Saturday, April 12, 2014
I visited Vespa Lynnwood this weekend to take advantage of the good weather and their latest demo motorcycle, the all-electric Zero S. Fortunately, their demo model is the yellow one, the color I prefer of the two choices available.
When I arrived, another customer was already preparing to ride it. No problem. This gave me plenty of time to fill out the test-ride paperwork, chat with the saleswoman, Danielle, watch other customers get ready to test ride some scooters, and enjoy the sunny weather.
Still, 20 minutes or so go by before the Zero returned. Danielle had considered prepping the other Zero S on the showroom floor for a test ride instead, but I was fine with being patient.
The test rider who just returned was pleased with the Zero, his first ride on an electric motorcycle. He wasn’t at all unfamiliar with electric vehicles, however, having purchased two Nissan LEAFs and test-driven a Tesla Roadster and Model S. He, like many other motorcyclists I’ve heard speak about electric motorcycles, was asking about the performance. His line of questioning was about the acceleration and regenerative braking—were they greater on the Zero SR (yes), were they user-adjustable (yes, via a smartphone app). He thought that the regenerative braking wasn’t strong enough. In hindsight, this comment coming from someone who has test driven a Tesla, wasn’t surprising. At the time, however, I hadn’t yet ridden the Zero S, so I didn’t know what he was talking about. I would soon learn.
The pre-ride briefing
Danielle explained the controls.
At the left hand were the typical controls—high/low beam, left/right turn signal (press to reset), and horn. In the trigger position not seen in the photo above was a spring-loaded switch for a passing light (momentarily flashing the high beams). What was missing, however, was a clutch or rear-brake lever. Coming from an ICE bike which has a clutch that I like to coast with, and a scooter which has no foot brake pedal, I’m used to using my left hand to slow down. Giving my left hand almost nothing to do was strange, and more than once I did reach for something that was not there.
In the center is the dashboard, with speedo top and center, battery percentage remaining on the left, two trip odometers in the bottom center, and one meter each for power use and regenerative braking on the right. I had no trouble reading this backlit LCD screen in the bright daylight. (Daylight was so bright, though, that I couldn’t see the backlighting featured in the photo above.) Centered below the dashboard is the “ignition” key hole.
At the right hand are four more controls: the kill switch, mode switch, throttle, and front brake lever. All of these are familiar to any motorcyclist except for the mode switch. The mode switch changes the word displayed in the top-right corner of the dashboard, which is one of three: ECO, SPORT, and CUSTOM. These are the performance profiles. ECO gives you a gentle throttle that is familiar to drivers of the 2012 Nissan LEAF. SPORT gives you more acceleration with less twist of the wrist. CUSTOM is customizable by the rider via a smartphone app available from Zero (as of April 2014, sadly only available for iPhone and Android, not Windows Phone).
I’m 5’8” and had no trouble sitting comfortably on the bike with both feet touching the ground. My wife is shorter and is happier with the lower seat height (32”) of this bike than the 2011 Zero XU (33”) we tried to test ride a while ago.
Turning on the key lit up a red light in the bottom-left corner of the dashboard. This meant that the bike was turned on, but wasn’t yet ready to ride. Raising the kickstand and flipping the kill switch replaced the red light with a green light in the bottom center: ready to go!
Leaving the parking lot
Unsure of how much power would be available in ECO mode, I very gingerly applied the throttle. I heard maybe a whirring sound from the bike, but it didn’t pull forward. I let go and the sound stopped a moment later. Pulled again and let go: some whirring and no motion. This time, I opened the throttle a little more, slowly, until the bike did begin to pull forward.
Allow me to interrupt to explain how this was such a different experience from both my Suzuki Boulevard and my Current Motor Super Scooter. Unlike the Boulevard, the Zero has no clutch—the electric motor is always connected with the rear wheel. Also unlike the Boulevard, the Zero has no gasoline engine to warn you with changes to its RPM noise when power is being transferred to the wheel. From the electric scooter’s point of view, I’m expecting the throttle to be really touchy, delivering power to the wheel at the slightest touch, causing its hub motor to chatter with rapid pulses of electricity as it almost lurches into motion.
Staying in ECO mode until I got used to the throttle, I pulled slowly and relatively silently out of the parking stall to make my way around the parking lot instead of heading directly to the street. Making a U-turn, I discovered just how far left the handle bars will turn (it seems less than my cruiser or scooter will), but carefully modulated the throttle to avoid losing my balance.
Approaching the exit of the parking lot, a slight downhill incline, I tried using only the rear brake to come to a complete stop, but it didn’t seem to slow me enough, so I grabbed some front brake to avoid getting in the way of a red Nissan LEAF quietly crossing my path. From what I’ve read online, a weak rear brake is a common complaint. Having fishtailed on bikes and scooters due to emergency rear-brake pressure, my instinct is to be light-footed on the brake pedal. With time, I will either get used to leaning more heavily on the rear brake, or leverage another feature of the bike—regenerative braking—to keep the rear brake use to a minimum.
With traffic clear, I started along my planned route.
A right turn onto 188th St. westbound brought me into a residential area with 30 mph speed limits. A stop sign or two let me practice accelerating and braking on a gentle incline with little or no pressure from traffic.
Because of the lack of traffic early in the ride, I didn’t immediately notice that I couldn’t see the rear-view mirrors very well. Even with the mirrors tilted up as far as they would go, glancing down at them while riding only showed me the ground just a dozen or two feet behind me. I had to lean back (sit straighter in the saddle) to get a useful view of traffic behind me. The best I could do without an Allen wrench was to point the mirrors more outward to monitor my blind spot. Silly me for being so excited to ride this bike that I didn’t check the mirrors before leaving.
Anyway, back to the throttle. Speed is very closely coupled with throttle position and increases smoothly as you open the throttle. Although this is more like my ICE cruiser than my e-scooter, there are differences with each. When you change gears on an ICE motorcycle, to maintain the same speed you have to adjust the throttle. With the Zero, there is no gear change, so there’s no gear-shifting interruption, and no repositioning of the throttle. To go faster, you open the throttle more. To go slower, you open the throttle less. If you want to go a lot faster, you can open the throttle further and wait for the bike to smoothly gain speed to match your throttle position. On my scooter, even though it also does not have gears, it has a non-linear acceleration curve. If you jerk the throttle open, it will smoothly and gently accelerate from 0 mph to around 25 mph, but then—without changing the throttle position—it will suddenly accelerate more until you reach the speed dictated by the throttle position. This delayed acceleration can be a little disconcerting on the e-scooter, but the Zero does not have this problem; acceleration is powerful and predictable.
About deceleration. If you are familiar with engine braking in a car or gasoline motorcycle, then you will know what the Zero S’s regenerative braking feels like. Unfortunately, I was caught by surprise by the strength of this deceleration. I’m very grateful that I cut my teeth on slower streets first.
Why would this be a surprise? Isn’t it just like engine braking? Doesn’t even the LEAF and Tesla have regenerative braking? Yes, this is exactly like engine braking. But on a gasoline bike, I don’t like the idea of using more gas (allowing the bike’s momentum to noisily rev up the engine RPM) just to slow down, so I pull the clutch, let throttle close, and squeeze the brakes. On the e-scooter, it coasts when it is moving faster than the throttle’s implied speed; regenerative braking requires explicitly squeezing the brakes. I like this behavior because it minimizes energy use, maximizes range, and I have gotten used to it.
On the Zero, letting the throttle close while moving starts aggressively regenerative braking immediately, apparently continuing all the way to 0 mph. In contrast, my e-scooter’s regenerative braking is weaker and deactivates at speeds below 10 mph, forcing the rider to squeeze harder to engage the friction brakes. The Zero’s hand and foot brakes also engage regenerative braking, but because the throttle regen is so aggressive, the bike might be able to come to a stop without it. I didn’t risk it during the test ride, though.
I couldn’t tell if the braking force was stronger in ECO or SPORT mode, but I hear that the strength of regen is configurable in CUSTOM mode. I look forward to finding out if I can turn it off so that I can coast like I’m used to, but quickly and easily use the right handlebar button to switch out of CUSTOM to SPORT or ECO when necessary.
Why am I making such a big deal about the regenerative braking? It has to do with the next leg of the test ride: a stop sign at the bottom of a hill.
At the T-intersection on westbound 188th St., I turned right onto Blue Ridge Drive. This road drops maybe 100 feet—most of it near the end—ending at another T-intersection. 9 years ago, while I was shopping for my first bike, I visited Vespa Lynnwood, which was then known as Lynnwood Cycle Barn. There was an SV 650 in my price range, so I took it for a test ride along this route. I was still fresh out of riding school, so I neither had experience going faster than 20 mph nor going up or down hills. This neighborhood had both obstacles. The gentle 30 mph climb along 188th was exciting, but no big deal. Coming down Blue Ridge Drive and facing the steep dip at the end gave me the willies. Did I mention my fear of roller coasters? I was convinced that I would gather too much speed, panic, squeeze the brakes too hard, and pitch over the handlebars. It’s only within the past year or so that I’ve overcome that fear, so today’s test ride was going to test me as much as the Zero.
It’s late, so I’ll put down the pen here and ask you to look forward to my next installment, which will continue describing the remainder of the ride. Also, I will cover the following observations: