Long and winding road to 'green' motorbikes

Monday, October 19, 2009 Admin
Three Wheel Electric Scooter graphic1
Only tentative steps made toward electric and hybrid power

It's a popular misconception that motorcycles burn cleaner than cars: most of them don't.

In fact, the only reason that they spew fewer greenhouse gas emissions into the air than four-wheeled passenger vehicles is because their smaller engines consume less fuel per kilometre than even the most fuel-efficient compacts.

As for smog-forming particulates? They're even worse than the dirtiest cars.

Yes, there are also fewer of them on the roads, and they remain parked throughout the winter, but motorcycle manufacturers — even the ones producing clean cars like Honda and Suzuki — lag when it comes to providing environmentally friendly two-wheelers.

Most motorcycles sold in Canada lack catalytic converters and many still use inefficient carburetors, something cars haven't breathed through since the mid-1980s.

Bikes don't have to be cleaner than they are, as all current models meet North American emissions standards, which are more relaxed for motorcycles than they are for cars, and are not as stringent as current European standards.

In recent years, however, we've seen some tentative steps toward the development at least of more environmentally conscious, alternative fuel motorcycles, using electric, hybrid and even fuel-cell technology. Some of these experiments will be on display at the Tokyo Motor Show, which opens next Saturday, and the annual Milan motorcycle show next month.

Electric motorcycles are a relatively new endeavour, the most promising examples coming from California-based Zero motorcycles.

The firm's latest model, the street-oriented Zero S claims a modest 122 kg weight — not bad considering 36 kg of that is for the battery pack. The biggest disadvantage an electric motorcycle has is its meagre range between charges: the Zero S maxes out at 80 km. A longer range would mean more batteries, and this poses packaging problems on a two-wheeler, not to mention the added weight.

BMW recently brought back the ill-fated C1 enclosed scooter, at least in concept form. The C1-E uses lithium-ion batteries to supply power to an electric motor made by electric scooter maker Vectrix.

The C1-E, which has a roof and seatbelts, is only a concept designed to contribute to the eSum project (European Safer Urban Motorcycling), which is looking at ways to increase motorcycle safety in European cities, and production is not planned.

Hybrid technology incorporates the benefits of zero-emissions electric power as a supplement to the internal combustion type for clean running in stop-and-go city traffic, while providing the added benefit of a useable range.

The problem with incorporating this technology into a motorcycle that already uses a gasoline engine is that there's not enough space available for the batteries needed for sufficient electric-only operation.

And electric-only operation is the main selling point of a hybrid, be it two-wheeled or four, especially in congested urban areas.

In 2007, scooter conglomerate Piaggio developed a prototype hybrid scooter drivetrain, to be used in the Vespa LX, and the Piaggio X8 and three-wheeled MP3, but it uses the electric motor mostly to enhance off-the-line acceleration. This helps reduce emissions and improves city-driving economy somewhat, as the engine works less when assisted, but the engine doesn't shut off when idling like a true hybrid, and when switched to electric-only operation, range is limited to 20 km.

Yamaha, a motorcycle maker that has also produced automobile engines for Ford and Volvo, introduced the Gen-Ryu concept vehicle at the 2005 Tokyo Motorcycle Show. That outlandishly styled hybrid promised cleaner emissions by using a YZF-R6-derived inline four accompanied by an electric motor, though the technology has yet to make it into a production bike.

"Hybrids are a stopgap on the way to something else," said Honda Canada's senior marketing manager, Warren Milner. "They're not cost effective, and even though they're cleaner, there are batteries that will eventually need replacing."

According to Milner, fuel cell vehicles have more potential than hybrids, but mass production is probably still decades away.

The most cost-prohibitive and least practical method of producing pollutant-free power, at least using readily available technology, is using fuel cells. A fuel cell uses an electrochemical reaction to convert stored chemical energy in a fuel into electrical energy.

This electricity can then be used to power an electric motor, the exhaust byproducts being water and heat, both of which are harmless to the environment.

The most commonly used fuel for this, however, is hydrogen, which isn't yet available by the roadside, and needs a disproportionately large storage tank to attain a reasonable range.

At the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show next week, Suzuki will be showing a zero-emissions fuel cell Burgman scooter. The water-emitting scooter boasts a hydrogen tank with twice the pressure of conventional tanks (conventional being used in a prototype sense), which should give it a modest range.

Honda recently introduced the most viable emissions- and fuel-consumption-reducing technology — at least by motorcycle standards — in the 2010 PCX 125 cc scooter. Called an idle-stop system, this electronically controlled feature shuts the engine off if the vehicle remains stationary for more than three seconds. The main component of this system is an advanced alternator, which also acts as a starter motor that re-fires the engine silently after the throttle is twisted to go.

Tested previously in Honda's bizarrely named Crea Scoopy-i 50 cc scooter, this relatively simple system improved city fuel economy by 5.5 per cent, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 5.2 per cent, carbon monoxide emissions by 8 per cent and hydrocarbons by 2 per cent.

"If we apply all the [hybrid] technology but the batteries and electric motors to a normal engine, we'd see a significant improvement in fuel consumption and exhaust emissions," said Honda's Milner.

Prohibitive costs and packaging improbabilities aside, probably the biggest limiting factor in producing alternative fuel motorcycles is the rider.

It's unlikely that most riders care about their carbon footprint, at least while riding their favourite two-wheeler, which most believe is an environmental asset. Most riders think they're doing the environment a solid favour by riding to work, and if we're talking about reducing fuel consumption — and to some extent traffic congestion — they are.

But the fumes emitted by those dual, upswept mufflers are still not up to the standards that they should be, especially if every motorcyclist's wish is to see more motorcycles on the road.


I can't wait till they make it to three wheel electric scooter. Can you imagine how helpful will that be on three wheel electric scooters. Leave some comments and tell me what you think.

Enjoy your three wheel electric scooter and I'll talk to you soon,



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