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Electric Motorcycles in Search of a Market
JUST when we’ve accepted that we won’t be blasting to Starbucks on jetpacks any time soon, another icon of techno-fantasy has raised its emission-free, pennies-per-mile head: electric motorcycles.

Despite a barrage of ambitious prototypes, like the metal-and-glass-enclosed Lit Motors C-1, promoted in YouTube test-ride videos and breathless news releases, electric motorcycles seem to be around the corner but out of reach.

If blog buzz and “Buy Now” Web site buttons translated into units sold, we’d be talking about a major growth industry here. But even with ice caps melting and gasoline around $4 a gallon, the number of electric motorcycles sold is barely detectable.

The appeal of an electric motorcycle is obvious. It would deliver its power silently and instantly, without the need for oil, fire, smoke, noise, clutch or gearbox. Each fill-up would cost just a dollar. It might even talk to your iPhone, though it’s hard to imagine what kind of a useful conversation the two might have. An electric bike might someday be the next big thing, in a “what would Steve Jobs have ridden” sort of way.

But, as many would-be electric motorcycle makers have discovered, making a salable and profitable electric bike is much harder than it looks.

Honda sells a sleek, quiet, gas-powered streetbike called the CBR250R. It’s an electric bike maker’s nightmare, because for $4,509, it gets 77 miles per gallon, equals available electric motorcycles in performance, has at least double the range and can be “recharged” at any gas station in about a minute.

Zero Motorcycles, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., says it’s the only company actually selling electric motorcycles in the United States, and none of its competitors seem to want to argue.

Its 2013 Zero S ZF11.4, expected to be available in January, roughly compares to the Honda CBR250R in looks, size, weight and performance. The company claims it has a range of 137 miles in slow, stop-and-go city traffic and 70 miles at 70 m.p.h. It costs $15,995 and shipping.

No electric motorcycle companies reveal their United States sales figures. For most of them, that number would be close to zero. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that more than 1,000 electric bikes total were sold last year. By comparison, the Motorcycle Industry Council reported that in 2011, 440,899 gasoline-powered bikes were sold in the United States.

If electric bikes can’t compete on performance or price, they’ll have to win on emotion. If customers don’t need them, they are going to have to want them.

Since 1984, Harley-Davidson has sold hundreds of thousands of essentially obsolete motorcycles a year, at a premium price to faster, smoother Japanese machines. For a lot of that time, the company has been worth more than General Motors. That’s because Harley isn’t really selling motorcycles. It is selling a lifestyle and a mythical image: that of a rough, tough American individualist.

Until an electric bike maker captivates many thousands of people — picture the lines at Apple stores — they are doomed to compete on the cruel battleground of performance and price.

The dominant demographic in the motorcycle market has long been baby boomers, who are careening past middle age. If companies want to sell expensive bikes, they’ll have to sell a lot of them to men over 40, with enough disposable income to justify buying what looks, to many, like a two-wheeled toy.

Middle-aged motorcyclists have jobs, families and limited free time. They use their bikes mostly on the weekends and for recreation, not transportation. They want to ride fast, at least at highway speed, for more than an hour, and get back home without burning five hours of their Sunday at a charging station.

Electric motorcycle makers like to talk about a rider’s daily commuting distance and show how their bike’s limited range is just right. The problem is that most real motorcyclists don’t commute on their bikes. They commute in air-conditioned cars that keep their hair in place, their smartphones in hand and their clothes insect-free.

Remember the Segway? Its inventor, Dean Kamen, said it would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” Investors put in more than $100 million. Then people realized that $5,000 was a lot to pay for a crash-prone scooter that was slower than a $100 bicycle.

But what really doomed the Segway was that the people who could afford to buy them didn’t want to be seen on them.

Do electric motorcycles have a present? No, though it’s fun to test ride them and watch start-up after start-up jostle for position on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Do they have a future? Maybe. But it will take lots of money, perhaps decades of development, and smart, expensive branding and marketing — think Apple meets Harley — before it happens.
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