In real life, I am a passionate motorcyclists. In fact, I have just come back home from riding on the highway 1 from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay. I also commute 60 miles daily on my Aprilia Shiver. I love the freedom a bike provides me with, the sound, the speed, etc.
But, I have never done a lot of research on the motorcycle industry. In contrast to the driving experience the industry itself is rather boring and traditional. The exciting part is, there are many electric motorcycle firms trying to change that (there are actually more electric motorcycle startups than electric car startups). The sad part is that the chances of success are very slim for most electric motorcycle firms. Why? They haven't found their customer yet and it surely is not today’s rider, the traditionalists.
Recently, I read an article by Visordown explaining why electric motorcycle startups are destined to fail. While I like the article, I felt that the reasoning is incorrect and proofs that even motorcycle industry insighters do not analyze their potential customers enough. Two things stroke me specifically: First, why do the guys from Visordown publish an article on New Years Eve (joke aside) and this quote:
It's as if they don't realise they’re already taking on a massive task in persuading motorcyclists – who are largely traditionalists that shun change – to shift to electric power. It’s a big and bitter pill for many to swallow, so it needs to be sugar-coated, not rolled in wasabi.
Again, I do not claim to understand the motorcycle industry well enough to debate what suspension system looks/feels wacky or what proportions are acceptable or unacceptable. But, I do understand customer behavior and the advantages/disadvantages of an electric powertrain well enough to doubt the core assumption behind the above quote. The author assumes that today’s motorcyclists will be the buyers of tomorrow's electric motorcycles. In order to explain why today's motorcyclists will not be buying electric motorcycles in masses, lets start by brainstorming about what today’s motorcyclists like about their bikes and what electric motorcycles can deliver.
I will categorize motorcycle buyers into 3 broad categories: city/commuters, tourers and offroad adventurers. These 3 have different needs and expectations for their motorcyles.
City riders and commuters are primarily interested in good acceleration and enjoy the sound of the ride. They like the ability to shift (at least sometimes), range is not a big problem and ride smoothness is neither. For Tourers, acceleration, sound and shifting are not primary interest. They would actually prefer less loud motorcycles. However, touring riders need a larger gas tank to achieve range requirements and also expect their rides to be smooth and not bumpy. Finally, the Offroaders have very different purchasing criteria like ease of handling and damping ability which are not mentioned in the table above.
By comparing the advantages/disadvantages of an electric powertrain to current customer preferences it becomes obvious that there is no perfect match. Less so, electric powertrains do not provide a comprehensive value proposition for today's motorcyclists. Electric powertrains can deliver great acceleration and ride smoothness without the nasty sound of an motorcycle or the necessity to shift, but are ultimately range limited.
In summary, for a city rider the sound is missing (which is more fun and safer) and for a tourer the range is just not good enough. An electric powertrain might be the best for offroaders who need instant torque and don't mind other disadvantages. But then again the heavy weight of battery packs could be a show stopper on light weight offroad bikes.
Visordown's article claims that the biggest problem is that electric motorcycle firms change too much outside of the powertrain alone. I actually claim they change too little, because they are effectively not able to sell to traditional motorcyclists today (might change in future with weight and range improvements). Moreover, an electric motorcycle needs to attract a new customer segment that will get advantages out of its electric powertrain. This will also require significant redesigns and not just copying of current design architecture.
What are your thoughts? Who could see a great value proposition in electric 2-wheel mobility? Who would be willing to pay the extra to get an electric powertrain?
Sini Ninkovic analyzes the EV market and its customers since 2012. He helped bringing BMW's i3 and i8 to market and currently works as Product Planner for Lucid Motors.