2008 Zero X Electric Motorcycle Review —

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Shocking but true

That’s I thought, too. Then I was into the skunkworks at Zero Motorcycles, near Santa California. Santa Cruz was one of the of the mountain bike revolution in and it’s just over the hills from Silicon Appropriately, Zero tapped both cultures, combining design and components from the industry with sophisticated and high-tech engineering that battery life.

Zero had that high-tech startup we’ll-all-soon-be-millionaires atmosphere.

Another in the atmosphere was the smell of cold That odor, and a very punching bag in the middle of the assembly told me all I needed to know nerds putting in long and occasionally getting real

But the work’s paying off, in the of the Zero ‘X’ electric motorcycle. It look a bit odd and spindly, but it’s the electric vehicle–with two- or a performance envelope that threatens its gas-powered rivals.

idea was this? Meet Saiki, Zero’s Chief Officer. After graduating California Polytechnical University a Masters degree in Aeronautical Saiki went to work for the Aeronautical and Space Administration.

his principal work was in high-altitude vehicles, he was exposed to NASA development projects with applications too–specifically projects on vehicles. In the course of that he became familiar with a of small, rare-earth-magnet electric developed to power secret like torpedoes.

“I always he told us, “that if they that technology for civilian it would make a great motor.”

An avid motorcyclist and biker, Saiki bailed NASA and switched to a different–still He started designing downhill bikes. The frames he designed for Santa Cruz, and Mountain were used to win World races.

Those projects familiarized him with the range of ultra-light components being for the bicycle market, and the specialist in the Silicon Valley region.

those lightweight motors available, he realized that, as he put it, I needed was a battery, and I could an electric motorcycle.” It wasn’t that simple, as the lithium-ion that power things your laptop generate a lot of Saiki knew his battery have to dump about 300 of power at peak load. those Mac laptop batteries were recalled a couple of ago?

They were ‘experiencing runaway’–that’s what high-tech call catching fire–at two orders of magnitude lower.

developed and patented a way of packing the and controlling them that his ‘Zenergy’ battery the smallest, most powerful and therefore one ever.

Twenty horsepower may not like much, but it doesn’t nearly all the story. Electric make peak torque at all And they make a lot of it. Zero its 20-horse motor produces 50 of torque.

The Zero X weighs 140 – a hundred pounds less a 250cc four-… motocrosser. geared for a top speed of about 55 and it will stick with one of 250s in a drag race it reaches its top speed.

It’s Boogie woogie woogie

interesting, to say the least, to ride. set up like a twist-and-go scooter, footpegs but no foot controls. a rear brake on the left and front brake on the right as well as a “throttle” on the right

There’s no gearbox.

The bike has a of key that operates a master switch. The Zero dudes that ‘arming’ the bike. you turn that key, a row of lights up to indicate the amount of you have left on the battery.

The doesn’t make any sound at all it’s armed, which is dangerous. If you reflexively blip the it’ll take off on you. been a problem when one hands the bike off to another.

I it in the street and around Zero’s I thought it handled about a similarly-proportioned dirt bike, I have to say that the light and silent running would be easy to get used to. In the full speed modes, the motor a lot more powerful than 20 hp. response is instant, and it will the front wheel with little provocation.

The closest thing I can relate it to be a 250cc two-… trials

Although a few hundred of the bikes been sold in 2008, no had access to a bike for a full until now. We twisted until the company agreed to someone meet us at the Apex training track east of Los It was a tricky thing for me to test, my background is road racing and there’s nothing to compare it to.

To get an second opinion, I brought in the dirt rider on my speed Micky Dymond, a former champion.

Who’s that on the

Micky Dymond won the American Association 125cc motocross twice in the mid ’80s, before to Europe to race in Grands Twenty years after his AMA title, he won the AMA Unlimited Supermoto That has to be some kind of record.

In between, he was one of the first freestylers, and recently led the BMW factory on the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, within a hair’s breadth of the outright course record.

the most naturally gifted rider that I have met. The first weekend he ever rode a sport we endurance raced a bone-stock ZX-6R at Infineon raceway of San Francisco. He turned lap times enough to qualify for the AMA Supersport In short, if Micky says a good, you should listen.

He that with a little least on a technical track small jumps–the Zero be faster than conventional

Micky was a little weirded out by the at first. The brakes felt and the ‘throttle’–actually a twistgrip connected to a some play in it. After a few laps, he came in and said, awkward and strange, without it’s hard to gauge my and there’s no engine braking.”

Then, it started to grow on “At first, when I opened the a little bit, it just But it’s completely linear. And I I needed more brakes, but so light that I can brake deeper into the corners.”

The fork and shock are adjustable for only. “You can definitely them out,” said “But you can bottom anything these aren’t too bad.”

He praised the overall balance of the Like every serious who’s tried it, an hour his test ride, he wanted one of his so that he could practice in near his home that open to mountain bikes but for motorcycles.

Then, emboldened to try bigger jumps, Micky out and promptly blew the rear apart. Oh well. In fairness, no one at claims their bike’s a

The bike(s) we tested were 2008 versions. The frame is alloy, with geometry (a rake) similar to a downhill bike’s. The chain, suspension, and tires look like bike components, but in fact all of are custom-engineered to Zero’s specs.

The can be ordered with your of two motors, with the optional one 23 hp.

As tested, the Zero X is intended for use as a bike. Based on my own experience and I’ve seen, I believe I could handle more terrain on the Zero than I on a good 250cc four-… It would make a great or training bike for any motorcycle

In the state of California, electric that are limited to speeds 30 miles per hour–as this is, at the flick of a switch–are legally as bicycles, making it road-legal though it lacks lights, a or horn.

A Supermoto-styled commuter dubbed the Zero ‘S’, be released soon. It will lights and a speedometer and be fully in the U.S. As this story to press, the details were secret, but Neal told me the street bike will a 50% larger battery and begeared for a top of 70 miles an hour.

That should yield a range of 150 miles; potentially a lot depending on your average

The reason that range is on speed is that 80% or more of the done by a motorcycle engine is air, and air resistance increases the square of velocity. That’s why the mileage of the motorcycle you’re these days plummets as speed increases.

The remainder of the done by the motor is almost all to the mass being accelerated or up hills. That’s why Neal was obsessed with keeping the Zero as light as possible–and why at least 100 lbs lighter than a gas-engined motorcycle. Keeping it also takes pressure off the and suspension.

Therein lies the dilemma: You’d like to a larger battery for more a more powerful motor, a adjustable fork and shock. But for pound you add in the form of those you pay at least a 12-ounce tax in sapped

Think of the evolution of sport In the early 1960s, a top rider on a Norton could lap the TT course at 100 That was on a bike that just under 50 hp and weighed 300 lbs. Over the next 40 despite course improvements and leaps in tire, suspension, and technology, the course record only 25%. That was even though the bikes raced in the top TT classes tripled horsepower and fuel consumption.

The Over that period the weight increased by about

Zero X

Right now, even absolutely state-of-the-art Li-ion has only 10% of the energy density of That’s to say fully charged, it only 10% of the energy that you extract from 40 lbs of gasoline.

of that, the right design for a new motorcycle can’t draw from its gas-powered predecessors. it’s why the Tesla electric car is doomed to failure, despite media hype. Tesla is a very conventional car’s chassis. It’s far too heavy. And the car company doesn’t have to Saiki’s cool—literally!—battery technology, it has to the batteries, adding even weight and water-pump drag.)

Luckily, Saiki understands things light. In university, he led a that built the world’s human-powered helicopter. It had wings as as a Boeing 737’s and weighed 97 Most of the Zero’s frame is of ultra-thin wall square-section tubing.

Take the battery out of it, and it only 50% more than a mountain bike.

Zero is to develop and evolve the X. There are a of upgrades to the ’09 model, including:

chain and stronger rear

stronger triple clamps and head

6-pot front caliper and larger, thicker

stronger frame

wider to accommodate a larger rear

revised fork internals

gauges and switchgear

As this is written, 2008 Zero X is out. Components for the first run of ’09 are in transit and will be assembled The base model will for $7,450.

A spare battery is an $2,950.

Right now, are still only 30 employees at Although virtually every is custom-designed to Saiki’s specs, is a motorcycle assembler, not a manufacturer. All the are built elsewhere and shipped in to the Santa Cruz workshop, bikes are assembled one by one. system’s worked fine so allowing the company to sell a few bikes over the Internet. But the market for a commuter version’s 10,000-plus units per year.

a lot of Zeros, with capital

Looking back at groundbreaking there have been of companies with great that failed. The plodding attention to detail, discipline and attention span required to up mass production, organize a network, and build a global are not found in brainstorming inventors.

That was on my mind when delivered three bikes for me to and they arrived dirty. of them had fully charged or fresh tires. If you want to an electric dirt bike, it be a completely wrongheaded approach to take a Honda CRF and replace the gas with a battery, and swap

If you want to build an electric company, however, it’d be to learn that when delivers a test bike, pristine.

I put it to Saiki and Gene the company’s CEO, that the Valley business model is not to your invention, anyway. you lock up the patents and prove concept, then wait for an company to buy you out. Both men that was their strategy.

But I can you that it will not be long Honda and Harley-Davidson come and when they do they bring flowers and chocolates, bring very large with a lot of small ‘z’ zeros.

In the run, the writing’s on the wall for motorcycles. We could, of course, using them for decades, the financial and/or environmental of burning gas finally becomes At that point, as imperfectly as markets work, someone sell us an alternative.

But what if the wasn’t adopted because gas was to afford or because we’d environmental chaos? What if it was better and happened to be clean? at the Zero X today, I’m now betting we’ll go electric by choice, not

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