Will Zero's New $20K SR/F Ebike Raise The Performance Bar Too Far Above Harley's $30K Livewire?
It's springtime and new electric motorcycles seem to be popping up like dandelions in search of sunlight, and veteran ebike maker Zero is no exception.
CEO Sam Paschel says he thinks the timing for their new SR/F is critical when it comes to still-nascent electric motorcycle market, and with the reveal of the new machine late last month, he hopes to have Zero riding a growing wave of electric motorcycle debuts that includes (surprise!) Harley-Davidson, a new machine from Lightning, and an urban-focused bike from new entry Fuell, which is overseen by moto engineering icon Erik Buell.
Zero has been making the rounds with the SR/F during a promotional tour, giving rides aboard the new streetfighter-styled bike, which boasts significantly more power, more range, a more modern aesthetic and more tech features than their previous top-tier machines. "We've created the most transformational motorcycle experience in the world," Paschel told Forbes.
The SR/F debuts, of course, in the afterglow of the Livewire bike, the hotly anticipated electric motorcycle from a most unexpected manufacturer: Harley-Davidson, which is best known for bikes that evoke waves of nostalgia rather than cutting-edge moto tech (although to be fair, there is a considerable amount of cutting-edge technology at work in a modern Harley). The Livewire ebike is due to hit showrooms this August, with more (and likely less costly) models to follow. The price will be just a few hundred dollars shy of $30,000.
Paschel said that while riding the new SR/F during the testing phase, he and his marketing team were searching for a description that would best describe their new machine, which utilizes a simple, belt-driven single speed powertrain that requires no shifting and no clutch work like gas-powered bikes. "What we all came back with," Paschel said, "was that this was an effortlessly powerful motorcycle. Unreal acceleration."
And while the Livewire's final performance numbers have yet to be disclosed, it's going to be tough for H-D to top the figures put up by the Zero SR/F, which boasts 110 horsepower and perhaps, more importantly, 140 foot-pounds of instant-on torque - considerably more than any current mass-market gas-powered motorcycle, Harley-Davidson included. Engines that make a lot of torque have been a hallmark of Harley-Davidson for decades.
The standard 14.4kWh battery slotted between the SR/F's frame rails stretches the city range of the SR/F to a tick over 160 miles or over 80 miles out on the highway at 70mph. The addition of a second battery, called a Power Tank, puts urban range over the 200-mile mark and adds a few more miles to the highway range. For urban riders, that can mean going days without having to recharge. As expected, braking activates the bike's regenerative capabilities to put juice back in the battery.
If you're new to electric motorcycles (and EVs in general), highway range is usually lower than city range, the opposite of gas-powered vehicles. That's because electric vehicles - SR/F included - utilize the "generator" capability of its electric motor (or motors) to put power back into the battery while braking, greatly extending the urban range. Out on the highway, while moving at a constant speed, the battery is drained continually.
The Zero SR/F is available in two spec levels, a Standard configuration for $18,995 and the $20,995 Premium, which adds a Level II 6 kWh quick-charge feature (and 13 pounds) that Zero claims will juice the SR/F to 95 percent capacity in an hour. The Standard model includes a 3 kWh charging capability. Or you can just plug it into a wall outlet like a toaster and let it slowly charge up overnight. Fully juicing the battery literally costs a buck and half in electricity. Performance specs for both models are identical.
Speaking of performance, with a top "burst" speed of 124mph at full go and a sustained top speed of 110, the SR/F is a proper motorcycle by any standard. This writer rode Zero's less-powerful (74hp) DSR dual-sport last year and it was triple-digit fast, comfortable, highly useful, fun and impressive - every inch a modern motorcycle, sans the gas-burning engine. The SR/F now improves upon the DSR in several areas, including range, speed, charging time and the tech suite.
Like just about everything these days, there's an app for the SR/F, allowing you to track performance, rides, and even set up a user-definable Custom performance ride mode that joins the other ride modes (Eco, Street, Rain, and Sport), all of which can be toggled from the handlebar while riding. Also on board is a new stability control system from Bosch and a new customizable display panel.
Peshal said they've overhauled the bike's operating system (yep, that's where we are now) and app to form a new tech suite called Cypher III. The new system allows for a wider data stream to the app and keeps tabs on multiple aspects of the bike including charge level, charging status, range, and numerous performance variables. Riders can also change up the effectiveness or even defeat some of the rider assistance features on the bike by using the app.
The SR/F is now in production and riders can sign up for a test ride on the Zero website.
Forbes talked at length with Zero CEO Sam Paschel about the development of the new SR/F and the current state of affairs in the electric bike industry. The interview has been edited for brevity.
Forbes: How long has the bike been in gestation? How close is it to the initial vision you had for it?
Zero CEO Sam Paschel: About two and a half years from early concept sketches to the motorcycles rolling off the production line. The intent from the very beginning was to build a bike with these capabilities. As with any project, you can run into a little bit of "scope creep," where we were really ambitious, and as we learned more and more, we added the new lessons to the process and ended up with a bike that even exceeded our expectations. For the first time in a number of years, Zero took a blank piece of paper and looked not at the motorcycle we were trying to create, but what was the fundamental experience for the rider. And the motorcycle is an extension of that. We built a bike that is a pretty amazing experience.
Forbes: Electric motorcycles can really be pretty much any shape you want them to be, since you're free from the conventions of both "fuel" or battery placement and even engine placement. But the SRF looks very similar to a normal motorcycle. To the casual onlooker or non-rider, it's tough to tell the difference. While an aesthetic familiarity is clearly a positive at this point, is Zero looking at more radical or non-standard designs for the future?
Paschel: That's an interesting question. You see a lot of electric concept bikes out there that have a big resemblance to what we would consider the "iconic" motorcycle today. So I think about it this way: When we first made the transition from horse and buggy to cars, the first cars were horseless carriages - they looked a lot like the thing that was getting pulled by a horse. Over time, the form of that object itself really evolved into what we see today. I think this is how evolution happens in transportation in general. The motorcycling community is surprisingly traditional and conventional. The exhaust piping, ductwork and other elements of a gas-powered motorcycle... none of that is there [on the SR/F]. The bike is a really simple, stripped down powertrain, that to the eye, is a battery and a motor. We chose a streetfighter, sort of a naked sportbike, so that we could, with a trellis frame, lay that bare and show you just how simple it is. We're not making a concept bike. We're making a bike and have made bikes for the last 13 years that are meant to be in the world and ridden. As part of that, we push the design a little bit forward, but we also need to make sure that it is recognized as the archetype of "motorcycle." That aesthetic will evolve, and you'll see us push further and further.
Forbes: Unlike past batteries, which were just plain boxes, the battery in the SR/F is more of a centerpiece, even though it's basically... a simple box. How did the design detail evolve?
Paschel: I think that "center" of the bike is a really compelling thing and paying more attention to what we do aesthetically and upping our game in terms of a design and aesthetic point was key. That design specifically was inspired by the sort of supercharger on the front of the car in Mad Max. That car and the blower on the front, it's almost a character in the film. There were a lot of sketches and drawing of things that looked powerful. But we have a lot of thermal conduction from the battery itself to that outside casing, which is a conductive material. There's a lot of vertical fins there. Beyond being aesthetic, there's a lot of heat there, that's a conductive case that helps pull a lot of thermal load off the battery. It has a real impact on our ability to shed heat and keep the entire electrical power train working in an optimal way. It's a real sort of KISS principle. We are clutchless, gearless, and air-cooled so it's a simple, very reliable power train.
Battery dressing actually helps shed heat from the 14.4kWh powerpack and pretties the lump up a bit. Zero Motorcycles
Forbes: Other bike makers use or have used liquid cooled motors. You didn't think that was necessary?
Paschel: Our bikes historically have had fantastic performance. Liquid cooling means more complexity, more parts, more things to go wrong. We're getting all the performance we need and a really nice high-end thermal limit. It's really hard to hit the thermal limit outside of a track day. We really embrace the philosophy of sophisticated simplicity.
Forbes: You've got some wheelie action happening in your press photos. Easy to do? And what kind of controls are available to riders - and can they be turned off completely?
Yes, you can do ticket-worthy, lose-your-license things on the SR/F. Zero Motorcycles
Paschel: We have an advanced motorcycle stability control on the bike. It's a combination of our operating system, called Cypher III, and Bosch's Advanced Motorcycle Stability Control System, and that gives you ABS, cornering ABS, traction control, drag torque control (similar to engine braking), and there are 10 custom ride modes, five of which can be loaded at one time. As you shift those modes, the entire dynamic of the motorcycle changes. But to have premium performance, to really get the most out of that power train, you need to couple it with a mature control system and operating system like Cypher III. [Editor's note: Zero later confirmed that ABS and traction controls can be turned off].
Forbes: We're sure you've all been tracking the Livewire from Harley-Davidson. Why are the other large-scale bike makers (except Harley) dragging their feet in what should be a no-brainer urban electric mobility market?
Paschel: I can't tell you what's in their heads. Our philosophy may be different from how these other brands look at it. What you're dealing with is the largest disruption and transition in transportation that we are likely to see in our lifetimes. The move to electrification is going to create a market that is very fixed in its market dynamics and who owns market share. And it's going to make that fluid in a way that is unprecedented. And on the other end of that, you're going to have an $8 billion market that's more or less up for grabs. In a situation like that that has unpreceded fluidity, you're going to have two different paradigms. On this side of electrification, you're going to have certain brands that command certain market share, and have a business of a certain size, and on the other side, those players are likely to be fundamentally different. And the question you have to ask is: Would you rather be three years early, or three years late in a transition like that? Especially considering that we're bad at predicting S-curves (of market and development growth) and we think everything is linear. To work here and be an investor in Zero, you have to believe it's better to be a handful of years early than a handful of years late. There are going to be winners and losers on one side of electrification and the other, and we'd rather be a couple of years early. And right now, the great news is that electrification has gone from a sort of niche thing to having this sense of inevitability. And right at this moment in time, we've had 13 years and millions of miles to perfect the control systems of a seamless and reliable electric power train that performs in all the corner cases: High state of charge, low state of charge, wet, hot, and those problems are really challenging problems to solve. We're at this fantastic place in history where we put the time and energy in to have the world's leading two-wheel electric power train - and now redefining the premium electric motorcycle on the market at an affordable price. Right at this electrification tipping point, it's happening. Why other people aren't further ahead on it? They may have misread when this tipping point was going to happen, or they may be underestimating how challenging it is to solve these problems. These are not simple problems to solve.
Forbes: How is Zero doing? What's your most popular model?
Paschel: We sell between 2,000 and 10,000 motorcycles per year. We're cranking our SR/Fs on two shifts and have the capacity to build 10,000 of those on their own in a given year. We've been following a curve that has us in the 40% to 60% compound annual growth rate, so we're growing rapidly. The market is essentially defined for us by two dynamics: There's the motorcycle market, which you know has been essentially flat to single-digit growth and still hasn't recovered to the levels it was at before the sub-prime collapse in 2007 and 2008. And then you have the EV (electric vehicle) market, which has seen explosive growth similar to our growth. We've been very lucky in that we've been following the EV curve and not the motorcycle curve. Last year, there was only one month where we didn't set wholesale and retail records for the business. I believe our largest challenge now will be: Can we keep up with demand? The response to the SR/F has been overwhelming. Our challenge is how we can ramp in the face of an exponential growth curve.