That’s how it feels sometimes, when the forces of the universe align, riding the Zero Motorcycles DSR.
I don’t mean in a literal way, although that would be an easy mistake to make.
Back in the 1950s, Physicist George Dyson, in a quest for higher performance space vehicles that could enable interplanetary travel, came to the conclusion that the best impulse/mass… how much thrust one extracted from a given mass of rocket propellant… could be obtained by using nuclear bombs for fuel.
It’s also easy to understand how most of us would have failed to come up with that idea, as it immediately requires that a host of other problems — like not being instantly vaporized, for example — be solved in order to be truly practical. The aforementioned George, however, did come up with the idea, and was pretty well along with it, even having done the math to the point where they were confident they could get a 4000 ton spacecraft they’d designed to earth orbit with only 800 very small nuclear bombs, setting off one every second during the ascent.
At this particular juncture, some nice people who were writing something called the Limited Test Ban Treaty pointed out that those 800 very small nuclear explosions were probably not the best thing for the planet they intended to leave, and that they really needed to think about this at least a little more.
The point, though, is that when one reaches the end of the line for developing and maximizing any source of motive power, one absolutely has to think in new, oblique and unprecedented ways.
And while applying throttle to the Zero’s Z-force direct drive electric motor may not cause space and time to bend while accelerating at the speed of nuclear plasma, it can be powered by the biggest nuclear reaction — at least in our neighborhood — that fusion reactor we call The Sun.
Look, I’ve got gasoline running in my veins.
One of my earliest childhood memories is lying on a mechanic’s creeper next to my Uncle Dick, looking at the roof of his shop through the eight empty holes of the engine he was rebuilding in his Ink Black 1963 Thunderbird.
My first ride was a Rat 8.0 Liter V-8 Cadillac whose carbon footprint was very deep and very, very wide. The bias-belted tires of the late 1970s really had no chance against a young man’s hormonally depraved foot and 465 foot pounds of torque.
I started riding motorcycles because the Sedan Deville had a 27 and a half gallon gas tank, and my first jobs just couldn’t feed the beast. This led me to a CB750 Four, carburetor jets on my kitchen table, learning to set adjustable valves, points with dwell and timing lights, and then a blur of Airhead boxers and KBikes, a Suzuki or two, and a smattering of others – Buells, Kawis, HDs – involving a vortex of exhausts and tuning and suspension work, transmission rebuilds and rewires until there’s a half million moto-miles gone and here we are.
The sound of a Harley XR going around the blue groove at the Frederick Fairgrounds, or the bark of a big bore MotoGuzzi pulling by on a country road is enough to stir me to my soul.
But love her though I may, I’m not so blinded by love that I can’t see she’s packing her suitcases with a ticket in her hand for the midnight train.
Seven major industrialized nations have already announced a date by which they will prohibit the sale of internal combustion engines. On Monday morning in Detroit, General Motors Corporation announced that they will cease the manufacture of internal combustion engine powered vehicles. Let me slow that down for you. General Motors… Will Not… Make Motors. At least not the Internal Combustion motors — like my old Cadillac’s 8.0L V8 — that we know and understand.
Major, prestige nameplates in Automobile design and manufacture — Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW — either have electric prototypes in testing or early production models to help them defend their customer base from the likes of Tesla and Rimac.
When whole technologies and the economies on which they are based reach a tipping point, you can either recognize that this is happening, or be left utterly behind. And using fossil fuels — gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas — to power human transportation has reached that tipping point.
Electric powered vehicles are not a dream of some possible far off future. Electric vehicles are the solution happening right now. It’s both an incredible and economy-changing commercial opportunity, as well opportunity to completely break the mold — to use creative approaches that can discard old limits and create totally new rules for vehicle design and engineering.
I came to the conclusion long ago that electric power required for modern American life — from lighting to laundry, refrigeration and air conditioning — was an excessive use of resources, especially when powered by coal, oil or gas burning electric generation plants. I’d been profoundly interested in renewables, but their use required me to pay two or three times what normal users paid for energy, and with both a silly need to eat and children’s educations to fund, it simply wasn’t realistic. I settled for making changes that lowered my family’s consumption — LED light bulbs reduced household usage by more than 60% — and kept evaluating solar energy systems in the hope that the economic justification or at least something close to parity, would finally materialize.
Then, a statewide organization called MD-Sun helped set up citizen purchasing co-ops in all of Maryland’s Counties. The co-ops allowed purchase of systems — unlike the lease providers like Solar City — at a substantially discounted rate. My house faces directly south — so was perfect for solar-voltaic electric production. I was able to get a loan that would allow me to purchase a system that would make all the power my family used — working with the installer’s engineer, we played with the configuration until I had a system that made well more than my historical usage. I’d replace my $103 monthly electric bill — pretty modest usage because of my energy saving measures — with a $100 monthly loan bill, and a system that was designed to make surplus power that would be redistributed to my neighbors and have the utility paying me. Surplus power that could also be used to power an electric vehicle.
Which brings me to the Zero Motorcycles DSR.
I’m not a normal motorcyclist, if there even is such a thing.
I ride for daily transportation. I grocery shop and commute on my bikes, although in today’s virtual world I don’t go to work or clients as often as I once did. More than one client in my working life has taken a huge double take when I walked into their data center with my riding gear on and a full size 5U server or network appliance under my arm. I take my bike on business trips when most people use planes. I take long rides — multi-state multi-1000 mile blasts — where most people use ministers or therapists.
My motorcycles are not toys, they are tools. And my tools have to work.
So when I first approached Zero about their motorcycles, my ask was simple. Now that I had a source of renewable energy to ‘fuel’ one, I want to see firsthand if making the change to an electric motorcycle would require adjustments to my riding life, or if it would be frictionless, just like flipping a switch.
My buddy Paul and I were standing out in the parking lot at Powersports East, in Bear, Delaware, taking to the dealership’s Pete Clarkin about the 2017 Zero DSR that we were picking up there.
“I have seen this happen more than once. Guy will come in here, tell me he’s ridden everything ever made and ridden everywhere. That he’s a safe and skilled rider, and wears all the gear all the time. And he will snap the bike into ‘Sport’ mode, and we will end up picking him and what’s left of the bike out of the yard sale at the end of the block.
Please don’t be that guy.
Ride the bike around in ‘Eco’ mode for a day or two, just to get a feel for the thing. Then, when you think you’re ready, dial up ‘Sport’ mode.
You still won’t be ready.”
Standing out in front of a showroom filled with Ninjas and YZRs and GSXRs, ZX14s and Hayabusas, in addition to the Zeros, there was something about this advice that allowed for the possibility it wasn’t entirely balls-size-of-Cleveland, bravado-stuffed biker bullshit. My experience with motorcycle dealers is that they are not prone toward emphasizing the inherent risk we all assume when we ride that may be present in some of their more potent product offerings.
For a dealer to be communicating that this motorcycle could bite me, was noteworthy, and had the feel of something to which I needed to pay attention.
I sat in the saddle of the DSR, turned the key to start the system’s boot sequence. The LCD dash activated and calibrated its instrument display – showing mode selection, battery status, power/regen levels, and road speed. Picking up the sidestand cleared an interlock and its associated safety warning. Activating a very motorcycle-standard handlebar ‘kill’ switch armed the system — a very smartphone appearing green ‘power’ icon — subtly modified to have a little arrowhead included — GO! — appeared on the Zero’s display. I used the mode selector switch on the right handlebar to toggle to ‘Eco’, and gently turned the throttle.
With an almost inaudible ‘whirrr’, the bike smoothly moved forward. I figured I would run the DSR up to the end of Powersport’s substantial parking lot, and just get a tiny taste of its manners before loading into Paul’s truck, which was parked around back. At walking speeds, the Zero was very docile and trivial to control — in ‘Eco’ mode low end throttle response was very gentle, and the bike was light, firmly suspended and perfectly balanced. It became instantly apparent that this was the easiest bike to ride precisely at very low road speeds I’d ever ridden — with the Zero’s direct drive transmissionless operation, speeding up was adding some throttle, slowing down was giving some back.
I did a few O-turns, loops and figure 8s of the kind that likely gave you fits when you took your motorcycle license test. Cake.
I headed around toward the back of the dealership. Paul was walking up ahead, doing something with his phone.
I trolled up beside him at minimum speed and said in a quiet conversational tone, “Hey Paul.”
He jumped and his eyes got big.
He hadn’t heard me or the Zero coming.
We loaded the DSR into the bed of Paul’s Tacoma, and headed back home to Maryland.
Bikers like to look at bikes. At least I do, anyway.
When sitting in the driveway, just drinking in the Zero’s appearance, there is precious little to cue one in to just how revolutionary the Zero’s design really is. Think about it — the base engineering requirements that have driven every motorcycle from DeDion, Peugeot, and Harley to the present day — a place to store oil and gasoline, an internal combustion engine, and a way to get air into and noise out of same — completely don’t apply as none of those considerations are even present. It’s clear that at an early point in the design process the Zero’s designers made a conscious decision to abide by the innate conservatism of motorcycle enthusiasts. No matter how different the underlying mechanics of the machine might be, the Zero needed to at least look like a motorcycle.
And while some of the design details are 21st Century spacey, the design vocabulary — the structure and interrelationships between forms — are very motorcycle conventional.
The main frame of the DSR is a very stout, narrow twin spar aluminum frame with its main frame members running about 20 degrees under the horizontal axis — a frame that wouldn’t look out of place on an early GSXR or ZZR — and a structure whose rigidity is pretty apparent. Sitting on the lower left frame member is a rubber plug that shields a bog-standard NEMA 5-15 connector, just like you would see on any server or piece of network gear — it’s here where one attaches the standard low-speed charging cord whenever one is looking to add electrons to the bike’s battery pack.
The swingarm is also aluminum — again, a beefy structure with substantial stiffening ribs — looking very similar to those of recent KTMs. Both the frame and swingarm have substantial lateral braces — provided by large and really large diameter tubes — that add tremendous amounts of resistance to torsional flexing with essentially zero weight.
Looking at those big holes in the Zero’s frame made me want to spin up a lathe and make some precision alloy caps to close off your new toolbox and power cord storage compartment.
The marketplace will no doubt provide.
The entire structure is then finished off in a very purposeful looking flat matt finish black.
Suspension, both front and back, is high specification stuff by Showa. In the rear is a fully adjustable, gas charged piggyback shock. In the front is a set of again fully adjustable 41mm ‘upside down’ forks. Both ends of the motorcycle have a pretty respectable and off-road capable 7 plus inches of suspension travel.
Brakes are J. Juan units — a Spanish manufacturer — a dual piston caliper in the front and a single piston one in the rear, using wave-style rotors and ABS provided by Bosch.
Wheels are cast type — a 19 inch in front and a 17 inch in the rear — wearing dual sport MT-60 rubber from Pirelli.
The DSR’s seating position is dirtbike or adventure bike standard — a nearly bolt-upright seating position, lots of legroom with the metal, wide, offroad footpegs right under the seat, and a wide, black finished standard handlebar — I can remember a time when these were called the ‘superbike’ bend — putting one fully in command of the road ahead with the ability to quickly and deterministically shift weight and cornering forces into the nimble chassis.
Even though it doesn’t, the DSR appears to have a conventional gas tank, with shrouds reaching around the fork legs — the view from the saddle could easily be mistaken for that of any current mid-displacement Honda. The ‘tank’ contains a deep, locking glove box, which is sacrificed if one elects either an expansion battery pack – called a ‘PowerTank’ – or the optional J1772 standard fast battery charger — which Zero calls a ‘ChargeTank’. Finished as mine was, in a highly metallic charcoal grey and matt black, the Zero has a very conservative, almost stealth-bomber kind of appearance, that does its level best to avoid calling attention to the bike’s enormous performance potential.
At this point, however, the Zero is completely out of conventional.
Where the internal combustion engine sits in a gas motorcycle, the Zero carries its Z-force 13.0 kWh lithium-ion power pack. Stylistically, the Z-force powerpack is literally a big black box. Fortunately the bigness, blackness and boxness of the power pack is well camouflaged by a combination chin fairing and some swoopy looking fairing grills that wrap around the side of the battery case. The underside of the battery case and the motorcycle has a pretty substantial bash plate that looks to cover the electric motor controller’s heat sink.
Which brings us to the little miracle that makes the whole thing go — Zero’s proprietary Z-Force electric motor. In DSR-spec, the sealed, permanent magnet , air cooled motor, which is roughly 9 inches in diameter and approximately 11 inches in width, makes approximately 70 horsepower and 116 peak foot-pounds of torque.
I would be remiss, as a motorcycle journalist, not to provide some comparisons for context. A supercharged Kawasaki Ninja H2 makes 98.5 peak foot-pounds of torque, while a BMW S1000RR makes 86.2 peak foot-pounds. Neither of these two motorcycles could be characterized as ‘weak’ or ‘slow’. Viewed in terms of accelerative twist, the R-spec Zero thumps them both.
The Z-force motor is located directly between the rider’s footpegs, and is so small and inconspicuous one almost needs to either actively seek it out or be told where to look for it. The Z-force motor drives the motorcycle though a Gates Kevlar reinforced toothed drive belt, via direct drive with no transmission. And while dirtbike manufacturers have been struggling for years to locate their drive pinion gears concentrically with the swingarm pivot, to keep power application from adversely affecting rear suspension action, in the Zero, achieving that goal is trivial — that’s where the direct drive pinion sits, with room to spare between the power unit and the inside of the frame rails.
Making a motorcycle that can safely manage that magnitude of power output was not a trivial engineering exercise. Electric motors, for those that may not have direct experience of them, can make their full rated power from essentially zero RPM. I remember reading contemporary reporting, when the company was still in the early prototype stage, about one of the first garage-built proof of concept prototypes, which made use of a simple hardware throttle control. The power delivery was so abrupt, that the prototype was a nearly unridable wheelie machine. One turned the throttle, and was immediately wearing the motorcycle for a hat.
Modern Internal Combustion motorcycles — which make use of electronically managed fuel injection — can store multiple power maps in software, where ignition timing and fuel delivery settings control engine output and, hence, vehicle dynamics.
The Zero motor controller does essentially the same thing, but instead maps road speed to input current provided to the motor. The Zero’s multiple controller maps – ‘Eco’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Custom’ – represent physics models which only provide as much power as the chassis and contact patches can manage at any given road speed. ‘Eco’ is designed to maximize range, and does this by limiting engine output to 40% of maximum, provides maximum engine regeneration – recharging batteries using the energy from deceleration — and limiting road speed to 70 mph. ‘Sport’ mode takes the DSR off its leash — 100% of engine torque is available at full throttle at road speeds above about 35 mph — road speed is limited to 98 mph and regeneration is minimized. ‘Custom’ allows any user with a Bluetooth capable Apple or Android device to configure the available power, regeneration and speed settings to their preference.
Once I’d downloaded the Zero Motorcycles app and paired up an iPad we had laying about with the Zero, I was very quickly able to dial in something that worked for me. My ‘Custom’ mode paired 100% torque output — c’mon, wouldn’t you? — with about 70% of the available regen power. This setting allowed the bike to shed speed and off throttle engine brake in a way that mimicked the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) bikes to which I was accustomed, while allowing me to access all of the power the motor could produce. Subjectively, it seemed to me, that the power map used by ‘Custom’ mode was a little more aggressive than the map in sport mode. On my first ride out with the new settings, the DSR snapped off an effortless monster power wheelie on a level road at about 45 miles per hour and 3/4 throttle– indicating to me that 100% motor output was available at a lower road speed and throttle setting.
It’s important to realize that such a system isn’t an active rider aid system that responds in realtime to loss of traction or directional control like the systems fitted to modern KTMs or the Yamaha R1. The Zero’s motor controller is a passive system — the limits of output are based on extensive testing but are static — the limits are fixed and do not respond to conditions like loss of traction or wheels that come off the pavement. This approach does leave some of the bike’s substantial power off the table — especially at low road speeds — power is applied where the maps show it’s feasible a significant percentage of the time — where an active approach can max power out until sensor input indicate that the performance envelope has been exceeded. Given the extraordinary engineering involved in creating this powertrain, I suspect it’s only a matter of time until the next generation Zero joins the active rider aid arms race.
While, for a motorcycling nerd like me, the tech is interesting, none of it means a thing if all of this design and engineering doesn’t result in a good motorcycle.
And the Zero DSR — whether on a ribbon of twisty pavement, a dirt road, or blasting though a steam ford — is a very, very good motorcycle.
I’ll admit that at first, I approached the beast with a little bit of trepidation. I’ve spent more than thirty years developing skills and honing feedback and reflexes that are based on the character and power delivery of internal combustion engines. Opening the throttle starts a long and complex chain of events that starts at the intake butterflies and ends at the rear contact patch — and accounting for those processes, the time they take to complete, and what they feel like when happening, was a set of skills that had the potential to be completely and utterly useless with the Zero.
So I was a good boy – my first two rides out from home – totaling about 50 miles – were spent in ‘Eco’ mode, trolling around at limited power output and reduced throttle response, just ‘to get a feel for the thing’. With the leash in place, it was clear that this was well-developed motorcycle — the bike was narrow, nimble and tautly suspended. The DSR turned in well to corners, held its lines precisely, and wasn’t flustered by trail braking. The motorcycle, also being fairly light by road bike standards – at 413 pounds all up, remembering there is no such thing here as wet-weight — stopped with authority, despite the use of a single front rotor and fairly pedestrian-appearing dual piston caliper. The fact that – in ‘ECO’ mode – regenerative engine braking adds a fair about of stopping power to the overall equation likely doesn’t hurt. I even took the bike onto some of the dirt roads that crisscross the valley around my home — the suspension and tires made short work of quick riding in the dirt, and the bike was perfectly set up for those conditions where it makes more sense to ride standing up.
Had this been my motorcycle, I likely would have spent some time dialing the preload and compression damping back some to gain some additional suspension compliance. But it wasn’t, so I didn’t.
It’s not like I didn’t notice some adaptations I needed to make. The motorcycle’s direct drive was the most noticeable of these. The first downhill stop sign I came to was probably as funny to watch as any Charlie Chaplin silent film — despite my conscious mind understanding the required operator’s changes, my left hand was flailing impotently looking for the clutch lever that was not there while my left foot was doing the gaffed-bluefish-on-the-deck-boogie looking for the shift lever that wasn’t there either. I must have looked like a hunter’s duck that had been merely winged by a few errant pellets after an off-target shotgun blast – limbs flailing and spiraling towards a bad re-introduction to the ground.
The other adaptation was the almost complete and utter lack of sound.
Having ridden BMW motorcycles for much of my riding career, I am accustomed to relatively quiet motorcycles — a tendency for which several of my neighbors have formally expressed appreciation. Even my sewing machine quiet K1200LT, though, has some intake shriek to tickle the motorhead bone.
Quiet is one thing. The Zero’s dead silence is quite another.
When underway, the Zero’s only sound is a muted ‘whirrr’ which seems to be coming from just behind the rider. The overall sound of a ride on the Zero is comparable to the sounds made by my pedal bicycle on the road, except my pedal bicycle runs out of steam at about 25 mph, where the Zero has another 75 or so more available. I had been under the mistaken impression that my favorite Shoei Qwest helmet was a very quiet helmet. On my first ride above 50 mph on the Zero, I heard whistles, booms and rumbles from the Qwest I had never heard before and have never heard since Zero got their motorcycle back.
I know there are a large percentage of motorcyclists — I’m talking to you, Harley Guys That Remove Your Stock Exhausts Before You Take Delivery On Your New Bike, and you too, ZX-10 guy whose racetrack pipe causes my heart to stop when you pass me on the Baltimore Beltway at somewhere above a buck ten — for whom the sound of an uncorked motor is an absolute requirement.
But did you ever stop to wonder what sounds you weren’t hearing while you were making that incredibly anti-social din?
I know I hadn’t, but the first few miles proved to be a revelation in that regard. All of a sudden, there was a world of roadside sounds — birdsongs, singing locusts, crickets, the song of the wind — that I had simply never heard. As a frequent camper, bicyclist and hiker, riding a motorcycle had been transformed into communing with nature, instead of scaring the bejaysus out of it.
There are obvious upsides and downsides to The Silence of The Zero.
On a potential downside is your utter invisibility to all manner of wildlife. I live in a very rural area, and on an average 10 mile ride on one of my internal combustion motorcycles, I will see two or three deer. When I come upon these deer, they are usually running panicked from the roadway due to the sound of the motorcycle.
Making that same ride on the Zero, I was seeing a dozen to two dozen deer, not to mention innumerable squirrels, groundhogs, birds, and even a coyote that we suspected existed, but had never seen. And when I’d get within visual range, instead of bolting, spooked, if any of the deer noticed me, they were standing still just looking at me, with a look that said “Where the hell did you come from, human, and why are you flying along three feet above the ground?”. I found myself wondering if this behavior represented a hazard to motorcycling me, but saw no evidence of it.
On the upside is the fact that no matter how immature or irresponsible your piloting of a Zero motorcycle may be, there is no sonic signature to alert anyone – for example, say, law enforcement authorities – of your misbehavior. During my test of the motorcycle, I commuted back and forth from rural Jefferson, Maryland to Reston, Virginia, which is one of the single most congested traffic locations of anywhere in the United States. During the afternoon rush home, I would make use of the Dulles Greenway, a privately owned tollroad which bypasses about 15 miles of utter gridlock on Viriginia Route 7. The toll for this 15 miles is a usurious $6.50 during rush hour, so the law of economic selection tends to create a tendency for the road to cater to folks of well above average means. My fellow road users, as a direct result, tend to be driving Mercedes-Benzes, BMW M cars, Porsches, Teslas with even the occasional Maserati or Ferrari tossed in just for flavor. On the Greenway, folks are properly armed for an automotive fight, and they tend to play rough. On a motorcycle, one needs to be on the hunt for escape routes, and work hard to maintain one’s access to proper safety buffers and a view of open pavement.
On one run home, I found myself caught between several of these GP Wannabes, and their behavior was threatening to box me in a position that would not leave me in control of my safety. My only opportunity was to take advantage of the Zero’s superior acceleration, hit an opening that was rapidly closing, and put myself out in front of them while I still had the chance to do so. So I rolled the DSR’s grip to the stop, and hit the hole. As I cleared the potential hazard, I began to give the throttle back and reduce my speed to something more in line with that of the surrounding traffic. The minute I was in the clear, of course, I looked to the median of the highway, where there were, of course, three Virginia State Troopers on their pursuit Harley-Davidsons, assigned for speed control duty. On the advice of my attorney, I will not state what my road speed was at the time, so you will have to reach your own conclusions. As I travelled past the three good men in grey, not a single one of them looked up from their instruments or took so much as a glance in my direction.
I have come to the conclusion that silence can be the skilled rider’s friend.
So these little accommodations aside, what is the Zero like when the leash comes off?
After my brief acclimation period, I rolled the bike out of the garage on the third day, leathered up, booted up the motorcycle, and toggled the bike from ‘Eco’ to ‘Sport’ mode. I took a few deep, cleansing breaths to help me focus, and rolled the bike down my driveway to the street.
I gently applied some throttle and my eyes got wide. The gentle, progressive response of ‘Eco’ mode was gone. In its place was immediate, muscular, shocking, spine compressing acceleration, the likes of which I have never experienced.
Goodbye, Dr. Jekyll. Meet Mr. Hyde.
And it’s not like I’ve been internally-combustion sheltered. I’ve got saddle time on bikes like KTMs with the RC8 engine, on Kawasaki Ninjas. On four wheels I’ve driven Corvettes, Nissan 350Zs, Buick Grand Nationals, the 8.0 L Cadillac V8, Mercedes 3.5s and 6.3s. All of these vehicles make big power, but its power that has at least some measurable lag time before the RPMs come up and things begin to happen fast.
The Zero’s Z-force R specification motor has no such lag. Power is immediate, and overwhelming. Your prior motorcycling experience and skills are not prepared for such a fundamental change in the character of how motive power is delivered.
As I started to adjust my formerly firmly held convictions about the nature of acceleration, I guided the DSR over towards Maryland Route 17. MD 17 between Brunswick and Burkettsville is one of my roads, a scenic stretch of highway that mixes wide open straights with tight, technical sections. Every bike I tune or test eventually ends up on 17, where I know every bump and stone, every corner entry and exit, and know where every sideroad and driveway enters the highway. MD 17 may not be a racetrack or the Isle of Man Mountain Course, but I do know the safe and quick lines up the road, and where one can use the power one has at one’s disposal.
At the southern end of the run, a traffic circle dumps the rider onto a wide open straight of about 3/4s of a mile in length. As I got the DSR straightened up, I leaned forward over the bars, and as I cleared 40 miles an hour, rolled the throttle to the stops.
My visual field telescoped until I was only seeing tiny points of light. When my eyes and other parts of me that are best left unspecified unclenched an instant later, the Zero’s digital speedometer was running through 85 miles an hour towards even bigger numbers. I’m not entirely sure how I’d managed to keep the front wheel on the ground.
“Ho-lee Sh….” was all I could manage to mouth in the privacy of my helmet.
I’ve talked to lots of other first time Zero pilots now, and that particular exclamation is pretty much universal.
I found myself giggling — sounding just a little unhinged — as I slowed the Zero for the chicane where 17 crosses a small ridgeline, and sets up for a roughly two mile straight.
On the off chance it was a fluke, I did again.
It wasn’t a fluke.
The next two or three days of riding followed pretty much the same pattern.
Make familiar gesture with right wrist. See bright flash. Rematerialize in another location.
Boom. Giggle. Repeat.
It took a little while to get that out of my system. Hopefully I can be forgiven for such a simplistic ritual, but it was just so outrageously fun I just had to keep doing it.
My preconceived notions about the Zero’s power delivery had basically revolved around the concept that the skills of an analog motorcyclist — feeling torque load the contact patches, gently guiding the bike through corners by getting power and cornering forces into delicate equilibrium — was basically not going to be possible using electric power. That all of the minute delays — essentially buffers to throttle response present in an internal combustion powered motorcycle — the time it takes for intake charge speed to increase, the number of engine revolutions required for the engine to start moving mixture efficiently and climb into its peak power band, the inefficiencies induced by two or three or four changes in direction of the power transmission as output works its way through the gearbox and driveline — that these minute delays, taken in the aggregate, were what allowed a human pilot to be quick enough to manage the system at the edge of its performance envelope.
The electric driveline– with none of these delays — potentially brought instant response, and with that instantaneous character, it was potentially beyond the reflexes of a human pilot to control.
That was the pre-conceived notion. The reality of piloting the Zero proved to be a great deal more subtle.
As I spent more time in the saddle of the DSR, my skills began to adapt. This process was not without a few hiccups. Years of backroad corner dancing have taught me that power needs to be applied well before a corner apex to properly manage the drive out. Problem was, that my backroad rhythms had an extra second to a second and a half of lag built into them that was no longer appropriate. The first few genuinely spirited corner exits had me in the throttle what was now way too early, with predictably hairball results — spending quality time sideways making what Troy Corser used to jokingly call “Darkies”.
But as I spend more time and practice working at it, I began to adapt. The direct drive did actually free up mental bandwidth that had formerly been dedicated to downshifing and transmission operation to my cornering lines and position on the road. I learned to wait later — way later — before asking for power. I began to understand that the Zero was capable of making moves and hitting holes that were simply impossible on an ICE bike. What had seemed impossibly quick a few days before quickly became normal.
Further acclimation time revealed additional layers of capability I hadn’t imagined. Far from the digital, all-or-nothing power response I’d anticipated, I began to appreciate the job that Zero’s engineers had done in their implementation of the motor controller. It really was possible to modulate and manage the throttle while underway at a spirited clip. The power delivery curves present in the controller did allow a pilot to actively manage power delivery in the same way one does on a gas bike — just faster. As I finally got comfortable with managing the motorcycle, I knew I’d got it right when my deepest corner lines were now producing perfect lined up exits, with the DSR’s front wheel skimming the pavement as the bike gained the next straight.
Riding the dirt roads of Frederick County Maryland also proved my powers of imagination to be completely deficient. My initial concern was that the bike’s prodigious torque would prove to be a handicap on loose surfaces, but again, the Zero provided happy surprises.
There’s probably the equivalent of 5 Encyclopedia Britannicas worth of speculation and development knowledge concerning what is required for Internal Combustion Engined motorcycles to make and maintain traction in the dirt. The entire history of American Flat Track racing is a graduate level education in exactly that. The firing order, cylinder arrangements and tuning of flattackers have all been engineered to manage how the power pulses of individual cylinders firing are transmitted to a loose surface.
The Zero powertrain, however, has no power pulses whatsoever — it’s just a continuous rush of smooth power. The net effect of this is that the rear tire, rather than being handed the unenviable job of dealing with a blast of power which breaks the tire loose — a long interval before the next blast while the tire decelerates and fights to regain traction — and then the cycle repeating, simply has to deal with steady application of torque. The Zero simply has an easier time staying hooked up.
If you want visual proof of this, go to YouTube and watch this Motorcycle.com video called ‘The Life Electric: Preston Petty“. Petty is a dirt track pioneer who races a Zero. My moment of illumination comes when the video shows Petty and a gasoline-powered competitor exiting a flat track corner side by side. Both of them open the throttle. The gas bike throws a big hairy roostertail of dirt. Petty’s Zero throws no dirt, but simply walks away from the gas bike. Smooth power equals dirt traction — one can see it plainly right there.
So far from trying to pound me into the dirt like a tent peg, a combination of smooth power delivery, the DSR’s Pirelli MT60 tires which kept both ends hooked up, and great structural rigidity and suspension made the Zero the most confidence inspiring dual sport I’ve ridden yet.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there aren’t a few niggling flaws to break up this orgy of acceleration. But those flaws are few, nothing approaching fatal, and might say more about the persnickity preferences and motorcycle use patterns of this observer than about the DSR.
The. Rear. Brake. SQUEAKS.
Normally, this is not a big deal.
But on a motorcycle that makes so little sound you can clearly hear birdsong and roadside crickets, any untoward noise, no matter how tiny, sounds ten thousand feet tall.
The situation probably isn’t helped by the fact that — with the regenerative braking provided by the Z-Force electric motor — one never really needs to use the rear brake that hard, so the pads never get any significant heat in them therefore they glaze.
Whether the solution is a set of softer pads, or an appropriate pad backing plate, or both, if necessary, matters not. They gotta fix this.
‘Cause IT SQUEAKS!.
Then there’s the small matter of the saddle.
People accustomed to riding motorcrossers will think I’ve slipped my tether. They’ll think this because they ride standing up all the time, so to them it doesn’t matter. But to the rest of us that have occasionally ridden sitting down, the saddle is ‘firm’. The seat pan does, of necessity, have a fairly domed shape because of the space required for the many high density connectors required to connect the power pack to the Zero’s engine. The shape is good and supportive in the right places. But either a little denser foam or a tiny bit more of it would make a huge difference if you’re ripping off an hour’s ride to work.
The bike’s built-in glovebox — while hella useful — has a fatal flaw. It can’t be opened without the key. One of the most likely uses for the glovebox — when it doesn’t get replaced with either another battery unit or a fast charger — is for toll money, or for a whole multitude of small items I want to be able to access while on the road. I have another bike with a glovebox — that’s how I use it. Tolls, maps, directions, my phone — anything I don’t want to have to fish out of a pocket. The box should have a lock that allows one to leave it in a locked or unlocked position — then unlatched with a button, rather than a key, so it can be accessed from the saddle without having to turn off the motorcycle.
One of the things that caught my eye, and not in a good way, was the routing and finishing of some of the electrical connections and brake lines on the motorcycle. In particular, the connections to the ABS wheel sensors are concerning — the sensor lines have been stretched far too tight, and the tie wraps are visibly too tight as well. I suspect that many of the 12 volt lines to cycle parts, like brake light switches, and lighting, are similarly assembled. The sensor lines are so visibly overtightened that they are severely stressing the boots where the lines enters the sensors. Zero motorcycles may make far less vibration than most motorcycles, but they do make some, and those connections are highly likely to fail to fail at those points where they are either overstressed or abraded by tie-wraps that are too tight. I’ve seen lots of higher mileage motorcycles fail and/or get recalled because of assembly issues exactly like these.
The brake lines are another issue. The rear line is routed in such a way that it effectively makes it almost impossible to access the rear master cylinder reservoir — the line cuts right across the top of the reservoir cap — I don’t know how one could unscrew and remove it. The first person to have to flush the brakes on one of these will say bad words. The front line is also a problem — on my DSR it was clearly way too long. It made a huge S bend which had it making a large curve behind the wheel, coming across in front of the forks and then making a huge bend back to connect with the caliper, which is back again behind the forks. Being too long means the master cylinder needs pressurize way more line than it needs to, the large bends are stress points that will be where the line will eventually fail, and the big loops of extra line are all exposed to be snagged if one is operating the DSR in gnarly off-road conditions, like cutting though foliage. Buying off the shelf brake components can force some compromises, but front and rear brake line selection and routing bespeak a certain lack of experience in designing and subsequently servicing motorcycle brake systems that will provide long, trouble free service life.
So now you know what the electric motorcycle is like to ride, the equally large question is what is it like to live with every day? And, as it turned out, it makes riding life a great deal easier, at least in getting from here to there in local duty.
I set up a dedicated charge location in my crowded garage by running a heavy duty extension cord in from a dedicated circuit. For 30 days none of my three gasoline powered motorcycles was even started.
The Zero simply doesn’t need any of the drama associated with gasoline powered motorcycles. There’s no choke, startup or warmup drama – you just boot it up and ride. There’s no oil to check, or to change, no plugs, no chain to lube, no valves to adjust, nothing. In the life cycle of the bike, you’d need to be concerned with keeping it in tires and brake pads and a brake flush every two years or so. With regenerative braking, your pads are likely going to last a long time, too.
Most of my riding errands involve getting to Frederick and back for banking, groceries, trips to the hardware store and the like. Zero was kind enough to fit this bike with a topcase which made such daily chores painless. These trips — like picking up a week’s groceries for a temporarily single guy — were easily completed with two full reusable grocery bags in the top case. I’d get back from a 25 mile or so errand (with slight scenic elongation), and after 3 hours on the charger the bike would be back at 100%.
Commuting was another task that sounded more challenging than it proved to be. My office is located 43 miles from my home, and the ride mixes up serene country roads, a some sections of gridlocked two lane and 4 lane country highway, some high speed sections where both congestion and vehicular aggression require high intensive and high performance piloting, and some urban local streets with in-city traffic lights and stop and go. It almost like an engineer designed a ‘Get-to-work-torture-test-track’ with a little bit of the worst of everybody’s commute.
In short, perfect for what I was looking to find out.
Day 1, I’ll admit I had range anxiety – I was looking at an 86 mile round trip, and didn’t know if I’d be able to locate a plug to top the batteries up while I was at the office. Theoretically, this was well inside the Zero’s stated range, but the route has a minimum of 25 miles of elevated highway speeds, which tightened calculated range up considerably. So I loaded my laptop backpack and my insulated lunchbag into the topcase, pulled on my ‘Stich, dialed up some ‘Eco’ mode to conserve power, and headed down toward Most Congested Northern Virginia.
The first stretches of the run to the office were well inside the bike’s operational envelope in ‘Eco’ mode — Route 15 South is a 45 mph speed limit rural highway, and I was able to stay at a comfortable cruise until I hit the inevitable congestion just outside of Leesburg. In stop and go or low speed rolling traffic, the Zero quickly revealed an unsuspected virtue — with the direct drive and regenerative breaking dialed up, the bike was trivial to operate — open throttle to speed up, close throttle to slow down — no clutch work, and dead comfortable at speeds barely above a walking pace, especially given the bike’s light weight and narrowness.
The plan held together as I hit Virginia 7 East — which still has a few traffic lights to cause congestion on what is a major highway. When I picked up Virginia 28 South — which is a 6 lane limited access highway, though — I needed to make some adjustments. After hitting ‘Eco’ mode’s 70 mph software speed limiter — implemented because air drag at higher speeds accelerates rates of battery drain — once, then twice, and having the previously mentioned coterie of Northern Virginia’s performance automobiles treating me like an exposed sitting duck, I quickly decided that survival was way more important than battery levels, and switched the Zero into ‘Sport’ mode. The Zero does allow for mode switching while in motion — selecting a new mode on the fly will have the newly selected mode show up blinking on the bike’s LCD display — closing the throttle momentarily is required for the new mode to become effective, at which point the label goes solid on the display.
Thus re-armed, I was able to properly defend myself on VA 28 and the Dulles Toll Road until my arrival at the office in Reston. My battery capacity display was showing a pretty healthy 59% charge remaining. Rolling into the parking structure, I started the hunt for an undefended plug. My building does have some commercial electric vehicle charging stations, but they only provide J1772 fast charging plugs, which were of no use to my standard charger-equipped Zero. I slowly trolled through the garage, heading towards the upper floors where there were nearly no cars present, using my newly developed feral-plug-sniffing skills. Upon arrival at the second highest level of the garage, I saw it — a weatherproof, GFI equipped 15 amp socket mounted on the surface of a concrete structural support column.
I pulled the DSR right up next to the column, placed the bike on the sidestand, and dismounted. I pulled the charge cord from the ‘tank’ mounted glovebox, plugged it into the frame-mounted connector, and lifted the lid on the socket, plugged it in, and crossed my fingers.
A second and a half later, I heard the welcome sound of the bike’s charge solenoid slamming shut, and the green charging telltale on the bike’s display lit up.
The display indicated a little over 5 hours until the battery pack would be fully recharged. We’d be riding home with a full battery.
I swapped my backpack in the topcase for my helmet, and went into the office for the day’s work. On my way through the lobby, I stopped to let the building manager know who I was and why there was a motorcycle in their garage that was plugged into their electric socket. She was very cheerful and understanding about the conversation, which was a relief.
The day at work was like any other day, except that I was a little more cheerful than usual at the thought of the ride home.
At the end of the day, I saddled up and was fortunate enough to beat the largest portion of the evening pulse coming out of Reston — I stopped at one light for one change and then merged smartly onto the Dulles Toll Road. After stopping to pay the toll, I was looking at 15 miles of high speed highway — in Loudoun County’s green rolling countryside — to bring me to the south side of Leesburg. With no bodywork and the dirtbike upright riding position, keeping pace with 80 mph traffic was about the only time the DSR felt slightly out of its element, and the rate of battery consumption was the highest I seen.
At Leesburg, everyone in traffic heads north for the Leesburg Bypass, so I didn’t. The Bypass is designed to save time by taking traffic around the town, and, as a result, becomes its own self-contained traffic nightmare — the average backup there in the evening averages between 45 minutes to an hour to clear the 2 and a half miles of the Bypass.
I picked my way through the backstreets of Leesburg, and headed towards an inexplicable throwback to colonial times — 12 miles of dirt road that start right in the middle of one of most overdeveloped and congested areas in the United States.
I could tell you more about this road, but then I would have no choice but to kill you.
Five minutes away from utter gridlock, I was standing up on the pegs of the DSR, working my way over the loose and rutted surface though deep forest and dappled sunlight, past pastures filled with horses that were utterly unconcerned with my silent passing. I’ve been down this road many times before — usually on BMW boxers — on both street and dual sport tires — but never felt as comfortable or as in command as the tires, structure, suspension and power characteristics of the Zero DSR made possible.
All good things must pass, and eventually my dirt road ran out. Another 20 miles of twisty pavement brought me back home — with 57% of the battery capacity showing remaining. In many more such round trips, it was the lowest number I would see.
In the time I had the Zero, I made several attempts to stretch the bike out to see what the maximum range of the bike was in my kind of mixed dirt and secondary roads use. Because that usage does involve stretches at speeds between 45-70, my 110 mile average was a bit lower than the bike’s stated 140 mile city use range.
The biggest influence on battery life and range on the Zero is the attitude of the rider. The more restrained one’s right wrist is, the further the Zero’s battery pack will take you. On these commuting rides, I’ll freely cop to riding like a total knob. Where possible, the throttle was wide open, either as a response to the aggression of drivers around me, or alternately, because the Atom-bomb rush of the Zero’s acceleration is so compellingly addictive. I’m usually a very conservative street rider, but the sheer quickness of the Zero made the formerly inadvisable, or in some cases, impossible, completely trivial.
My conclusion, though, is that as a commuter’s motorcycle, even making absolutely no effort to conserve power and extend range, the Zero made short work and would continue to make short work of an 80 + mile round trip with minimum drama and maximum fun. It was easier to ride in congested conditions, was more agile and responsive as a defensive driving weapon, and required virtually no maintenance in doing so.
In the 30 days the Zero was in my garage, I didn’t buy any gasoline for my other motorcycles. Watching the telemetry on my Solar System as I’ve been obsessively doing, the juice being used to top the Zero’s batteries off each night — even when they were close to fully depleted — wasn’t even making a dent in the array’s overproduction. I ended up the month that the Zero was my only transportation with the local utility still owing me close to $70 for the wholesale cost of the power we produced over what we used ourselves. Zero’s calculations show that the cost of power — when purchased from a public utility — to fully charge the DSR at about $1.45, which will get one roughly a hundred twenty miles, or a ‘fuel’ cost of about 1.2 cents per mile.
Producing one’s own solar power though, gives a whole new meaning to ‘free ride’.
The world around us has already changed. Regardless of what may be happening with our public policy debate in this country, the market has already decided that Electric motive power is the only possible response to the damage that has been done to the Earth’s environment since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. I recognize that the technology to enable long distance motorcycle touring is not yet here, but the in the long run, the technical issues are absolutely solvable. For every need short of that lunch-run-to-Montana, today’s Zero’s Z-force Technology is cheaper to run, lower maintenance, and well up to the task of use for everyday transportation.
But none of that would mean anything if it wasn’t simply more fun to ride, and whoa, is it ever.
In fact, it’s the bomb.
Portions of this story were published previously in the November/December 2017 Issue of Motorcycle Times