Electric motorcycles silently lap San Bernardino's Glen Helen Raceway as Zero founder and CTO Neal Saiki describes his company's battery technology with the excited intensity of a slow burn.
"We're patent-pending on this world-wide. This design is a way to cool [the batteries] and take all the energy out in a highly efficient manner. We get 300 amps out of these things. To give you an idea of how much power that is, we weld the frames at 220 amps... I can vaporize a wrench with this much current... We've developed this highly conductive technology to get the energy out of them in a safe manner."
A self-confessed fiddler, Saiki has a history of making things better. He set a world aviation record by successfully flying the first human-powered helicopter while he was still in college. As a project manager at NASA he helped with the development of high altitude research vehicles, and was also part of a study that found electricity to be the most viable solution for future transportation solutions. After several years designing what is now 10% of the market share for full-suspension chassis systems in the mountain-bike industry, Saiki built the first Zero motorcycle.
The line of Zero X's standing next to him are third generation and incredibly impressive. The X has 23 HP, 50 ft-lbs of torque throughout the rev range, a 0-30 time of less than 2 seconds. That's twice the power of previous electric bikes, and it's got twice the range of last year's model—although it does max out at 2 hours. It's powered by a modular Lithium-Ion battery with a full recharge time of less than 2 hours, and it's so clean that the tightly packed salt it uses is edible. Even better, the X itself is 100% recyclable.
"I looked at the marketplace, especially in off-road motorcycles, I saw just this big gap... I think there is an incredible opportunity to make an innovative dirt bike."
Zero's CEO, Gene Banman, who recently spent 15 years at Sun Microsystems, is smiling as he puts last year's growth issues in perspective. "We had orders for 3 times as many motorcycles as we could build in 2008. Last year was really all about getting our manufacturing processes in place so that we could respond to the demand for this kind of motorcycle. We shipped on the order of 100 2008's...We shipped almost as many bikes in January and February as we shipped all last year."
A mere 151 lbs, the Ultra-light X's weight and battery-powered motor are the largest contributors to setting up a sleek distribution system that has allowed them to rapidly go global. As Banman explains, "The electric drivetrain itself doesn't need any maintenance. The motor has one moving part... So we don't need a serious service channel. We can get by with a fairly lightweight service channel for taking care of these motorcycles."
The company's strategy lies in the inherent principles of the Zero. According to Banman, "The design center for an electric vehicle is to be as light as possible because there's really not that much energy in these batteries yet. When you don't have that much energy the vehicle has to be as light as it can possibly be so you can have time to ride it. The fallout of that is a bike that's 150 lbs. We can use UPS and deliver it directly to your doorstep. So there's no reason to inventory anything at a dealer."
For the Continental United States, the X sells for $7,750 shipped to you door. While that's a little more than a comparable 250cc motorcycle, Saiki is looking down the road. "As the market matures and the battery technology keeps coming down ever year we are going to be at parity with the gas bikes, hopefully next year or the following year. It's going to be a game changer when we've got all the power and you don't have to pay a price premium to the gas bikes. That's a big revolution."
Zero's sales model is Web-based, using a team of professional technicians and riders to handle sales calls, then sending independent regional reps to a potential buyer's home to give them a ride. "As a new company without any dealers out there we were able to go on the Web and start selling motorcycles basically worldwide," stated Banman. "It's really founded on the fact that the electric motorcycle really doesn't need service."
Zero goes a step further by eschewing yearly releases. With a third of the company's budget focused on engineering, all improvements are immediately made available to customers. This is because the bike is designed for easily upgrading as technology advances. Clients can just get an updated battery instead of having to buy a whole new machine for better performance.
For now, the only Zero you can buy is this off-road model. But, the company has already shown sketches of a street-legal Zero S and says it'll arrive later this year. Removing the product from the recreational niche, but keeping advantages like zero emissions, low maintenance, a small price tag and direct to customer sales, Zero could be the company that cracks the electric vehicle market wide open.
But that's only part of the story because, in addition to being silent, eco-friendly and cheap, the Zero X is really fast too. Head over to Jalopnik to find out how it rides.
Grant Ray is the creative director of Hell For Leather, the Internet's premier motorcycle magazine.