One day, one of the major Japanese motorcycle makers is going to produce an electric motorcycle, and it will signal the beginning of a large shift in our sport.
One day, someday. But not today.
Forget for a moment the recent development and offerings of electric scooters from Honda, Yamaha, BMW and Piaggio/Vespa. Good news, but those are not motorcycles, and not on the same level as the electric options we now enjoy from market leader Zero, mainstream legacy maker Harley-Davidson (via new sub-brand LiveWire), and some other boutique makers like Lightning and Energica. However, as of late there have been more rumblings that Kawasaki may getting ready to enter the fray.
Admittedly, Big Green’s electric bike news has been less than electrifying, including a reworked Ninja project called “EV Endeavor” that seemed toy-like compared to the LiveWire and Zero offerings and a far-from-production chassis called EV Project shown at EICMA 2019 that may hold some design ideas for the future but reportedly was only good for under 30 horsepower max and had limited range. Clearly, a work in progress. Interesting note: It had a 4-speed gearbox.
But Kawasaki appears to be soldiering on, and now that the motorcycle division of Kawasaki Heavy Industries Limited has been spun off as Kawasaki Motors, perhaps a little bit more passion and less corporate control can breathe new life into the, uh, endeavor.
Kawasaki Motors has essentially declared that they will only be producing electric vehicles for primary markets by 2035, which is both 14 long years from now but also only 14 years from now, if you get my meaning. And it still seems as though a viable, competitive electric motorcycle of any type is years away from showrooms, both from Kawasaki and its Japanese competitors. Meanwhile, supercharged gassers like the Ninja H2 continue to roll off assembly lines.
Motorcycle companies, like car companies, are fighting a three-way skirmish with the future across demand, development and regulation. While they continue to make gobsmackingly fast and innovative gas-powered motorcycles, the future isn’t going to be kind to those same ICE machines both in terms of emissions regulations and even flat-out bans on gas-powered vehicles in a growing list of metropolises. Meanwhile, consumers are warming to electric vehicles (especially cars) at the same time as the technology rapidly matures, making the cars (and bikes) cheaper to make for manufacturers, which can make higher profits on them – a powerful motivator of change.
Think of the simplicity of a 110hp Zero SR/S drivetrain (battery plus simple air-cooled electric motor plus belt) compared to the thousands of parts that go into the drivetrain of an H2: highly complex four-cylinder gas engine plus a supercharger plus a six-speed transmission with slipper clutch and speed shifter, and an exhaust system that meets EURO 5 trying to strangle all that horsepower, and so on. Meanwhile, the electric machine makers are just waiting for battery tech to give them the needed range and quick charging ability, and it seems like there’s a possible battery breakthrough about every other week that could turn the tide. Eventually, soon it would seem, it will happen.
Once the battery tech matures and electric motorcycles can go 500 miles on a charge, gas-powered machines will quickly become the purview of back-in-the-day enthusiasts and collectors (like me). Sad to say, but gas-powered bikes are about as good as they’re going to get due to the limitations of the energy density of gasoline, the complex development required to extract ever smaller gains from gas engines and the cost to develop and produce those amazing reciprocating power plants. Eventually, gassers lose on every front, except perhaps noise production, which isn’t everyone’s thing anyway. But speed, torque and smoothness all seem to rank pretty highly amongst most riders I know, and electric bikes I’ve ridden to date have them in abundance – and will only get better.
Having ridden the Zero SR/S for months at a time, I can attest to the performance capabilities and other advantages over gassers – notably the glassy smoothness of their power train. It can make you a convert quite quickly if only for the limited battery range; which is a problem that will be solved, likely long before 2035. No wonder Kawasaki is pushing its chips in. It will be interesting to see who will debut the first true large-scale production electric motorcycle to come from Japan. Who do you think it will be? And are you interested?