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The future is electric … or is it?

What does the future look like for electric motorcycles? Basiru Terry provides his 'motorcyclist' view.

Are electric motorcycles viable?

Several years ago I remember being invited to test a new electric motorcycle concept with Abdul Terry. It seemed very secretive but it did provide me with my first hands on impression of an electric motorcycle. I came away feeling confused. Clearly electric motorcycles are the future but when will that be and what challenges does it bring? The near instantaneous delivery of power and torque was addictive and a thrill I quickly got used to. The lack of a clutch made it feel more like a scooter but again it was something that I got used to. Noise was the biggest thing that was missing. The unique sound of a triple or the booming sound of a twin. Part of the experience of riding is hearing the noise of the engine as it builds through the rev range. At the time I felt that this was a significant issue but over the years, like with many things, again this is something I feel people will get used to… eventually.

Electric motorcycles have been around for many years in some shape or form and many big manufacturers are clearly working in this area. Nevertheless, whilst in the UK we have seen a steady increase in the number of electric and hybrid cars, motorcycles have seemingly been slower to move in this direction. One barrier is the lack of charging facilities. Within a two mile radius of where I live, there are approximately five petrol stations with on average 8 separate pumps in each station. Having checked, there appears to be three electric charging stations in the same area but with only two charging points at each station. Perhaps the biggest barrier is that charge times can be restrictively long for the range being offered currently. Battery technology and size may be a factor here. Imagine being invited for a Sunday ride with friends at the last moment but realising that you need to charge up. Whereas with a current motorcycle I can easily go to one of the five petrol stations near me and fill up in under five minutes, with an electric motorcycle I would have to hope to find a space at one of the three charging stations near me (if I do not have the ability to charge at home) and then wait for, in many cases, hours to charge. If I try and cut the charge short I will be severely restricting my range which in itself could cause issues during my ride. The spur of the moment feeling has gone along with my friends! Perhaps an immediate solution is to have stations in the UK where batteries can be easily swapped out?

So what does the future hold?

I am confident that advances in battery technology will continue to see batteries get smaller and smaller but delivering longer and longer ranges (we should consider the environmental impact of producing and disposing of these batteries). Nevertheless, infrastructure will clearly need to improve and a solution found to reduce charge times safely.

I mentioned a solution possibly being stations where batteries are replaced easily. This could help increase the boom in e-scooters and electric mopeds rather than full motorcycles where the battery may be imbedded in the structure and chassis.

Clearly there are challenges and solutions on the horizon but it is inevitable that electric motorcycles are the future. E-scooters and electric mopeds will more than likely continue to dominate the market until the infrastructure and technology catch up to make owning an electric motorcycle a feasible reality for many.

Impact on vulnerable road users?

An obvious benefit of electric motorcycles becoming more prevalent is a reduction in noise pollution coming from motorcycles. In the UK, the noise limit for a motorbike is set at 80dB, with an extra 6dB added to account for mechanical noise but it is important to note that this is measured in a very specific way as a ride-by at 50kph. Standard bikes can get away with higher noise levels in static tests or at higher speeds and still pass the required limit for 50kph (track day enthusiasts will be aware of the tests before you are allowed to ride on track). Now many bikers adhere to the belief that a loud exhaust is safer and actually saves lives but a Romanian study (undertaken by the Romanian Association for the Development of Motorcycling together with the Polytechnic University of Bucharest’s Department of Motor Vehicles) has seemingly debunked this. The results indicated that at a distance of 15 metres behind a car, a driver will not be able to hear a motorcycle exhaust. At 10 metres behind the human ear will pick up a loud motorcycle exhaust but will struggle to work out the direction the sound is coming from. The study actually found that a driver will only be aware of a loud motorcycle once it draws level and passes the car. Clearly it will be too late by this point to have an effect.

Many motorcyclists (myself included) will highlight several instances when they believe that their motorcycle exhaust noise has saved them from a potential collision with a car. On many occasions I have blipped my throttle before passing a vehicle to alert them of my presence. I can also recall many examples where stationary traffic has moved slightly to allow me to filter well before I have reached the vehicles. This, I believe, has been caused by my motorcycle’s exhaust noise alerting them to my presence. However, with studies such as the one above and the increasing clamp down on noisy motorcycles, it is clear that this is not a view shared by all (the DFT announced in 2019 that they would be trialling noise cameras designed to crack down on motorists breaching noise limits). Nevertheless, whilst motorcyclists may be concerned with the lack of noise potentially exposing them to greater risk of a collision, what will be impact of electric motorcycles on other vulnerable road users such as pedestrians?

Smart phones distracting pedestrians as they cross the road, are a common sight and that is with vehicle noise potentially alerting individuals of oncoming traffic. Noise cancelling headphones are used by many and potentially exacerbate the problem. We have seen a sharp increase in the number of accidents recently involving e-scooters. What will be the effect of more electric motorcycles being on the road? It seems inevitable that there will be a corresponding sharp increase in the number of accidents involving motorcycles and pedestrians which may be reflected in insurance premiums and concern from insurers. So we are potentially faced with an increase in the number of collisions involving motorcycles and other vehicles and an increase in accidents between motorcycles and pedestrians. I am aware that some manufacturers are exploring the development of automatic brakes that perform an emergency stop when they detect a collision is about to happen but this has been shown to fail in cars and the thought of this on motorcycles raises several areas of concern. It is a reality that we use our senses to detect danger. A silent motorcycle increases the danger to all road uses.

So what is the solution? I envisage that road management and safety measures will play a big part as well as educating road users of the new dangers they face and how best to identify it. Technological developments will also hopefully provide solutions. From a legal aspect the law in relation to motorcycles may need only a slight adjustment and may follow the lack of any real change demonstrated by the rise in electric cars. My colleague, Kathryn Hinchey has written several articles about the rise of e-scooters and the impact this is already having legally. Since e-scooters are on the rise and are likely to continue to boom over the next few years, it is reasonable to surmise that watching how the law deals with this area may provide some guidance to any changes that could affect motorcycles in the coming years. However, motorcycle riding is a unique area and any changes will need to bear this in mind.

Clearly this area may be a concern to insurers, manufacturers and motorcyclists in general. 

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