemingly poised to supplant internal combustion. To address issues of vehicle range, battery development, and the environmental cost of extracting from the earth the materials needed for the production of those batteries. But I realized there was little point. The first time my research contradicted a belief held sacrosanct by a reader, I’d be dismissed as belonging to the enemy camp. The idea that unbiased research can substantiate fact is as out of fashion as a circa-2013 Arlen Ness signature edition Victory Vision.
It’s hard to conceive of a world without the internal combustion engine. As a 10-year-old, I found a lawnmower without wheels in the garbage across town and dragged it home. Three long miles of metal-on-asphalt screeching. The lure was to get the lawnmower running. This idea, that engines left for dead could be brought to life, was so powerful it didn’t matter what kind of engine it was. If it had a piston, I was in.
Contrast this to the electric motor. When my father saved a motor from a rusted-out washing machine to power a wire brush or grinding wheel, it was done solely for practicality. If the motor was dead we’d pitch it in the bin without remorse. But the world of internal combustion, with its valves and camshafts and crankshafts, is so wonderfully visceral many of us construct a hierarchy from the sounds they make.
My aural motorcycle hall of fame—yours, surely, will differ—starts at the bottom with singles and Japanese fours. Italian and English triples are next up. Things become stirring at V-twins, though I’ll make a distinction between an athletic KTM or Ducati, which I very much like the sound of, and narrow-angle cruiser V-twins, which sound too plodding to my ear. And the top of the heap? Aprilia’s V4. It has sophistication on heavy throttle that’s offset by a raucous burble on the overrun. Such romantic language to describe nothing more than a pump that ingests fuel and air and expels spent gases.
Electricity, as a means of power for motorcycles, poses a challenge for designers and engineers far greater than merely providing sufficient range or power. Electricity’s problem is as a means of emotive power. Most motorcycles I’ve owned have been chosen, in large part, for the way they sounded. But in blaming electric motorcycles for not sounding as evocative as a Vincent Black Shadow, we’re sidestepping our contribution to the conundrum.
Electric vehicles are not, as many believe, as silent as a snowy wood on a winter’s eve. Some whisper, true, but some are surprisingly loud. The problem is that we, as enthusiasts, don’t yet have the language to describe electric vehicles on their own terms. We’re always comparing them to internal combustion engines. My experience with electric motorcycles is limited, but if I wrote about them regularly, I’d have to find a new vocabulary to articulate how they sound, feel, and respond. Once you get beyond hard numbers of cost and range, the terms we use to describe motorcycles are similar to how we’d describe most things that delight the senses.
When I was 23, all single malt tasted the same. When I became interested in the Beethoven string quartets, at about the same age, all performances sounded alike. And while I don’t have the most delicate palate or a musician’s ear, in the intervening years my ability to sidestep rot gut and uninspired musicianship has increased exponentially. The difference is my experience.
I suspect—and it’s nothing beyond a hunch—that my middle-of-the-road views on motorcycle electrification fall within the silent majority’s. I’ve wired houses and hunted down electrical gremlins on motorcycles and old cars but electricity remains, for me, too abstract a concept to easily warm to. But I don’t want to dismiss things out of inexperience. Had I done so, my diet would never have grown to include ceviche or ahi tuna or any number of foods that horrified me as a teenager. I also harbor skepticism over range claims by manufacturers of electric vehicles, just as I’m wary of horsepower claims by manufacturers of internal combustion engines. But there’s a gulf of difference between wariness and dismissiveness.
I’m also bullish on young engineers and designers. Electric motorcycles will be their life’s work, and they’ll take every reference from the history of motorcycling—from a Tamburini tail section to a Terblanche headlight—and distill the essence of the best that’s come before into the machines they make. Before we judge electric motorcycles, it’s worth remembering they’re in their nascent stages. Predictably, many of today’s electric bikes ape gas-burning bikes without much originality. But once the freedom from having to accommodate radiators and exhaust pipes and gas tanks is fully grasped—as is the necessity to creatively incorporate electric motors and batteries—electric motorcycle design will undoubtedly flourish. It’s worth remembering it took four decades for the Mennonite-buggy aesthetic of Ford’s Model T to morph into the sublimity of Lamborghini’s Miura.
“In 21st century America,” writes Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, “everything is political.” But the nature of the current political climate—where you’re coerced into one of two diametrically opposed camps—is profoundly demoralizing. It’s an attack on logic, civility, and reason. And that we discuss electrification using the narrow-minded rhetoric of political opportunists knocks all of us to our knees. In reading the comments following Kate’s Kawasaki post—and if you have the stomach to dig beneath the bombast I’d encourage you to do so, too—I was invigorated by the complexity of the issues raised by those for and against electrification.
We should also take solace in knowing that in our struggle to adopt new technology we’re not alone. An English magazine, dedicated to tractor enthusiasts, lamented new tractors lacked the soul of old ones. The magazine’s tone was alarmist. Its readership as disgruntled as those who’d commented sharply about Kawasaki’s all-electric mandate. The tractor magazine in question was published in the immediate years after World War I, and the upcoming threat was not electrification, but the internal combustion engine—because nothing, alas, has the soul of a huffing, puffing, steam engine.