My June distraction…

In my previous post, I alluded to something that distracted me from my savings towards a 2014 Zero S electric motorcycle.  That distraction turned out to be a limited edition 2013 Brammo Empulse R, #6 out of a series of 32 built to Eric Bostrom’s specifications for electric motorcycle racing.

There was a long story behind it, but the short of it is that I bought it from a gentleman in Texas who was sad to part with it, but could not take it with him where his employer asked him to relocate.

Normally, these things would run close to $20K, but he let it go for $14K…and paid for shipping…and it only had 28 miles on the odometer…and it was brightly and garishly colored!  It would go so well with my high visibility yellow jacket and helmet!  How could I pass this up?

Sure, Brammos get less range (~60 miles at highway speeds) than the 80-100 highway miles of the Zero S or SR with Power Tank, but the Brammo can charge from empty to full in 3.5 hours, whereas the Zero would take over 10 hours to do the same.  I would rather not have to check into a hotel room every 100 miles of travel before going the next 100.  Also, despite the CHAdeMO adapter Zero sells, many CHAdeMO DC fast chargers don’t support charging battery packs with voltages as low as 100V, which both the Brammo and Zero have, so even having a CHAdeMO charger on board the Zero would only allow me to charge at a subset of the already rare CHAdeMO stations in my area.

Sure, I can only go about 60 highway miles at a time, but I can take advantage of many Level 2 charging stations around the Puget Sound.  How plentiful are they?  Search PlugShare.com for Seattle, Washington and look at all the green pins.

So what do I think of it?

It’s awesome.  It’s full of surprises.  I had no idea that I would feel comfortable on a sport bike, until I took a test ride back in April for Microsoft’s Earth Day Electric Vehicle Show that I organized.  Just a couple of weeks before that, I’d taken a test ride of the 2014 Zero S, which I posted about previously.  Both bikes perform well.  However, the Brammo is so much more comfortable.

I’ll have to write about it in more detail later, but yet another topic has caught my attention recently, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

In the meantime, here’s a video of one of my first rides.

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2014 Zero S test ride, part 3

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Test Ride, Leg 5: From street to highway

This leg was intended specifically for experiencing highway handling.  Heading over from 99 to I-5 was full of anticipation.  Would the bike accelerate as smoothly and easily as I’d heard?  Would I be able to handle the bike’s acceleration?

Stopping at the light leading to the highway on-ramp gave me some time to prepare.  Unlike what I’m used to, there’s no windscreen, so wind would be an issue; the street bike has me leaning forward relative to my cruiser/scooter posture, so that’s another step away from my comfort zone; there’s no clutch, so I had better be careful with the throttle so that the regenerative braking (think: engine braking) wouldn’t throw me over the handlebars.

When the light turned green, I turned right onto the on ramp, smoothly accelerating to merge with highway traffic.  The lack of a windscreen made the speed very noticeable as the wind pushed me back more and more strongly, putting a strain on my upper arms, which pulled on the handlebars to keep me upright.  I’m used to sitting in a quiet wind pocket behind the windscreen of  a cruiser or scooter, so I’m not used to having to strain to sit upright, or strain to hear my helmet radio.

Other than the force of the wind, and its noise rushing past my helmet, keeping in control of the Zero S was nothing to worry about.  Smooth throttle control led to steady and predictable acceleration.  Holding the throttle steady maintained speed.  There was no handlebar wobble.  No disturbing vibration.  No power surges.  No trouble climbing or descending gentle slopes.  No tendency to drift into other lanes.  Not much noise, either, except for the modest whine of the electric motor and the wind whipping past my helmet.

The highway leg was so calming and uneventful that I spaced out and took the wrong exit.  Instead of taking the Alderwood Mall exit from southbound I-5, I ended up on I-405 southbound!  Taking the earliest opportunity to turn around added about 8 miles to the trip, but the northbound I-405 leg included an uphill slope at highway speed, which the bike handled without straining.

 

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Test Ride, Leg 6: Returning to the dealership

After all of the excitement of the highway, returning to the streets was largely uneventful.  This is a testimony to the ease with which one can become accustomed to the Zero electric motorcycle.  The accident of taking additional time on the highway was great as a confidence building exercise. 

Pulling into the Vespa Lynnwood driveway, I rode back to where the ride started.  Unfortunately, in my excitement about the test ride, I didn’t look closely at the battery meter before switching off the bike and returning the key, so I’m only guessing that I’d used about 16% of the battery to travel 23 miles.  If true, that would be more than a mile per percent of battery, which would match the advertised combined range of 105 miles for the Zero S ZF11.4 that I test rode.

Test Ride Summary

I really enjoyed the ride on this Zero S.  I’d been looking forward to this test ride for a while now, reading what Zero owners had to say on ElectricMotorcycleForum.com, but actually taking a test ride was necessary to put everything I’d read into perspective.  Like trying to read a book on how to swim is nothing like , it’s impossible to know whether riding an electric motorcycle is something you’d enjoy or not without experiencing it yourself.

Based on the test ride experience, I have the following pros and cons to report.

Pros:

  • Test rides are easy to arrange and convenient because we in Western Washington have a nearby dealership that is eager to sell Zeros
  • Electric motor is relatively quiet; yes, it makes noise, but at highway speeds, most of the sound is masked by the wind buffeting your helmet
  • Acceleration is ample, powerful, but smooth
  • Throttle is steady—power doesn’t ebb or surge
  • No gears = no distracting complication, just twist the throttle and go
  • Handling is responsive, bike is stable
  • Regenerative braking can be strong, but predictable—it isn’t going to throw you over the handlebars
  • Battery range appears to match advertising

Cons:

  • Wind noise around my unprotected helmet makes me want to install a windscreen if I want to protect my hearing and be able to listen to my helmet radio
  • Foot brake lever position is too high; covering the foot brake causes strain in my right ankle
  • Rear wheel makes a periodic metallic scraping sound; I’ve heard that the brake calipers can take some time to break in properly

Unknowns:

  • I don’t know how long the seat will remain comfortable during a long ride
  • Stock rearview mirrors were in the wrong position for me to see behind me easily, but they appear to be adjustable

Based on information other than the test ride, the following additional pros and cons might factor into your purchase decision.

Pros:

  • It’s great having a Zero dealership in state because you can walk into a local store and ride one home, and get it serviced there later instead of having to ship it back to the nearest dealership or manufacturer who might be in another state

Cons:

  • Cost is still rather high, starting at $15K for the 100+ mile model S ZF11.4 and increasing to over $20K with many of the bells and whistles such as the 2.8 kWh Power Tank auxiliary battery for 25% more range, heated seats and handlebar grips, side and top cases, J1772 adapter, and possibly also the CHAdeMO adapter.
  • The CHAdeMO adapter is an expensive risk to take, given that the bike’s battery pack operates at 100 volts that is not often supported by CHAdeMO chargers that expect higher voltage electric cars to plug in, not relatively rare low-voltage electric motorcycles.
  • The lack of Level 2 (240V) charging at L2 speeds is rather disappointing given how widespread L2 chargers are and how much they cost per hour to use, and how many hours you have to spend there to charge.
  • The 10+ hour time to recharge an empty battery to full practically restricts long-distance travel to roughly two hours of travel between overnight stays, which is a rather ineffective way to tour.

Would I buy one?  I was saving up for one until something else distracted me in June.  My main goal was to find an electric motorcycle for touring around the state, to replace my gasoline cruiser.  Unfortunately, with CHAdeMO compatibility an open question, I found myself always falling back on the Brammo Empulse as a strong contender, especially since Brammo has a transmission that I was curious about, and compatibility with Level 2 charging stations that gave it a 3.5-hour charging time from empty, which is one third of the Zero’s non-CHAdeMO charging time.  Otherwise, the Zero would be a slam dunk.

If you’ve resigned yourself to not seeing in 2014 or 2015 an affordable electric tourer that gets over 100 miles of highway range and can recharge itself in less than one hour, then either bike would likely work for you.  As an affordable commuter bike, both the Zero S and the Brammo Empulse are commendable.

I don’t know if I’ve swayed you with my ride report, but I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a test ride of your own.  Find a dealership in your area and call for a test ride!

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2014 Zero S test ride, part 2

Sunday, April 13, 2014

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Test Ride, Leg 2:  0-30 mph downhill stop, continued

Where I left off, we were talking about the downhill stop sign at the bottom of Blue Ridge Drive.  This was leg 2 of the planned route.

Why this stretch of road bothers me and why I chose to take this path again for this test ride, is to test two things:  find out whether I’ve overcome my fear of downhill stops, and whether I can feel comfortable on the street-bike seating posture of the Zero S under riding conditions like this.  What I hadn’t accounted for was the Zero’s regenerative braking.

My usual approach to a downhill stop is to close the throttle, coast, and use the brakes as necessary.  With the Zero’s default performance profiles (e.g. ECO, SPORT), coasting is impossible without careful control of the throttle; regenerative braking takes over when the bike is moving faster than the motor asked it to.

So, when the throttle is closed, regenerative braking is doing the braking for you, keeping down the speed that would otherwise build up while coasting downhill.  During the shallower part of the descent, the regen was stronger than gravity, so traffic behind me tailed close.  During the steeper part of the descent, the regen was not quite enough to bring me to a stop at the intersection, but light braking was all it took.

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Test Ride, Leg 3:  0-30 mph single-lane twisty traffic

After coming to an uneventful stop, pulling into northbound traffic was smooth and easy in ECO mode.  After the downhill run, this leg climbs gradually back to Highway 99 along a curvy tree-lined road.

Leg 1 was a gentle uphill straight line to practice low-speed stop and go, exercising acceleration, braking.  Leg 2 was an increasingly steep downhill with a sudden stop at the end, exercising friction braking and regenerative braking.  Leg 3 is another gentle climb, but twisty, letting me get used to keeping up with traffic, maintaining speed in turns.

Fortunately, the Zero had no trouble with this.  The trouble lies with me.  Because the Zero S doesn’t have a cruise-control feature, I had to learn how to adjust my grip to maintain speed while covering the brake lever.  This hasn’t been a problem with the Boulevard or the e-scooter, but for a reason that hadn’t occurred to me until now: the forward-leaning street/sport bike riding posture.  Unlike my cruiser and scooter, the Zero forces me to lean forward towards the handlebars, elbows above my wrists instead of level or below.  Covering the brake with three fingers at the same time as controlling the throttle with two while the elbows are up and wrist bent back feels like a recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome.  This is the right-hand cramp I was telling you about.

To address my shortcomings, I will need to learn proper sport bike posture, and if that fails, raise the handlebars.

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Test Ride, Leg 4:  0-45 mph stop-and-go multi-lane traffic

This leg is for trying higher speeds, 45 mph, with city traffic, on the way to the highway.  This doesn’t leave the stop-and-go traffic behind yet, but now the challenges include increased reliance on the rear-view mirrors for lane changes and increased need to cover both brakes to shorten reaction time when dealing with other traffic.

This 3-mile stretch was a little boring, but it was necessary to make the highway return trip long enough to be worthwhile.  Sure, I could’ve planned to go straight to the highway and back, but I didn’t want to be caught by surprise on the highway by some unexpected quirk or feature.

For example, the mirrors.  Even rotating them upward as far as they would go, I couldn’t see more than a couple dozen feet behind without leaning down or back.  Looks like a hex wrench should be able to fix this, though.

Then there’s the foot brake.  I’m used to my cruiser’s large brake pedal, and my scooter’s hand brake.  The Zero’s brake pedal is smaller than a cruiser’s, so I’ll have to train myself to find it reliably, and not catch my toe underneath it when I need to use it.

One more thing I noticed while rolling up route 99 to the highway was that I felt every pot hole and patch in the road.  This was noticed by other riders, but the shocks are adjustable, so I imagine that the ride can be made smoother.

Thank you for reading this far!  In my next post, I’ll describe more of the test ride, including:

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Had a great test ride on a 2014 Zero S electric motorcycle today!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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:

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“It’s Just Better”

Seven motorcyclists take their first ride on an electric motorcycle. See how their opinion changes.

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A Zero electric motorcycle shows up at a race track and wows the crowd

A mystery rider on a stealthy Zero showed up at the Supermoto USA event in Atwater, California, last weekend and put on quite a show. Read the first-hand account from a rather surprised spectator…

 

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“Brammo Has Changed My Opinion on E Bikes”

Someone who wrote a negative review about electric motorcycles four years ago has a change of heart in a recent encounter with a Brammo.

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