The Way of the Future? Zero Motorcycle

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Liz Clubine
May 1 2009

It’s no surprise to anyone that the volatility of gas prices, especially in the summer of 2008, had people scrambling for a more economical way to travel. Speed limits were more likely to be adhered to, SUVs were parked while compact cars were the four-wheeled vehicle of choice, and the motorcycle and scooter industry sold two-wheeled vehicles to some of those who didn’t think they would ever get on a motorcycle. All in the name of saving a bit of precious fuel, and your hard earned cash. Even though fuel prices have come down to somewhat reasonable levels, those days of over-priced gas are still on the minds of consumers everyday.

When there’s a will, there’s a way

Necessity is the mother of invention and while electric vehicles have been being developed in the background for many years, they are just recently becoming a viable means of transport.

Many people still have the misconception that the electric vehicle is slow, doesn’t run long enough on a charge, takes too long to charge, too expensive to buy or still considers battery-powered vehicles not worth the cost to charge in comparison to the price of electricity. I have to say I had those, or most of those misconceptions until recently.

I met up with Stephen Bieda, Director of Sales in Canada, at the World of Motorcycles Expo in London, ON where I had the opportunity to ride the Zero motorcycle on a dirt floor in the arena.

The Zero motorcycle is the brainchild of Neal Saiki, an engineer who has worked for NASA and has a number of inventions to his credit; including a human-powered helicopter and world championship lightweight mountain bike designs. The same lightweight designs went into the Zero motorcycle. The frame is built of aircraft grade aluminum and tips the scales at only 8.2 kg (18 lbs). The whole bike, for that matter, weighs in at a paltry 68.5 kg (151 lbs).

The Riding Experience

Bieda explained the various ‘three-speeds’ to me. There is a ‘low acceleration-low speed’ mode, a ‘low acceleration-high speed’ mode and a ‘high acceleration-high speed’ mode. All modes are pretty self-explanatory. One inconvenience of changing modes is that you have to stop the bike and turn off the key to switch modes via the positioning of two buttons on the dash panel. The modes do not have to be changed while riding, but it would be helpful to change the mode if coming off the highway and spending time in the city in stop-and-go traffic.

Controls are minimal since there is no clutch or traditional gears, just an off-on switch, the two mode switches, a left hand operated rear brake lever and the traditional right hand front brake lever.

Bieda started me off in ‘low accel-low speed’ mode. This is pretty docile and, ironically, what I sort of expected from an electric bike. After a few laps of the arena, and trying all the speeds, I have to say that it was a good thing he started me off in low speed mode. The ‘high accel-high speed’ mode could have easily ripped the bars from my hands had I not been warned to hold on and to expect the unexpected. I was seriously surprised at the speed of this little bike, completely knocking down the misconception that ‘battery- powered vehicles are slow’.

The Zero’s electric motor delivers 50 ft-lbs of torque and 23 horsepower and has instantaneous throttle response since 100% of the torque is available at all times. This provides incredible off-the-line performance that includes a spinning rear wheel, and wheelies if you’re not careful. The motor is capable of propelling the bike from 0-50 km/h in only two seconds. One of the strangest things is that you associate power with the sound of a running engine, but with the Zero there is no sound. The motor is completely silent with only the sound of the chain rubbing on the chain guide while riding. It is very deceiving.

“On our website we have a video showing a YZ250 on a drag strip running on asphalt running against this bike (the Zero) and it smoked the YZ up to about 30 or 40 mph,” Bieda said. “The Zero has a top speed of about 50 mph.” After that comment, Bieda proceeded to show me some videos on his laptop of a professional motocross racer tearing up a woodlot’s hilly terrain and he was getting some serious air from the little bike.

Ok, so we’ve knocked down one of the previously mentioned misconceptions of speed. As for the other perceived misconceptions of electric vehicles, a fully charged battery in the Zero will last about two-hours in ‘high accel-high speed’ mode according to Bieda, and a completely dead battery will charge in about two-hours in a 120-volt outlet and about half that time in a 220-volt receptacle. The Zero website claims it costs less than $0.01 per mile. That cost is of course dependent on the price of electricity, but regardless, it is not expensive to charge. Again, according to the Zero website, a charge should last up to 40 miles, that is only 40 cents per charge.

As for the price of the Zero, it is a valid concern and it’s obvious that electric vehicles are still on the high side, although as they become more efficient and in more demand, the cost of ownership usually goes down. The Zero retails for $9,450 US dollars. Units are only available through the website so the cost in Canadian dollars will fluctuate depending on where the Loonie sits in comparison. The lifespan of the non-toxic lithium-ion, landfill friendly battery is about 5-6 years but at today’s price that battery will set you back $2,950 US greenbacks.

The Zero that I rode briefly is for dirt only, but there is hope in the near future for a Supermoto street version. Bieda told me that a new Zero ‘S’ model will be released around May of this year and will be DOT approved for the street and that it should have a top speed of about 65-70 mph (105-113 km/h).

Bieda estimates that within 3-4 years, every dealership in Canada will be selling some sort of electric vehicle. It may just be the wave of the future, but for us die-hard motorcycle types, they may need to add a sound track so it at least sounds like a gas engine.

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