Uneasy Rider: Electric Desire

This is the second month in a row we’ve featured an electric motorcycle on the cover, and there’s more to come: we just spent a couple glorious days with a pair of Alta’s Redshift SM supermotos, thanks to the wonderful people at SF’s first and only Alta dealer, BMW Motorcycles of San Francisco, who gave us both of their demo bikes, unsupervised, with no real conditions other than “if you break ‘em, you gotta fix ‘em, and if you spend the weekend doing smokey burnouts, you gotta replace the tires.” These guys are avid CityBike readers, after all, and are therefore aware of our shenanigans—and that’s just the shit we publish!

I can’t overstate how cool it was for BMWMCSF to loan us these two still extremely-special and rare motorcycles. Thanks guys!

Back to the matter at hand: anyone with a functional brain, which based on available data includes roughly 48.2% of Americans, knows that the development of electric vehicles is interesting and important for a whole pile of reasons, ranging from socio-political to economic to environmental, and of course the almighty performance. But as is always the case, so much of this is about branding, perception and marketing, not fact.

In our internal discussions surrounding the Zero FXS we delved deep into these concepts, particularly the environmental component. There’s a facile, I-want-to-believe mindset employed by some, that the adoption of electric vehicles will magically fix the environmental issues caused by internal combustion, as if that’s even close to the entirety of the problem. A lot of this is based on numbers from a 2013 MIT study that was widely reporting as blaming 53,000 early deaths each year on vehicle emissions. MIT is obviously a credible source and the summary of the study at the link above is worth reading. The problem is that the mainstream media mostly reported that 53,000 figure, but left out the second most lethal driver of premature deaths: power generation, which accounts for 52,000 premature deaths.

Fake news strikes again. Motherfuckers.

It’s not like any thoughtful human would argue that moving emissions from millions of tailpipes to more concentrated, more effectively managed sources won’t result in at least some reductions in harmful emissions, particularly (obviously) if that central power source is relatively clean. But a lot of power in America is still pretty dirty, and that looks likely to continue and perhaps even worsen under the current presidential administration.

It’s difficult, even impossible, to get at the real numbers here, never mind the true resource cost of producing a new electric vehicle to replace an existing, fairly efficient gasser—the point is that electric vehicles in general, especially the tiny minority of electric motorcycles, aren’t the panacea some want to believe.

But push too hard for thoughtful discussion based on available data and critical thinking, and all the sudden you’ve got some entitled artist wannabe-hippie labeling you a climate change denier.

Look, don’t think I’m advocating for some kind of head in the sand, “the gas will last until I’m dead so fuck our children” approach, or that the steps we’re making with electric vehicles, whether small or big, aren’t worth making. I’m most definitely not. I’m 100% unconcerned with what powers my motorcycles in the abstract, but I am concerned with things like range and the speed at which I can replenish that range, as well as the cost-to-benefit ratios of my motorcycle purchases. For now, for me, that means electric motorcycles are as much a non-starter as the old, still-immobile Ducati 900SS in the back of my garage.

Electric bikes have recently gotten pretty exciting from a pure performance perspective but there’s no version of my current life in which it makes sense to drop ten to fifteen grand on a bike that can’t be near-instantly refilled when it reaches the edge of its range, whether it runs on gas or electricity or the tears of purple pandas. Hell, I’d ride a bike that ran on thoughts and prayers if the logic and math penciled out.

Which it never will, by the way. That shit is worthless.

If I was one of these sheltered Oasis dwellers, only visiting the world outside The City via Google Maps virtual tours (Ooh, South Africa National Parks!), it might be doable, assuming I had a secure garage. Or if I didn’t find the notion of dropping 20 to 25% of the US’s median annual household income on a second motorcycle, useful only around town and if the power grid remains intact, an incredibly Bay Area bubble-headed pile of conspicuous eco-consumerist bullshit, the calculus might work—but that scenario is so disconnected from the real world most Americans live in as to be laughably, stupidly sad.

We’ll get there, whether there is a world of vehicles powered by electricity or fuel cells or some other thing not in the current solution set. But let’s not bullshit ourselves too much along the way.

This story originally appeared in our December 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.