Zero Lessons Learned: Intelligence gathered from commuting on electricity

zeroS-1A raspy voice bellowed across the intersection of Van Nuys and Foothill. “You’re no boyfriend of mine! You think you can get away?” I sat at the stoplight looking dumbly ahead. With warning lights flashing on my motorcycle’s dashboard and a good 15 miles to go to get to work, I was consumed with battery range anxiety at the time. “You can’t take what you want and leave! You’re a thief!”

A raspy voice bellowed across the intersection of Van Nuys and Foothill. “You’re no boyfriend of mine! You think you can get away?” I sat at the stoplight looking dumbly ahead. With warning lights flashing on my motorcycle’s dashboard and a good 15 miles to go to get to work, I was consumed with battery range anxiety at the time. “You can’t take what you want and leave! You’re a thief!”

I looked around and saw the source. A white-hair lady dressed in a dirty raincoat was standing at a bus stop, staring straight at me with gigantic red eyes, ranting. We made eye contact. That was a mistake. “You’re no boyfriend of mine! You think you can get away?” She left her shopping cart and charged toward me. With open hands, she started slapping my helmet, screaming. I can’t remember the exact words, but she was adamant that I was no longer her boyfriend. The light turned green, and I made a legitimate burnout. As she got smaller in the rearview mirror, I heard faint chuckling. The man in the car next to me was laughing about the incident. I could hear him perfectly, smell his cigar smoke, and I could have reached in and thumped him on the skull—if I wanted. I didn’t.

That was an early lesson from my commuting career on the Zero S electric motorcycle. On the Zero, you’re very connected with your environment. You’re not in a climate-controlled cockpit. The Zero is perfectly soundless at any speed, so you can hear the cell-phone conversations in cars around you, listen to other people’s music and occasionally have a relationship with a crazy woman at an intersection.

MORE LESSONS LEARNED

Power isn’t a problem; Zero claims an output of over 54 horsepower. The torque rating is 68 foot-pounds.
Power isn’t a problem; Zero claims an output of over 54 horsepower. The torque rating is 68 foot-pounds.

I learned a few other lessons on the Zero. I have a long commute; almost 90 miles each way. Don’t ask me why, it just worked out that way. If I drive my pickup, getting to the office and back costs about 45 bucks a day. In my wife’s Honda Civic, it’s $25. On the Zero, it’s essentially nothing. I imagine there’s a slight increase in my electric bill, but it’s embedded with air conditioning and household appliances to the point where it can’t be quantified. At the other end, I plug into a socket at work, and if the boss has noticed, he hasn’t said anything. It takes almost a full office day to recharge the battery, so at least there’s no chance that I’ll go home early.

The fact that I can actually get to the office on a single charge is amazing, at least to me. In the modern history of electric motorcycles, that’s a very recent milestone. Several electric motorcycles have come and gone over the years. The early ones would go about 40 miles if you rode conservatively. I tried making a portion of the commute by parking my truck at a halfway point, unloading the e-bike, and then trying to ride the rest of the distance. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not.

According to the specs of the 2013 Zero S, its maximum range is 137 miles of surface streets or 85 miles of highway. That’s a fairly accurate claim (another recent milestone: realistic advertising), but you have to understand how to ride it. Unlike gasoline motors, e-bikes get their best mileage in stop-and-go conditions. Nothing sucks down the charge like top speed, and the S is very, very fast. It will accelerate hard all the way past 90 mph in “Sport” mode, but that kind of behavior cuts your range in half. There’s a little toggle that lets you switch to “Eco” mode, which is where you have to keep it if you want to go the distance. In Eco, the top speed is restricted to 71 mph, acceleration is limited, and the motor is programmed to reclaim energy when you coast to a stop. That brings up another lesson: no matter how hard the Zero accelerates, the term “sport” doesn’t seem appropriate. It’s not sporty at all. There’s very little cornering clearance, the suspension is primitive, and it’s not that much fun on a twisty road. It’s called Sport mode because it wouldn’t sound as sexy to have a “Stranded” setting, which is what would happen if I allowed myself to use it.

I’m okay with that. I’m not chasing modern superbikes on Mulholland Drive, and the Eco setting is plenty fast for Southern California freeway traffic during the week. For those brief gaps where traffic is actually going faster than 71mph, it’s easy to flip the switch—just don’t get used to it. If I were really into it, I would reprogram the Zero’s engine controller to allow a higher top speed but keep the acceleration under control. You can do that with an iPhone app that links your phone with the Zero via Bluetooth.

INSIDE THE ZERO

Zero has a division that sells its power components to other companies, so it’s possible that you might see a Zero-powered Ducati in the future.
Zero has a division that sells its power components to other companies, so it’s possible that you might see a Zero-powered Ducati in the future.

The technology is fairly impressive. The Zero uses a lithium-cobalt-manganese battery, which is similar to that in a Tesla Roadster electric car, and somewhat rare in other applications. The trickiest part in designing a high-drain battery like this is managing heat buildup, both while discharging and charging. Zero has accomplished this well, but it makes the battery the most expensive single component on the machine. At one time, the company had the notion that the battery should be removable so you could station spares along your route like fresh horses. This idea didn’t last long, and now the battery is fixed within the chassis. The motor itself is nothing unusual, but it’s capable of an output of 68 foot-pounds. Most people think of electric motors as being on or off with an instant surge of torque. With the Zero, the throttle operates pretty much like a normal motorcycle throttle with an easily controlled output—the more you twist, the more power you get. As for the other controls, there aren’t any. There’s no clutch and no shifter. You get used to it.

About the only aspect of riding the Zero that I haven’t become accustomed to is e-hate. For some reason, most of the motorcycle community resists and resents the idea of electric bikes. I know there are limitations. When you run out of juice, it’s not like you can bring back a Clorox bottle of electrons. But that’s not the real reason for the resentment. There’s a suspicion that the coming of electric motorcycles is a prelude to a massive conspiracy to take away our gasoline motors. Many people see electric motorcycles as an eventual replacement for the machines they love.

I don’t know if that’s true. For now, I only see products like the Zero S as a way to save money—in the future, if not now. The price for the Zero S ZF11.4 is $15,995. The ZF8.5 has a smaller battery and sells for $2000 less, but it’s still far more expensive than a gasoline-powered motorcycle of similar performance. A Kawasaki KLR650 sells for $6400 and gets 50 miles per gallon. With those numbers, it would take 640 trips to the office before the Zero would pay off. I understand the price gap; Zero is actually inventing something new, whereas Kawasaki is regurgitating technology from the ’70s with tooling from the ’80s. For now, though, you have to want to be a part of the electric movement in order for it to make sense. The Zero S is simply a preview of what the future can be.
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