The Quiet Side of Recharging
By Christopher Nelson - 28 Jan 20
It is a struggle to accept electric vehicles. We recognize our unsustainable use of oil, but still we romanticize the death of fossil fuel like it’s divine nectar, not the slowly decayed remains of some prehistoric monster. Electric vehicles are met with resistance for threatening the norm, and with an understandable sigh of reluctance because at the moment EVs are more inconvenient than traditional gas-powered vehicles. While the infrastructure for public charging is steadily improving, with more than 63,000 EV charging stations scattered across America, EV charging cannot match the convenience offered at 115,000 gas stations, each with an average of eight pumps that can top you off in two to three minutes, not two to three hours. In the fast-approaching future, advancements in ultracapacitors, on-board charging systems, and more energy-dense battery chemistries will dramatically improve the performance of electric vehicles, but today’s vanguard of early EVs is built with nascent technologies, and in a few decades we will look back and laugh at the archaism of our now-modern designs.
Every big-name motorcycle manufacturer has announced plans to build electric bikes. Last year we saw both established and start-up motorcycles brands debut all-new electric motorcycles, but the two most significant releases were the 2020 Zero SR/F, a long-awaited streetfighter from a challenger company in Northern California that has built electric motorcycles for 14 years, and the 2020 Harley-Davidson Livewire, the first all-electric motorcycle from the world’s most mainstream motorcycle company. We recently took the Livewire and the SR/F on a 250-mile road trip to Ojai, a bougie little town a few hours from downtown Los Angeles, nestled in a mountain valley at the mouth of one of my favorite roads, U.S. 33.
During our trip we did not pout about the inconveniences of all-electric travel and instead promised ourselves that any necessary nuisances would be seen as opportunities to explore a quieter side of motorcycling; as the 2020 Harley-Davidson Livewire and the 2020 Zero SR/F recharged, we would find ways to recharge ourselves and make the most of our situation. We accepted electric motorcycles as they are, flaws and all, and saw firsthand how two bikes, born on the frontlines of the electric revolution, fare in a society that isn’t quite ready for them.
Just after dawn on the day of our departure, my riding buddy Yelena met me outside of Blue Bottle Coffee in L.A.’s Arts District, only a few blocks from the future home of Bike Shed L.A. She pulled up on the Zero SR/F and said, “Holy fuck balls this thing is fun.” For many the SR/F is a well-timed introduction to Zero Motorcycles, which took everything it learned in 14 years of building EVs and jammed it into this one bike, because soon the company will be competing with many more electric motorcycles being marketed by bigger, more influential manufacturers. The SR/F has a 14.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, available 3.0- and 6.0-kW on-board charging systems, a proprietary electric vehicle architecture called Cypher III, and an air-cooled interior permanent magnet (IPM) motor that produces 110 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. At 498 pounds, the SR/F is heavier than it feels, and with an as-tested price of $21,495, it’s not cheap, but both weight and cost will decrease as EV technologies continue to scale up.
The 2020 Harley-Davidson Livewire is also heavy (553 pounds) and expensive ($29,799), and its existence has caused many of the HOG faithful to question their god. The Livewire’s electric powertrain is called “Revelation,” with a 15.5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack sending power to a water-cooled, 15,000-rpm IPM that produces 105 horsepower and 86 lb-ft of torque. It is certainly one of the handsomest bikes to ever wear the bar and shield, and it is a hugely significant motorcycle simply by being the first all-electric Harley-Davidson, and the company is desperately hoping that a single-speed, twist-and-go motorcycle might pique the interest of youths, who at the moment aren’t buying motorcycles because they’re enthusiastically immersed in lives online.
Before heading out to Ojai, Yel and I wanted to top off our bikes; in the city the Livewire can go 146 miles before being completely discharged, but its range drops precipitously to only 70 miles on the highway, and while the Zero can do 161 miles in the city, it struggles to go half as far on the highway. We checked live-status maps of nearby charging stations on our mobile apps—we downloaded ChargePoint, EVGo, and Plugshare, in addition to apps developed by Harley-Davidson and Zero Motorcycles—and two blocks away we found a pair of available Level 2 stations. At a Level 2 station the SR/F is revived from dead and topped off in 2.5 hours, or 90 minutes if the bike has the optional “Power Tank,” which ours did not. At a Level 2 station the Livewire recharges at the same rate it does plugged into a standard 120-volt wall outlet: 12.5 hours, but the Livewire is equipped for Level 3 DC fast-charging, which fully recharges the bike in an hour. Level 3 charging stations are far less common than Level 2 stations, though, and since there wasn’t a Level 3 station anywhere near us, we settled for what we had.
A production company had rented the lot for a commercial shoot, but a man of some importance was smitten by the Livewire and said he’d allow us access to the chargers if I let him “take the Harley for a hot lap around the block.” After five minutes of struggling to pay the charging stations by tapping our credit cards against the faces of the machines, we plugged in and walked down the street to Zinc Café & Market. “They have Muesli on the menu,” Yelena laughed as she told me about her childhood in Russia and how she remembered boxes of the oatmeal stacked on a palette inside her pantry. As we rode toward U.S. Highway 101 North, Yel and I continued our breakfast conversation without having to raise our voices, and we used every stop sign as an excuse to enjoy the seamless acceleration of our EVs; both the Livewire and the SR/F go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds.
As we merged onto the highway and started the 84-mile ride to Ojai, I said to Yel, “Speed is our enemy, so don’t go above 70.” Any faster, and neither bike would reach its potential for on-highway range, so Yel set the pace at 74 mph, which is the fastest the SR/F can go in Eco mode. After an embarrassingly short stint of sensible riding we succumbed to our truest natures and, because an electric motorcycle’s roll-on from 70 mph to 100 mph is inconveniently addictive, we made it only 45 miles before we exited the highway and searched the labyrinthine parking lots of a shopping mall in Thousand Oaks until we found the green-painted EV corner between the movie theater and Forever 21. There was a fast-charging station for the Livewire, but unfortunately both of the Level 2 chargers were in use. The next closest Level 3 charging station was seven miles away and while our apps said it wasn’t currently in use, we decided not to press our luck and once again settled for what we had.
Yelena searched for a rogue 120-volt outlet and found one jutting up out of the mulch in a concrete-walled garden; at a standard outlet, the SR/F needs 8.5 hours to be brimmed with all-new electrons. Yelena parked the SR/F on the sidewalk near the garden, opened the bike’s top-mount storage box, unfurled its on-board charging cable, crept around the greenery, and as she plugged in, I unplugged a Chevrolet Volt, reset the Level 2 charging station, and shouted at her to come back. “It’s OK, the Volt’s a hybrid,” I said as we walked into the mall.
We stumbled into an arcade unlike anything either of us had seen, lined wall-to-wall with virtual-reality simulators. I raced a Caterham Seven along the Pacific Coast Highway, and then Yelena and I swam with humpback whales off the coast of Tonga, which made me want to barf. When I went outside for some fresh air I saw that the owner of a Volkswagen e-Golf had unplugged the Livewire and left me with an 88-percent charge. “It’s karma,” Yelena laughed as we merged back onto highway, and without a word we both set cruise control to 70 mph and exercised self-control on the one-hour ride to Ojai.
There is a sickening charm to Ojai and its pretentiously creative spirit. Everyone is adorably kind and incredibly beautiful, and because chain stores are outlawed the main street is lined with local shops that sell crystals and fashionably large hats. There are four EV chargers in downtown Ojai—two at city hall, two in a skate park parking lot—and all four are Level 2 chargers, and there are no Level 3 chargers within 30 miles. The SR/F needed 90 minutes to recharge, but the Livewire needed almost seven hours, so we spent a few hours eating “crack wings” at Topa Topa Brewing Company and wandering through the aisles of Bart’s Books, where Yelena bought a copy of The Zen of Farting for her boyfriend. When we returned to the bikes the SR/F had completely recharged, and the Livewire had charged very little.
The skate park groms made clear they preferred the Harley-Davidson Livewire, as did a man on an acid trip who couldn’t get enough of the bike’s matte orange paint. Because the Harley-Davidson didn’t have the charge we needed to feel comfortable riding U.S. 33 an hour before sunset, we decided it best to ride straight to dinner, which was at a ten-acre vineyard outside of town. A friend of a friend, Nicholas, and his wife recently bought the property and on a grassy terrace overlooking the vineyard, he makes Neapolitan pizza dinners for private parties, with bookings made through AirBNB. Nicholas flies in tomatoes from Napoli, he uses only buffalo mozzarella and parmigiana—per the standards of the preservers of traditions—and he keeps his giant outdoor pizza oven heated to 750 degrees Fahrenheit, which cooks a pizza in about 45 seconds. Every pizza Nicholas cooked tasted as incredible as the one before it, and if we didn’t stop him, he happily kept them coming. The Livewire and the SR/F sat parked beside the fire pit until we said our goodbyes and quietly tore off down the road toward the Ojai Rancho Inn motel.
I asked the woman at the check-in desk if we could park our motorcycles inside of our rooms to let them charge overnight, and incredibly she said “yes,” but when we discovered that none of the outlets were grounded, we had to roll the bikes back out of our rooms and sleuth for somewhere to charge. We found a pair of outlets near the suite behind the poolhouse, so I lifted the Livewire’s rear-hinged, duckbilled café seat and unwound its on-board, 120-volt charging cable. As I fumbled about in the dark I avoided the cutting glances of the woman staying in the suite, and I halfheartedly apologized to her before walking back to my room and calling it an early night.
Before dawn we stood shivering in the motel parking lot, and Yelena rubbed the sleep from her eyes and asked, “Why are we up this early for a pottery class?” “It seems like the sort of thing you do when you come to Ojai,” I said, “and don’t you wish more motorcyclists did pottery?” A sheepish young man welcomed us into Firestick Pottery, sat us at potter’s wheels, and plopped down fat, wet chunks of clay for us to use. I mirrored his demonstration of key techniques: centering the clay on the wheel, making a well with your thumbs and shaping out from there, and punching the clay out of frustration. After two hours of watching clay hypnotically spin into new shapes, I had created a deep-dish ashtray, and Yelena made a honeypot-like cup.
We left the pottery studio on fully-charged motorcycles and started the climb up U.S. 33. We waited for the tires to heat up before acting recklessly with electrons and riding voraciously fast, and after we switched both bikes from Eco riding mode to Sport, they livened up, bared hidden teeth, and became far more responsive. Switching between modes emphasized some of the subtler characteristics that separate the two motorcycles, which have similar performance and operate almost exactly alike but offer surprisingly different riding experiences that should appeal to different buyers.
The 2020 Harley-Davidson Livewire is unlike anything to come out of Milwaukee and bucks its brand tradition by being discreet, refined, and sharp. A low-slung, well-appointed motorcycle that feels as expensive as it is, the Livewire has a luxuriously long 58.7-inch wheelbase but moves between corners with the assuredness of a shorter, lighter bike. When I shifted to the outmost edges of its slim leather seat with one knee dug into the narrow spine, the Livewire stayed planted and let me touch the limits of its 45 degrees of lean angle. It is a tightly built and well-damped motorcycle, and while the fully adjustable Showa suspension felt a tad too harsh over breaks in the road, it’s likely that more time for fine tuning could’ve mitigated those issues. Corner after corner after corner, the four-piston monoblock front disc brakes faded very little, which is surprising for such a heavy, breakneck motorcycle. The few times I entered a turn a little too hot—it takes a few puckers to learn the riding cues of an electric motorcycle, which are much different from those of internal-combustion bike—I found comfort in knowing that hidden behind the Livewire’s frame is a Bosch control system managing traction intervention, cornering ABS, rear-wheel lift mitigation that activates under hard braking, and drag torque control, which prevents the rear wheel from locking up during regenerative braking.
The 2020 Zero SR/F is a well-sorted anthology of its predecessor’s best traits as well as an intoxicating tease of what’s to come from America’s most resilient electric motorcycle manufacturer. The Zero SR/F is thoughtfully engineered with top-notch tech and it doesn’t try to be more than it is, so while it isn’t as posh as the Harley, its boyish charm speaks to my inner child in a way that very few production motorcycles do. It has a lot of mechanical similarities to the Harley—an IPM motor, a lithium-ion battery pack, fully adjustable Showa suspension, and a six-axis Bosch IMU—but the experience on the e-fighter is totally different at speed. The SR/F is as docile and light-footed as Hermes and feels almost weightless as it transitions between turns with ease and poise. It is such a lighthearted and playful machine that I found myself needlessly switching between riding styles at wide-open; in sweepers I hugged the angular “tank” and drooped my body over the frame, and as I approached sharp bends I sat upright, extended my inside leg, and pushed the wide handlebars like a supermoto. No matter how I rode I couldn’t help but laugh and while I loved being wily on the SR/F, what I enjoyed even more was coasting through downhill sections of the road, letting the J.Juan regenerative brakes gradually slow me down, and flowing with the movement of the road, slow-dancing on the pavement.
I reached for a clutch once and tried to downshift a few times, but I otherwise felt confident and natural on the SR/F and the Livewire. Uncorrupted by engine vibrations and exhaust noise, I sensed momentum differently and rode up the mountain with newfound speed, accompanied by the whines and chirps of the belt drives. Yel chased me down long straights and through steeply cambered bends, and as often as we could she and I switched bikes, and neither of us felt any sort of uncomfortable segue between the Livewire and the SR/F. We lost track of time silently speeding along U.S. 33, and we would’ve happily burned through a full day if we didn’t have to get back to Los Angeles.
30 minutes outside of Ojai we pulled off the highway and found Level 3 and Level 2 chargers by an In ‘N’ Out in Oxnard. For whatever reason the Level 3 station could not communicate with the Livewire, so we rode six miles down the highway to Ventura Harley-Davidson, because every Harley-Davidson dealership that sells the Livewire is required to install a public DC fast-charging station. The dealership didn’t have to install a Level 2 station, however, so Yelena and I left the Livewire behind and rode the SR/F two-up to a nearby outlet mall in Camarillo, where we found a Level 2 station and sniffed out some lunch. After a little over an hour we regrouped cut over to the coast along flat, straight farmland roads. From Point Mugu we enjoyed a stress-free cruise south along the Pacific Coast Highway until we reached Malibu, where we rode single file through tightly packed rows of terribly customized German sedans, flashing our high-beams to get the attention of terribly distracted drivers. Yel and I rode together until traffic thinned, and we unceremoniously split off and said “goodbye” with a wave, like we would any other motorcycle trip, but we knew our trip was unlike any other.
Because we embraced the shortcomings of today’s all-electric vehicles, we explored without aim, ate slowly, laughed deeply, and learned how to make pottery and Neapolitan pizzas. Yel and I came away from our trip as alacritous advocates for the age of EVs, and she enjoyed riding electric motorcycles so much that less than a month after our trip she put down a deposit on a 2020 KTM Freeride E-XC, an all-electric dirt bike. She says, “The once all-important clutch now seems like a flaw in the original design of motorcycling. All of a sudden, I have a strong urge to try riding every road that I have even ridden, but on an electric.”
The 2020 Harley-Davidson Livewire and 2020 Zero SR/F are catalysts for what’s to come, beacons for a more sustainable form of motorcycling, and together they sing a poignant dirge too soft to be heard in the booming of our oily world. Many people will resist the change ahead, cling to what they know, and throw raged fits of rosy nostalgia, but eventually all of us will be well acquainted with the acceleration that no traditional motorcycle can mimic and the eerie-but-peaceful quiet that recasts the entire riding experience.
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