When I was a kid I remember seeing artists’ renditions in Popular Science that promised a future of electric vehicles. They appeared with the same frequency as sketches of airborne men wearing jet packs and commuters whizzing around modern metropolises in flying cars. We’re still waiting for the jet packs and flying Buicks; however, electric vehicles have taken position front and center, with electric motorcycles enjoying a particularly rapid evolution.
I recently rode a Brammo electric motorcycle and during the course of the ride suddenly found myself seriously considering the ramifications. Being propelled down the street at a decent clip with only the whir of the chain and the sound of the tires against the pavement, all I could think of was the title of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World.
In the early years of electric vehicles the impetus seemed to revolve around invention for invention’s sake. Today their advancements are driven by much more prevalent concerns, primarily the environment and the volatility of a world dependent on foreign crude. The world has finally figured out we need to find alternatives, fast. This imposing necessity is proving to be a very good mother in terms of invention.
Nowhere is this progress more evident than at racetracks. Over the past few years electric motorcycles have endeared themselves to race fans in a new, hotly contested class at the vaunted Isle of Man, as well as several race series. Anyone who has seen them run knows these machines aren’t exactly the docile playthings that appeared in the pages of Popular Science. These new generation electric motorcycles possess impressive speed and power. Last year, as I watched the electric bikes circulate the Laguna Seca circuit during an exhibition race over the MotoGP weekend, I started thinking of where all this might lead.
It’s academic; in time, alternative-powered motorcycles will replace the vaunted internal combustion machines of MotoGP. It certainly won’t happen overnight, but inevitably, alternative-powered motorcycles will surpass contemporary fossil fuel-burning engines in terms of performance. This will be due the simple reality that combustion engines — in order to comply with increasingly stringent emission levels — will be severely burdened with restrictions, removing the motivation for continued R&D while placing more emphasis on the development of alternative power sources. Who knows what those other sources will be and what we’ll see emerge in the coming years. For now, the solution is skewing in favor of electricity.
Before calling foul on this thinking, consider that there was a time during the two-stroke reign in MotoGP that the notion of running a four-stroke powerplant would have been considered ludicrous. However, the polluting nature of a two-stroke engine (on average expelling as much as 30 percent of its fuel/oil mixture un-burnt into the atmosphere) destined it to eventually being outlawed (hence the switch to four-strokes). In turn, the transfer-port wizards of the paddock and clean rooms sunk their imaginative minds into the mechanizations of valves and cams and the results, needless to say, have been astounding.
When inventors put their hearts and minds to a challenge they tend to make prodigious advances. Those advances contribute to an exponential surge, given that each new discovery contributes to an acceleration of progress. As a result, there’s no telling where it all will go — or how quickly. The new generation of electric motorcycles are already proving themselves in terms of power. The hurdle now — as it has always been — is the battery source. That said, I believe someone is going to come out of left field with an innovation that will radically alter battery endurance and weight. It will probably happen much the way the invention of the transistor made vacuum tubes obsolete overnight.