The Future Is Now
If you were to introduce motorcycling now, in 2017, you’d probably be laughed out of the boardroom.
The idea of sitting on top of an engine—some capable of over 200 horsepower—with no outside protection to the occupant other than a tiny lever on the right-side handlebar would be downright laughable in today’s bubble-wrapped society.
Many would love us to be legislated out of existence. But we might be moving toward extinction by the motorcycle industry’s own laziness.
I’m talking about the fact that motorcycles are almost entirely still petrol-powered. They are the same fossil-fuel-burning dinosaurs they were 100 years ago, and the world’s bike manufacturers are doing little to change that.
Earlier this week, the UK joined France in committing to a total ban of petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, in a bid to tackle harmful nitrogen dioxide emissions. This goes along with the 2015 report that London itself will impose a new Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) by 2020 that says any vehicle (bikes included) over 13 years old will have to pay the equivalent of $16.50 just to enter the Congested Charge Zone within central London. Cameras will scan your license plate and send an automatic charge to your vehicle if you are riding a motorcycle built before 2007. The year 2020 is not far away at all, especially if you consider (as I do) that a mint-condition 2007 model R1 is just as good a bike as a 2014 version.
That’s in Europe, but California has long been the leading voice over tighter vehicle emissions for decades, with standards at times tougher than what is currently enforced in Europe. Imagine if the State of California suddenly adopts the measures taken by London, and anyone who has a bike from 2007 or older is no longer able to ride it?
The car industry is now well and truly on the front foot regarding this problem. Swedish manufacturer Volvo has said that, by 2019, every one of its cars will feature an electric motor, while some of its cars will be entirely propelled by electricity.
What are the world’s bike manufacturers doing about this? What, if any, are their plans for when 2040 rolls around and absolutely no vehicle in Europe will be allowed to be sold with a gas-powered engine?
In 23 years, it’ll be 2040. If you think back 23 years, to 1994, can you think of any major advancement in alternative power sources made by either Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Ducati, BMW or Aprilia? Aside from the mass (and sadly inevitable) abandonment of two-stroke technology, everything we ride is good, old-fashioned four-strokes, from MotoGP to a Kawasaki Z125 Pro. Two-stroke lovers have had some hope in recent times, especially with KTM’s brilliant fuel-injected two-strokes, but that’s only going to last 23 years at best, unless competition vehicles are given an emissions respite—which, given the current march toward zero emissions from the EU, I find hard to imagine.
MotoGP has a lot to answer for. It is, in my opinion, the world’s greatest sport, but it exists for two reasons: to sell bikes, and to power the march of technology. But if that technology is going to be unsellable in 23 years’ time, is racing at that level not just a giant waste of money for Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Aprilia and Ducati?
Formula One has been pushed by the manufacturers into developing new technologies that will help them sell road cars and keep them relevant. The Energy Recovery System (ERS, formally Kinetic Energy Recovery System) is one example of alternative power used in racing. The system harvests and redeploys, via an electric motor, heat energy from the exhaust and brakes that would usually go to waste, and can be used as a horsepower boost for six seconds per lap. This system has been in place since 2009, and Infinity has put an ERS system in their Project Black S concept car… Why can’t MotoGP even begin to look at something like this, rather than just the V4, or inline-four, four-stroke engine that can be of use no to the wider world of motorcycling down the track?
The sheer size of an ERS system is one inhibitor, but if we don’t start developing other technologies at the highest level of racing, via the companies that have the most money to spend, they are quickly going to find themselves irrelevant when it comes to world transportation.
If the biggest companies won’t do it, at least the smaller companies are trying to save motorcycling from extinction. Leading the alternative-fuel charge are U.S. home-grown electric-bike start-ups like Alta, Zero, and Lightning; all organizations with their eyes firmly on a prize that is being largely ignored by the industry’s leading players. And they’re all organizations that have already gained a huge head start when it comes to developing the technology required for 2040.
Electric bikes have some pretty severe drawbacks. Battery size, weight, range and charge times are all serious boundaries that must be overcome. I’ll admit, these concerns have stopped me from getting an electric bike of my own, even though I really do enjoy zipping around on a Zero SR.
Alternative power need not be boring. Currently, the only manufacturer with any form of alternative power source is Kawasaki, with their staggeringly awesome supercharged H2 and H2R (but even then, that’s just a supercharger bolted onto a superbike engine). There’s talk of a smaller version coming out soon, and Suzuki has been teasing their turbo-charged Recursion concept for what feels like forever. If these bikes eventually do make it to market, at least there will be a semblance of something happening at the highest levels of the industry with regards to alternative powertrains.
We all know the benefits of riding a bike. If we focus purely on the environmental benefits and not the personal ones, according to MCN, “A study in Belgium found that if just 10 percent of cars were replaced by motorcycles in our most congested cities, congestion would be reduced by a massive 40 percent, and also cut up to 15,000 hours a day of vehicles being sat stationary in traffic.”
Hopefully, the world’s bike manufacturers put their thinking caps on and start coming up with some answers to the 2040 problem, or we could be facing a much bigger problem than just being stuck in traffic.CN