The sound of silence

Earlier this year I went onto a study trip to the Berlin E-prix, the German round of the Formula E championship. You can call it the electric Formula 1. I had to let the experience sink-in for some time. Let me explain why.

The race is held at the Tempelhof airfield, a historic site that even without the E-prix is a reason to visit. If you have been at other racing events you will notice the difference in vibe at the Formula-e venues. Maybe it is because the cars don’t make a lot of noise, or because the events are close to the city centres, but there are a lot of families in the public. It’s not your typical race crowd.

The sound, or better the lack of sound, is what’s confusing about Formula E. There is some whine from the electronics and gearbox, plus you can hear the air being pushed aside when the cars pass by. As with most electric vehicles, not much else. It is a strange feeling when you’re used to loud engines at race tracks. This is immediately the crux….if your used to it. Not only is Formula-e attracting families, but they also attract (young) fans without prior ‘experience’ in motorsport. They don’t care as much.

Revelation

And for me? I got a revelation when I test rode a Zero DS electric motorcycle. Zero is a relative young electric motorcycle company from the United States. In 2012, when passing their factory in Santa Cruz California, me together with a friend walked into the reception area of their Headquarters and asked for a test-ride. This Dutch directness flabbergasted the Zero people a bit, since normally this wasn’t the place or or time for test rides, let alone without an appointment. Still, 15 minutes later, 2 Zero DS motorcycles were made ready for us and we were directed towards the flowing hills of Santa Cruz.

Test ride

Spontanious test ride at the Zero Motorcycle HQ in Santa Cruz, California 2012.  My first experience on an electric motorcycle.

The 2012 model had much to be desired in terms of ride and handling, yet the silent electric propulsion had me sold in seconds. Years later I rode a 2015 model year Zero, which handles and rides much, much better. 

“My first time on an electric motorcycle has been an revelation.”

Let me put it mildly, the 2012 model wasn’t the best bike I ever rode. Brakes were bad, suspension felt numb and it was equiped with a lackluster set of tires. I couldn’t care less however. This ride was a revelation. Riding through the canyons, the lack of engine sound was an eye opener (or literally an ear opener). You can hear birds chirping around you, you can hear the tires and suspension work underneath you. The lack of engine vibration makes you much more connected to the road. This revelation fueled my dream of creating an electric adventure motorcycle, it eventually kick-started Fransiscó.

Despite my fascination for electric vehicles and motorcycles, I understand the appeal for loud, screaming and vibrating combustion engines. I always thought that, electric motorcycles would stay a niche application and that many buyers would simply prefer a loud exhaust note. For the current generation of motorcycle riders I would say that this still is the case. But the new generation? Do they value the drama of loud engines, or are they annoyed by the old and inefficient technology? Maybe the Electric motorcycle market is bigger than I thought!

A contrasting experience. 2012 overall fastest Pikes Peak hill climb time performed by Sebastian Loeb in the Peugeot 208 T16, powered by an internal combusion engine (left). This time was smashed in 2018 by the electric Volkswagen ID R, driven by Romain Dumas (right).

Conclusion

This brings me back to the start of this article, Formula E. Noise adds excitement, sport/entertainment needs exitement. Currently Formula E is pretty silent and therefor lacks some excitement in my opinion. To put this in perspective however, Formula 1 has developed itself in 70 years while Formula E will only start its 4th season. Give them time to add excitement without falling back to loud exhausts.

Formula E attracts a different crowd, just as what I have in mind with my electric adventure motorcycle. Its not a substitute, it’s something else.

Berlin e-prix, Electric motorcycle, Formula-E

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