Environmentally conscious drivers can now choose from a sizable selection of low-emissions cars, including the hybrid Toyota Prius and the all-electric Nissan Leaf. But much of the country (and the world) commutes on two wheels, and the options there are expanding too. Although the big-name motorcycle companies are sticking with gasoline-fueled bikes, a few lesser-known manufacturers are quietly introducing hyperefficient electric motorcycles.
In many ways, motorcycles are a lot more practical for electric propulsion than cars: They are small and light and lack energy-hogging features like air-conditioning and entertainment systems. Nissan’s Leaf has a 660-pound battery that requires a 220-volt outlet and takes seven hours to recharge fully. In contrast, electric motorcycles from companies such as Zero Motorcycles and Brammo use much lighter batteries—one of Zero’s weighs just 48 pounds—that can charge from a wall outlet in four hours or less. And whereas many traditional motorcycles can achieve a respectable 50 miles per gallon at a driving cost of about seven cents per mile, an electric bike uses the energy equivalent of about 420 mpg at an operating cost of two to three cents per mile. It also produces zero tailpipe emissions.
According to Scot Harden, Zero’s vice president of global marketing, electric motorcycles are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Harden won’t reveal numbers but credits more efficient, powerful batteries and, perhaps most important, a growing perception that electric motorcycles deserve the “motorcycle” name. “In the past we were making a hybrid between a mountain bike and a motorcycle,” he says. “We were neither fish nor fowl, so no one knew how to look at it.”
California-based Zero’s newest offering, the $7,995 XU, is the first street-legal electric motorcycle to carry a removable battery. An urban commuter can easily zip off to work, carry the battery into his or her workplace to juice up, and ride home fully charged. The XU has a range of 25 miles and a top speed of 51 miles per hour. Two other Zero models offer better range and speed but no swappable battery pack. Zero’s main competitor, Oregon-based Brammo, just released a $13,995 electric motorcycle with a top speed of 100 miles per hour and a 100-mile range. The performance boost comes at the expense of convenience, however: The Brammo’s bigger battery takes 10 hours to recharge.
Electric motorbikes have a long way to go before they can match the raw performance of a 675-pound Harley V-Rod Muscle, one of Harley’s most powerful bikes, just as the Leaf cannot run with a Ford Mustang GT. But Harden asserts that many Zero buyers consider that a good thing, saying that they always wanted to ride a motorcycle but were intimidated by the speed, weight, and noise of conventional offerings. The modest price does not hurt either: The federal government offers a 10 percent tax credit on most electric motorcycles, and California’s separate credit can shave another $1,500 from the total.
A Mixed Bag
While chemical manufacturer DuPont has quietly managed to sell its shareholders on the sustainability message, the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo is finding that consumers can be a much tougher group to please. Last year, in an effort to capitalize on the growing demand for eco-friendly products, the potato chip giant began aggressively marketing a new, compostable bag for its flagship "green" brand, SunChips, only to suspend the product a few months later due to slumping sales. The problem? Noise complaints. Crinkling the packaging produced about 85 decibels, a sound level roughly equivalent to the rumbling of a subway train.
After five years of R&D, the bag was supposed to be a double win. Manufacturing it emits half as much greenhouse gas as making a conventional bag does, and it breaks down in a compost bin, reducing the amount of trash going into landfills. Instead, backlash over the cacophonous packaging burned up the blogosphere and inspired several viral YouTube videos. "I don't know what this bag is made out of, but it's literally the loudest material known to man," complained one video blogger. Frito-Lay got the message loud and clear: The world's first compostable chip bag was a commercial disaster.
The company has since debuted a new version of the bag that is half as noisy, putting it on par with Frito-Lay's noncompostable packaging. The solution turned out to be a softer adhesive to glue together the bag's two layers of polylactic acid film, a plastic that is derived from corn rather than the usual petrochemicals.
It remains to be seen whether consumers will embrace the new bag, let alone compost it. As with its predecessor, the bag is fully compostable, but only in a bin of at least 21 cubic feet, which generates sufficient heat to decompose the plastic. You can't just toss the bag in the dirt and walk away. Unfortunately, that is essentially what most consumers do. Less than 9 percent of waste in the United States is composted; bags that wind up in the trash head for a landfill, where they sit indefinitely.
Frito-Lay says continued use of the new packaging and expansion to other products will largely be determined by consumer demand. But the strategy raises the question: Should the decision to manufacture products more efficiently hang on fickle consumer opinion? Perhaps it is better to simply go green quietly, in ways that the consumer never sees—or hears.