Despite America's love affair with Harley-Davidsons, electric motorcycles — as well as e-bicycles — are revving up U.S. sales.
Two-wheeled e-vehicles are gaining converts among urban commuters and law enforcement, which see a stealth advantage in their quietness. More than three dozen U.S. police departments nationwide now use e-motorcycles.
Sales of high-performance e-motorcycles will rise at least 30% per year through 2023 in North America, says a May report by Navigant Research, a market research firm. Co-author John Gartner sees several reasons: consumers looking for refuge from high gasoline prices, increases in city traffic and improved e-vehicles.
"It has its limitations. It only goes so far" on a charge, says Ron Paci, a retired carpenter in Arlington, Va., who has owned an electric Zero Motorcycle for a year. Still, he's a huge fan. "it doesn't pollute. It doesn't make any noise so if you want to drive quietly along a country road, it's a new experience."
Zero, the largest U.S. manufacturer of e-motorcycles, has boosted production from fewer than 100 units in 2010 to more than 2,000 this year, says Scott Harden, the company's vice president of marketing. Compared to gas-powered counterparts, he says Zeros are cheaper to operate — about a penny per mile — and don't make noise, fumes or vibrations.
"It's almost a magic-carpet-like ride," Harden says, noting Zeros can go 171 miles per charge in the city. He's bullish about future sales, because battery prices — accounting for half of production costs — have fallen in the last year. Zeros cost $10,000 to $17,000.
E-motorcycles sell best in the San Francisco Bay area, southern California, Florida and Texas, says Adrian Stewart, director of marketing for Oregon-based Brammo, which rolled out its first model in 2009.
The U.S. market faces increased competition as BMW launches an e-scooter this year, and Yamaha plans an electric entry in 2016.
Also on the way are three-wheeled electric tuk-tuks, vehicles without sides that have canopies and are common in Asia. Netherlands-based Tuk Tuk Factory is partnering with eTuk USA, which is seeking road-use approval for three models from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"The interest is unbelievable," says Michael Fox of eTuk USA, noting Atlanta's airport plans to use one of the units for mobile food sales. He says hungry passengers waiting for flights won't have to leave their gate, because the tuk-tuk will come to them.
E-bikes, though still a small share of all U.S. bicycles, are seeing rapid growth. More than twice as many, 158,000, were imported from July 2012 to July 2013 than a year earlier, when 65,000 entered the U.S. market, according to Edward Benjamin, chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, an industry group. E-bike sales are forecast to increase nearly 10% per year through 2020 in North America, says a 2013 Navigant report.
"If I ride a pedelec up a hill, I feel 18 again," Benjamin, 59, says, referring to a type of e-bike that requires riders to pedal in order for the motor to run. The more pedaling, the longer a bike's range per charge.
He says e-bike sales are greatest among aging Baby Boomer cyclists who have trouble climbing hills and young urban commuters who don't want to buy a car but want to arrive at work without sweating. He says customers say they aim to avoid traffic jams and parking hassles.
Still, Americans aren't flocking to e-alternatives as quickly as Europeans or Asians.
"We're culturally slow in our adoption," Benjamin says. Unlike Europeans, he says most Americans drive to work and are more apt to see bicycles as a way to exercise rather than commute.
Also, Europeans are more focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and have more dealerships that focus exclusively on e-vehicles, Brammo's Stewart says. And in the U.S., he says there's the Harley-Davidson "phenomenon," adding "the noise and the smell are part of the attraction." He doesn't expect its devotees to switch until e-motorcyles can get 300 miles per charge.
Another hurdle is price. Harleys aside, many gas-combustion motorcycles cost less, and a federal tax incentive for e-vehicles, including motorcycles, expired last year.