Scotts Valley, CA – Neal Saiki's love for motorcycles dates back to his childhood. "I love the freedom of riding around and the wind in your face. It's just a wonderful experience," he said, "I just wanted to make it more clean and green and more friendly." So that's what he did. Five years ago this former NASA Engineer and product developer for the bike industry began making electric motorcycles in the garage of his Scotts Valley home. Now with more than 1500 sold, his company Zero Motorcycles is the world's leading manufacturer of electric off-road and street motorcycles.
As he walks around Zero's headquarters in Scotts Valley, he explains his bikes are different than your average motorcycle. "We make them very lightweight so they take a very small battery, small electric motor and they use electricity very, very efficiently. You can plug it into any wall outlet and charge it in a couple hours," said Saiki. The Zero Motorcycle S is a highway legal bike that can go up to 50 miles on one charge and has a top speed of 67 miles per hour. "It's also a lot easier to ride. There's no clutch, there's no gears. It's just one speed, just twist the throttle and go," he added. Another obvious difference is sound. On the road, it's virtually silent. And that's something Saiki knows traditional motorcycle riders will have to get over. "So I love the sound of a noisy motorcycle but no one else does. Like my wife doesn't, my family, even my own mother hated the sound of these motorcycles, so you know it's one of these things. In order to get along with everybody in the neighborhood, I think the noisy motorcycle thing has to be a thing of the past," said Saiki.
Then there's price. The Zero S costs $10,000, about 25% more than a comparable gas powered bike. But the difference can get wiped out by federal and state rebates. Mike Ferry works for the California Center for Sustainable Energy, which runs state's Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. "One of the reasons I'm happy that zero-emission motorcycles are part of this rebate program because replacing a gasoline powered motorcycle, especially one that's seven or eight years old, with a new zero-emission motorcycle makes a very large impact on smog forming emissions," said Ferry. In addition to reducing emissions, the multi-million-dollar state project aims to increase demand for zero emission vehicles and thus incentivize development in the industry. Saiki agrees it's good for business. "This is just the beginning of these electric vehicles. And really, it's too soon to have real competition. We're all trying to help each other get in the market and get these vehicles out to people. When people ride them, they're hooked," said Saiki.
Getting people hooked could make electric motorcycles the gateway to the growing electric vehicle market. Bill Moore publishes the online electric vehicle magazine EV World. "Those are something that I think people are starting to take a look at just as a way to sort of ease their way into this concept of electric transportation. And when they have an opportunity to do that, I think they're going to come away with what we refer to as the EV smile. It's one of those you get on it, you try it, you find its fun. Its got incredible acceleration; its quiet you don't have to put up with the noise, the vibration, the pollution. People really like that," said Moore. Right now electric motorcycles are just a tiny fraction of the market, but Saiki believes this is the future of the industry.