A ride on the mild side

02:23, Apr 16 2012
Zero S electric motorcycle.
ELECTRIC MOTORCYCLE: The Zero resembles a conventional machine from most angles.

It seemed like a good idea at the time: take the 2011 version of the Zero S electric motorcycle from the industrial heartland of Auckland to my home in Orewa, and let the 43-kilometre journey validate the viability of two-wheeled EVs for all and sundry.

For motorcycles are ideal for electric power - they are lighter and less demanding of energy than cars. They can therefore use smaller lithium-ion battery packs that do not require selling the grandkids into slavery to buy. The Zero S, when the much-improved 2012 version goes on sale in August, will cost $14,500, a fraction of the $70,000-$80,000 forecast for battery-powered cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

A read of the Zero's owners' manual revealed that my proposed journey was at the outer limits of the performance of the bike. It states a fully-charged 2011 Zero S can travel 48km on the motorway if the speed of the bike is a steady 89kmh. Use the bikes top speed of 108kmh, and the result will be a 25 per cent reduction in maximum range according to the Californian-based manufacturer. No worries, I thought, I will travel at an indicated 90kmh as much as possible, and the 5km difference between the Zero's maximum range on motorway journeys and the distance to my intended destination should take care of gradients such as the Auckland Harbour Bridge and the hilly topography around Albany.

Zero S electric motorcycle.
ZERO BIKE: Battery pack didn't give quite the range expected.

Here is the log of the journey.-

Kilometre one: Leave the office of Fairfax Magazines in Penrose in a cloud of ... um, nothing at all, really. The bike is almost silent and there is no exhaust pipe to send a haze of smut into the air. Acceleration is best described as mild. 0-100kmh takes 14.9 seconds. However, it is the silence that gives the ride its thrill. Riding the Zero is like riding a pedal- powered bike where the entire journey is one scary-fast downhill section.

Kilometre five: Leave Auckland's busiest streets to join its busiest sections of motorway. I buzz the Zero up to a steady 90kmh, the mean speed of the traffic at this uncongested period of the afternoon. There's a slight northerly wind hitting the bike on the nose. Will that mean we will not reach Orewa? I didn't expect anxiety about the range of the bike to surface so soon.


Kilometre seven: An Audi TT has broken down in the fast lane, reducing the usable width of the motorway by a third. Traffic virtually stalls, then merges slowly into the two lanes left open. The Zero weaves through quickly and safely, its nimble steering and handling negotiating the gaps between the trucks and cars with ease. Eat my ozone, you polluting internal combustors! You filth-farting slaves to the oil barons! It is amazing how quickly attitudes can change.

Kilometre 15: Electric motor torque easily conquers the upward slope of the Harbour Bridge and the Zero S saves power on the coast down to the North Shore. However, the fuel gauge, complete with redundant petrol bowser graphic, is now reading just over half, with 28km still to go.

Kilometre 25: The loss of each bar on the fuel gauge now feels like the death of some precious pet, given that there are now only six remaining and 18km left to travel. What is worse is that the Zero and I are climbing the Albany hills, and our combined weight of 200 kilograms is robbing a lot more power from the 4.4kWh battery. I drop the travelling speed on the uphill gradients to 80kmh, and let the bike coast at 90 whenever there is free energy available on the downhills.

Kilometre 32: A Ducati Diavel blasts past the Zero at an illegal velocity and all my previous piousness melts into envy. Bet that petrol-sucker can travel more than 250km on a single recharge, you lucky man.

Kilometre 35: There are no bars left on the gauge and the petrol-dispenser graphic is blinking dementedly, increasing my anxiety.

The Zero's recharging cable is tucked into my bike jacket, but finding a connection for it could prove problematic. I imagine knocking on some strangers door, plug in hand, and pleading please sir, may I have some more electricity?

Kilometre 42: The Zero S now has zero power in its battery.

It grinds to a stop 100 metres from the summit of the last hill of the journey. It is close enough to push the 130kg bike to the top and coast the rest of the way home on the other side.

I can't imagine electric car owners being able to do this.

See what I mean about bikes being the best candidates for battery-powered vehicles?

Aftermath: So what did this exercise, and I do mean exercise, prove? First, that the New Zealand distributor of the Zero S was right to wait for availability of the 2012 model before officially launching the bike in August, as the new bike will be available with either standard 6.0kWh or optional 9.0kWh batteries. This will increase range at motorway speeds to 69km and 101km respectively.

Second, as sampled, the Zero S is a fun bike to ride, its frisky handling, strong brakes and adjustable suspension adding a sporty dimension not normally associated with EVs. As a short-haul commuter, even a 2011 Zero (full recharge cost: 70 cents) is about as good as funky urban transport gets.

The Press