Part 1 - Visiting friends and the factory
I’ve been on motorcycles for three decades and have been involved with the industry for almost as long. I’ve made dozens of enduring friends who share the passion not only for things with two wheels and a motor, but for working in the powersports industry as well. It’s not all first class upgrades and glorious riding - it’s hard work and can be brutally frustrating at times. but those who endure though and make the commitment to stay in powersports are a unique if admittedly flawed breed! And we tend to stay connected.
This story really started with a random visit and a stroll through my local ZERO dealership - AF1 Racing in Austin TX. Long story short - I bought a very lightly used ZERO FX 3.3. A slightly sinister and tactical-looking 250 lb. dual sport model with 78 ft/lbs of torque!). What a blast to ride around my little hometown. I posted up photos and have been enjoying the electric experience greatly. Its a great MOTORCYCLE - not just an e-bike. I’ve become a fan and it’s a great addition to my fleet of bikes, immediately becoming the ideal bike for my around-town jaunts. It’s a mixture of scooter ease, supermoto hooliganism, dual-sport plush, and a dash of “tech-tactical” that I enjoy. I’ve even thrown it in my van, driven 30 miles down to Austin, and used it to stealthily blast around the city for a day feeling all zippity-superior and relentlessly entertained.
One friend along the industry career path has been Mike Cunningham currently of ZERO Motorcycles. Mike and I met when Aprilia was purchased by Piaggio back in 2007 or so. He was the Piaggio Sales Manager and I was one of three or four from the Aprilia / Guzzi operation in Atlanta who was given an offer to stay on with Piaggio. We worked together for a couple years before I decided to split when a particularly prickly Italian Manager got under my skin too much. (That’s another story that will take a couple shots of whiskey to get out of me.) We have crossed paths many times since then mostly at trade and IMS events in our various capacities. It was always a pleasure to see him and connect - but this last visit was exceptional.
Mike took the time to read the GAS report, and dove into the transcripts as well. He was impressed by the work and the inclusion of electric motorcycles. Mike is a true motorcycle enthusiast and has always had an opinion worth listening to. Following some posts on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and after reading the first GiveAShift report, Mike was kind enough to invite me out to the Santa Cruz, CA home of countless slightly creepy surfer vans, stunning sunsets and the birthplace of every production ZERO Motorcycle on the planet. He also arranged for me to have a nicely equipped ZERO DS charged up and waiting for me. Arriving early on a Sunday, and having a bike to ride for the day?
(Most excellent ride - more of that in part 2.)
The following Monday was a chance to tour the factory and see the production line. Alas- no photos allowed, however I’ll vouch that the motorcycles are completely assembled in Scotts Valley just up the road from the Pacific Ocean. The tour saw many motorcycles completed and tagged for distribution in the US and across the World. Europe has been a very quickly growing market and the adaptation of stratified licensing their allows for a “learner bike” specification that is an ideal first motorcycle for younger riders to cruise around an E-friendly community. Oh how I wish the US would shift to a tiered licensing system for cars and motorcycles….
The production line tour was also enlightening. It all starts with the battery, which interestedly uses “recycled electricity” with sophisticated banks of equipment that charge, discharge and store electricity to do it again and again for testing. Battery packs are fully assembled on-site and subject to a drenching water test before they are wrapped with a frame and the rest of the hardware we love. The motorcycle builds are not “batched” - any variety of models or colors will be on the line at the same time - essentially being built to order allowing for significant flexibility as consumer and dealer tastes change. This is not unlike how Polaris Industries manages their (much larger) production facilities through they use far more robots and lifts given the many more versions of products the produce.
Given the smaller volumes of production for ZERO, it’s not surprising to see that the build process appears rather manual, however a closer look shows that every critical process and tool is measured and overseen by some computer system. Brake fluid is the only liquid on the motorcycle - and a very sanitary pump and vacuum system fills the ABS system perfectly. Every unit gets a full two-wheel dyno-test that runs through the power output and tests all electronic systems as well as the ABS. The combination of attentive hand-work, computerized tools and back-up, quality testing and the general attitudes of the workers I met (all wearing very cool ZERO branded shirts) made for a sort of “friendly NASA” vibe.
Enthusiasm was on full display before I even walked in. There were many ICE motorcycles parked around the building as well as loads of employee-owned ZERO’s plugged in. Lots of 100% electric cars as well. In chatting with Mike and other managers at the company I see the enthusiasm they have for the products and for motorcycling in general. Stories of working on custom CB 550’s, adventure riding Triumphs and the open jonesing for the next cool thing peppered our conversations. They certainly agree that there is more that can be done with the ZERO brand as well as in the e-motorcycle industry in general. We talked about how HD’s roll-out of their new bike is important for all of motorcycling, and must be done well for positive overall effect on the industry.
Future products are being developed there are well. (Sorry - no scoops here - part of staying in his industry three decades is keeping a dang secret after all.) Announcing new products is always exciting, however the reality of selling what is designed vs answering the dreams for new products is a difficult challenge for any brand. Who wouldn’t love to see a modern single-cylinder Ducati or Triumph, or a hybrid Honda reverse sport trike or a 1000cc V-8 Guzzi? The realities of production planning, development and prototype costs as well as the unseen but mandatory compliance testing required by endless governmental agencies is a daunting task for any brand. And oh-yeah - they need to SELL as well. ZERO and others are in this business to make money and sustain a brand. It’s not their hobby even though it may be your passion. I’m not asking you to take pity on the brands, but know that it’s a very complicated business to be in, and the answer is not always to simply build more or different things. It’s a difficult and expensive task - specially when selling through dealerships is required. Time and commitment works both ways.
The challenges for the electric motorcycle industry are constant, but are worth the work. As more people get exposed to these great machines and feel the undeniable joy of massive torque, quality handling and ease of use, they will gain popularity. ZERO and others are clearly committed to the category but not just from a straight business proposition - but as enthusiasts who understand that every path is not smooth, not every problem is foreseen but must be dealt with, and that they are not only building motorcycles, but they are building the category at the same time.
Just as owning and operating an early generation electric motorcycle takes a unique individual, so does being in the business take a unique attitude. As a now owner (yes with my own money and 100% my own decision) of a ZERO FX I quickly became a fan of the motorcycles and the potential for the category. I have learned to answer the “yeah but how far can you go” question with “How good is your bagger on a motocross track?”. I love the smooth acceleration from dead silence off the line. I enjoy the stealthy hooliganism I have instant access to. I like that I can manage the power output and systems on the bike via my phone. I like having this moto-tool in my shed. And I will continue to have plenty of interest in ZERO.
Good luck to Mike, Sam, and the rest of my compadres over at ZERO Motorcycles. Thanks for the tour.