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.
Combined with innovations like hydraulic final drive and kinetic energy recovery systems, electric Grand Prix motorcycles might well be the first to reach the 300 mph barrier on closed circuits. If this sounds nuts, consider that when automobile engineers started trying to make cars go faster at the dawn of the 20th Century, some people speculated that the human body couldn’t withstand speeds in excess of 40 mph. In drag racing of the early ‘60s, a kind of mystical speed barrier arose that had even some professional drivers seriously doubting the possibility of a 200 mph quarter-mile run. In 1964 Don Garlits broke the 200 mph milestone, which sparked a rapid smashing of records. Today, 330 mph runs are commonplace. Brave new world.
It may be hard to imagine a future MotoGP paddock absent of the wonderful smell of race fuel wafting in the air. For hardcore fanatics this is an essential elixir of life. We associate the smell with titanium two-wheel exotic and the Roman gladiators who work magic piloting them. However, when you think about it, the smell actually isn’t all that pleasant. It’s the associations with it that render it an aphrodisiac. Who’s to say that future generations of rabid fans of modern MotoGP won’t derive the same excitement from the smell of super-heated copper coils, or the aroma created when electrical arcs split oxygen molecules and they recombine into O3? Brave new world.
If this all sounds like science fiction, it is. Just wait until the ingenuity of devoted geniuses is combined with the sheer economic muscle of manufacturers to create better, faster, more powerful electric motorcycles for the sake of commerce; we’re going to see some stellar machines emerge. Certainly, I will be among the sentimentalists conjuring memories of the good ole days, recalling the snap and snarl of an internal combustion-powered Grand Prix machine. But who’s to say electric GP machines won’t acquire similar aural declarations of power and threat? The smooth whir of a high performance electric coil engine will certainly emit its own signature sound when ridden in anger. And naturally, we will come to equate those sounds and smells with adrenaline, with speed, with champions. Especially when those machines begin to eclipse the current era’s records.
It may be hard to imagine the exquisite, multi-million-dollar works of titanium and milled aluminum that comprise present-day MotoGP machinery will, some day, be regarded as antiques. I often think of this when perusing race machines from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I look at them, with their charming but questionable frames and brakes and wheels, and think that in their day this was the pinnacle of race technology. So, it will happen again; time will make everything an antique.
The world is turning a collective new leaf, with more people than ever conscious of the environment and going green. Even staunch conservatives and conspiracy theorists are all chiming in with acceptance of climate change and diminishing fossil fuels. The green movement has sparked a rise in inventions to counter the impact man has had on the Earth. Electric vehicles are going to figure prominently in this brave new world.
With the surge of innovation currently taking place with electric motorcycles it’s funny to think that in the late 1800s there was serious discussion of closing the patent office because some people figured everything that was ever going to be invented, had been. Although the technology will evolve, ushering in new eras of wizardry, we needn’t worry about one thing; racing will never go away. So long as there are vehicles that are propelled by some source of power, and there are at least two of them, there’s going to be a race.
It’s academic; in time, alternative-powered motorcycles will replace the vaunted internal combustion machines of MotoGP. SR