Australian Outlook

In this section

What Does The Move To Electric Vehicles Mean For Our Most Vulnerable Road Users?

20 Jul 2022
By Sarah Jenkins
The picture shows the motorcycle of the eLaketric Racing Team of the University of Technology, Business and Design Konstanz.
Source: David.RXR23

Environmentalists have celebrated the global transition to electric vehicles. But motorcycling communities remain concerned that the technology is not innovating fast enough to meet the demands of climate policies or keep motorcyclists safe.

On 9 June, the European Parliament voted to effectively ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2035, passing by 339 votes to 249. The parliament debated and rejected a motion that would have allowed the sales of hybrid vehicles to continue following 2035. The European Union (EU) is responsible for the second-highest number of cars produced after China, and is the fourth largest producer of commercial vehicles in the world. Being responsible for such a high number of vehicle production and subsequent sales, it is little wonder the EU is looking to reduce its carbon emissions. However, the legislation only mentions “new passenger cars and new light commercial vehicles,” leaving ambiguous the any changes to the motorcycle industry. In late July, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) announced that it would also ban the sale of petrol vehicles from 2035. Unlike the EU, this ban will include the sale of petrol-powered motorcycles.

The Electric Motorbike Market

By production and revenue numbers, three of the world’s top ten motorcycle producers are European – Piaggio, KTM, and BMW. However, any motorcyclist will tell you that it is not just the production numbers that count, but the brand weight itself. In this respect Italy is a motorcycle heavyweight, home to Aprilia (which is owned by Piaggio), Ducati, and MV Augusta. Sweden’s Husqvarna also has a decent following.

Electric motorcycles are still much newer to the market than cars, and many of the electric bikes on the market are not coming from the big heavyweight aforementioned brands. Most electric motorbikes are sold by smaller, newer brands, and thus it is harder to make headway into what is already a niche market. For instance, Aprilia’s only electric bike is for children. While Ducati is testing an electric version of its Panigale series, the MotoE, it is currently planned for use only at the MotoGP, and won’t be sold to the wider public. Outside of the EU, Harley has already begun sales on its electric LiveWire, but out of the 24 current models sold by Harley in Australia, the LiveWire is Harley’s sixth most-expensive vehicle on offer. Like cars, it is simply cheaper to purchase fossil fuel-powered models.

Safety Concerns

Power output is certainly no issue, and it would be a simple fix to restrict an electric engine to learner-approved output from an unrestricted engine, but there do involve other safety concerns. The West lives in a car-dominated world, and road infrastructure – road cambers, markings, and chip seal for instance – is designed with little regard for motorcyclists. Sound is another such issue. BMW has started to include specific subwoofers in its hybrid and electric cars, such as the I40 M50, for the sole reason of creating noise for pedestrians. Those of us who have been pedestrians near electric cars know that these vehicles create little-to-no noise.

So, for motorcyclists, who are a recognised at-risk road group, this lack of engine sound output increases risk exponentially. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recognised this danger and has outlined a minimum noise standard for manufacturers. Any motorcyclist will tell you that “loud pipes save lives,” and while I don’t necessarily agree that constant loud pipes saves lives (it certainly doesn’t save a rider’s hearing), in my own experience as a rider, I know that revving my motorbike is far more effective at reminding other road users where I am, compared to my bike’s paltry little horn going “meep meep.”

Motorcycle batteries must be small and light, while cars ‒ which are growing ever larger as consumers demand more space and luxury ‒ can accommodate more powerful and larger batteries.

Most motorbikes sold worldwide weigh under 250kgs, whereas the average Tesla car battery weighs 450kg. Ducati’s MotoE currently weighs 225kg, and Ducati stated in its announcement video that any larger battery would disrupt the traditional motorcycle shape and aerodynamics. Ducati also stated that while this battery takes up most of the chassis, the range was low for what they would consider selling to consumers. If a manufacturer did try to cram a large, heavy, battery in a motorbike, unless it is a cruiser, it would render it nearly impossible to perform slower manoeuvres – especially for smaller and / or female riders.

Evoke Motorcycles, one of the few, small electric motorcycle manufacturers, advises that care should be taken riding in the rain for extended periods of time due to issues arising from long-term exposure to water. Some commentators have made claims that concern should be taken for electromagnetic field radiation, which are produced in higher quantities by electric and hybrid vehicles – and that the natural position of a rider would see riders receiving more exposure than a car driver’s feet. Given how little is known about the impacts, motorcyclists would be right to feel concerned.

The Limits of the EU Legislation, and its International Impact

As outlined earlier, only three of the top ten motorcycle manufacturers are European. This is the final hurdle. Should the EU expand their legislation, it will only impact their manufacturers. India is currently the top producer of motorbikes globally, and as of 2019, 47 percent of Indian households owned a motorcycle. Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia all counted household motorcycle ownership at over 80 percent. Most of these motorcycles are light, small, low CCs, and meant to be ridden in hot, wet conditions – the antithesis of what the current electric vehicle market can offer.

Millions of Global South citizens utilise these vehicles every day, and should similar legislation be enforced at a national or international level, millions may find themselves priced out of the market with consequences to their livelihoods. This speaks to an ongoing debate regarding the obligation of developing nations to address climate change at the same rate and standards as higher-emitting developed nations. Thereby exists the hypocrisy: we should do everything we can to move to electric vehicles, but for those of us who live in more affluent, high-emitting, and hobby-motorcyclist nations, such a move will be easier at a societal level.

It is clear that time is running out for fossil-fuelled vehicles. It just remains to be seen whether technology can improve fast enough to allow electric motorcycles to remain a viable alternative into the future.

Sarah Jenkins is studying a Bachelor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Canberra. She is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ National Branch for winter 2022.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.