What service departments need to know about electric motorcycles

Publish Date: 
Apr 24, 2014
By Tracy Martin

You’re a service manager or technician, attending your weekly department meeting.

The dealer principal/general manager is also in attendance. Something’s up, hopefully good news. It’s announced that in 90 days your dealership will be adding electric motorcycles to its lineup. In a short time you and your fellow technicians will be dealing with a bike that has a really big battery that can produce more than 100 volts, a 600 amp electric motor, battery chargers and computer software the controls and monitors these components.

What’s the big deal? Just plug it into a wall outlet, charge it up and go for a ride.

But if a new tech came into your shop, looked at all the motorcycles and said “Just change the oil, fill ‘em with gas and go for a ride,” he would be shown the door. Just like bikes with internal combustion engines, electric motorcycles need a little love too. Soon you’ll be dealing with technical issues that you have never faced before and answering customer questions like “I can only ride 52 miles before I need a charge and the manual says I should be able to go 75. What wrong with my bike?”

They’ve been around for a while

The idea of an electric motorcycle is not all that new. References to electrically powered, two-wheel vehicles have been around since 1885. Until the turn of this century, electric motorcycles were one-of-a-kind vehicles made by individuals as a hobby, or as concept vehicles by motorcycle manufacturers. Racing electric bikes have also been produced. In 1974 Mike Corbin built a motorcycle powered by a 24-volt electrical starter motor from a Douglas A-4B fighter plane and then set the electric motorcycle speed world record at 165 mph.

Fast forward to 2011 when Chip Yates, riding a prototype electric superbike, established the official Guinness record for fastest electric motorcycle at 196 mph. On March 3, the Society of Automotive Engineers adopted a new top speed test for electric motorcycles, based on a protocol developed by the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Electric motorcycles are a serious business. In 2009, Zero Motorcycles produced its “S” model, followed in 2012 by the introduction of the ZF9 Power Pack battery system that now powers the S, SR and DS models — the first production electric motorcycles to exceed the EPA-estimated 100 miles on a single charge. Another company, Brammo Inc. in 2012 sold its first bike in the United States, the Empulse R, which can reach a maximum speed of 110 mph. Both companies now mass-produce motorcycles, with replacement parts and dealership support for both sales and service.

Both the Zero SR and Brammo Empulse R have parts that are common to all motorcycles: tires, wheels, brakes, suspension and steering. Servicing these aspects of electric bikes won’t require any special knowledge.

However, the power train is a different story.