GUY RAZ, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
If you just heard the story about sending text messages from bicycles, you'll almost certainly want to avoid texting while hitting speeds of up to 70 miles per hour on a Zero motorcycle.
(Soundbite of motorcycle)
RAZ: Did you miss that? Here it is, once again, the Zero motorcycle.
(Soundbite of motorcycle)
RAZ: If you haven't already guessed, that quiet hum is the sound of an electric motorcycle, and for years, inventors tried to figure out how to make it a viable mode of transport.
Well, one of them, Neal Saiki, has done just that. He used to work for NASA as an engineer, and then he went on to design high-end mountain bikes. And this year, he's introduced a new, commuter version of his all-electric Zero motorcycle.
Mr. NEAL SAIKI (Founder, Zero Motorcycles): It's been a dream forever, basically. I mean, I've seen examples of electric motorcycles from the '30s and '40s, but really, the technology's held all this back. You had very heavy batteries and heavy motors, and the performance was terrible, and you could go, like, maybe two miles or something like that before you had to walk. So the technology has really enabled this thing to just explode, and you're right. You've never seen them before, but in the next five or 10 years, you're going to see all sorts of electric vehicles.
RAZ: So what changed? I mean, what happened?
Mr. SAIKI: Well, two things happened. The motors developed, and that was a big surprise is the military developed these really powerful, small motors, mostly for weapons, for like torpedoes. They're really incredibly small motors. They are really high-powered, and it took about 20 years for these to get to the public sector, but I'd seen them when I worked for the military in aerospace. So we just knew that they were going to come to the public sector and become available.
And so those became available, and then they developed these lithium-ion batteries, which are incredibly powerful, about eight times more powerful per weight than typical lead acid batteries.
RAZ: All right, so your company, Zero Motorcycles, is making different kinds of electric motorcycles: off-road and street bikes. But I want to ask you about the street motorcycles. Tell me how far and how fast you can go on one of them.
Mr. SAIKI: They go 67 miles per hour.
RAZ: This is pretty fast.
Mr. SAIKI: They're pretty fast. They're full, freeway-legal motorcycles.
RAZ: So you could go, at minimum, 30 miles on one charge. So in theory, if your commute is 30 miles each way, you get to work, and you plug it in during the day, and then you go home?
Mr. SAIKI: Yeah, that's the great part about it. You can plug it any outlet, unlike electric cars, which generally require a high-voltage outlet. A motorcycle is much smaller, and we purposely made a very, very lightweight electric motorcycle. So you can charge it after breakfast, and it's ready by lunchtime.
RAZ: So say you wanted to buy a street-legal bicycles, commuter motorcycles. How much would it cost now?
Mr. SAIKI: So the starting price is $10,000 on the street bikes and 7,500 on the off-road bikes, but you get 10 percent federal rebate, which is not a credit but actual rebate, you'll actually...
RAZ: Because it's a zero-emissions...
Mr. SAIKI: Yeah, a zero-emissions vehicle, and we qualify. And then depending on your state, like California, we get another $1,500 off, and Colorado, you get another almost 50 percent off for the motorcycle.
RAZ: Wow, so a $10,000 bike could be $5,000 after your rebates and credits.
Mr. SAIKI: Yeah.
RAZ: In terms of design, explain some of the differences between an electric motorcycle that you've developed and a traditional gas-powered motorcycle.
Mr. SAIKI: The main difference is in the weight. I really strived hard to make it a lightweight motorcycle, and I have a lot of experience in aerospace and in the bicycle industry. So I made a frame that's about 18 pounds. It's really, really light, thin wall, aircraft aluminum frame. But it also uses a very small battery pack, you know, comparatively.
Like most electric cars actually have a very big battery pack and actually weight more than their gas counterparts, and our electric motorcycle actually weighs about two-thirds the amount of a gas motorcycle.
And so it's very, very snappy, very quick performance, very easy to maneuver and really very safe because 85 percent of injuries are when the motorcycle falls over and falls over on your leg. We hardly ever have those fall-over problems because they're just not very heavy.
RAZ: All right, well, Neal Saiki, we're going to test your claims about the Zero motorcycles because you have brought one for us. It is outside, and I think we should go check it out.
Mr. SAIKI: Let's go for a ride. I'll get on first.
RAZ: All right. Do you want me to use those pedals?
Mr. SAIKI: Yeah, you can go ahead and use the pegs.
RAZ: All right, and I'm going to hold you there?
Mr. SAIKI: Yeah, is that good?
Mr. SAIKI: Are you ready for a ride?
RAZ: I'm ready.
(Soundbite of motorcycle)
RAZ: Now, let me break in here for a moment to explain something. This bike is so quiet that Neal Saiki and I could have a conversation while we were riding it. Okay, now back to the story.
Wow, makes absolutely no sound. And there's none of that vibration that you have.
Mr. SAIKI: Yeah, there's no vibration, no noise, and you can see, you can really hear it drop in - and it's a lot like riding a bicycle.
Mr. SAIKI: And the cost per mile of this is it's about a penny per mile to ride around. So it's practically free. I mean, it's just incredible. You can fill up your gas tank, your electric fuel tank, for about 40 cents. Here we go. That's it.
RAZ: Wow. It feels very similar to riding on an electric tram.
All right, so, Neal, we have asked one of my colleagues, Paula Olson, who works here at NPR with me, to bring her Harley-Davidson to work today.
(Soundbite of Harley-Davidson motorcycle)
RAZ: All right. She's going to compare these two motorcycles. So are you comfortable with that challenge?
Mr. SAIKI: Oh, yeah, this'll be great, and I think she's really going to like it.
RAZ: All right, we're going to see. All right, Paula?
PAULA OLSON: Yeah.
RAZ: We're going to ask you to get on that motorcycle and let us know what you think.
OLSON: Okay, glad to do it.
RAZ: All right? But before you do that, what is it about motorcycle riding that you like?
OLSON: I like the feeling of the wind and the feeling of almost like sailing but on tires. I like the sound of it. I like the power that you feel when you accelerate, and I like the control of it.
RAZ: When you look at that bike, are you skeptical?
OLSON: Yes, I am. I'm thinking it's not going to deliver the power. I'm thinking it's not going to have the acceleration. It's not going to have the same feel when I'm doing turns.
RAZ: All right, well, let's test it out.
OLSON: All right, on my way.
(Soundbite of motorcycle)
RAZ: Now at this point, Paula took the Zero motorcycle through the mean streets of downtown Washington, D.C., and after five minutes, she pulled into the loading dock behind NPR.
OLSON: Oh, that was awesome.
Mr. SAIKI: That was awesome?
OLSON: It has a great turning radius, great acceleration, and I think I could get used to the lack of a real loud motor because then you get to hear the streets, and you get to hear things around you.
RAZ: But you were skeptical.
OLSON: Yes, I was.
RAZ: And what do you think now?
OLSON: If I were going to add a second bike to my garage, I'd probably think about doing one of these because they - it really is kind of fun to ride.
RAZ: Paula, thank you so much for bringing your Harley and for test riding it for us.
OLSON: No problem.
RAZ: And Neal, thanks for bringing the bike around.
Mr. SAIKI: Thank you, it was a pleasure being here.
RAZ: That's Neal Saiki. He is the founder of the zero-emission Zero motorcycles. You can see photographs of that motorcycle at our website, npr.org.
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