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‘Maybe we should not want a transition to electric motorcycles too quickly’

A European Council decision leaves room for the internal combustion engine.

The European Commission wants to ban the sale of vehicles with an internal combustion engine from 2035. The political reality may however force the Commission to accept a compromise that allows for vehicles to run on alternative fuel alongside battery electric vehicles. FEMA’s Dolf Willigers looks at the possible consequences for us motorcyclists.

Although many press releases from environmental organisations and several other articles could make you believe different, the Council of the European Union left some room for vehicles with internal combustion engines that run of fossil-free fuels after 2035.

Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the European Green Deal, and Commissioner for Climate Action Policy (photo courtesy of the European Union).

After the legislators of the European Parliament adopted – with some changes – the plans (part of the Fit for 55 package, reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030) of the European Commission to ban the sales of new cars and vans that have no zero CO2 tailpipe emission from 2035 (in practice all vehicles with an internal combustion engine), the Council of the European Union – after a long discussion that went into the night of 29 June 2022 – also came to a compromise that meant the adoption of this among other elements of the Fit for 55 package. One of them is the introduction of a CO2 tax for the heating of houses and other buildings and for fuels for cars. This should also affect private households and persons from 2028.

However, there is a difference. In the European Parliament the lawmakers that could not agree with the new plans were just outnumbered and the proposal about the zero CO2 emission for new cars from 2035 passed with 339 votes in favour to 249 against and 24 abstentions. However, the Council decisions are by consensus: in the end, all member states must agree with a compromise to get it adopted. This changes everything, because some countries have a large car industry and lots of people working there. The idea of having a large part of these workers made redundant did not appeal very much to – for example – the German liberal party.

The solution came in the form of an additional sentence to the Council agreement: “Different technologies are and remain available to reach the zero-emission fleet wide target. Zero-emission vehicles currently include battery electric vehicles, fuel-cell and other hydrogen powered vehicles, and technological innovations are continuing. Zero and low-emission vehicles, which also include well performing plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, can continue to play a role in the transition pathway.” And an additional clause 9a: “Following consultation with stakeholders, the Commission will make a proposal for registering after 2035 vehicles running exclusively on CO2 neutral fuels in conformity with EU law, outside the scope of the fleet standards, and in conformity with the Union’s climate neutrality objective.” Now, whatever is meant by “outside the scope of the fleet standards”, this leaves the door open for cars thermal engines after 2035 and not only for a few years for small series supercars like Ferrari. This is not the end of it. The next step is that delegates of the Commission, the Parliament, and the Council of the EU are going to negotiate in the so-called trilogue. Here they must find a compromise and with that the Parliament and the Council will have a vote again. In short: that can be the end of the story, or a new round of negotiations will start.

Range and costs are the main reasons that not many larger electric motorcycles are being sold yet.

Now what does this all mean for motorcycling? Motorcycles are still not mentioned by either the Commission, the Parliament, or the Council of the EU and are out of the scope. The reason why we look at what happens with cars and vans is that history has learned that sooner or later the same will happen with motorcycles and then it may not be possible to escape the fate that strikes cars and vans. The day will come that the Commission comes with a proposal for a new type-approval regulation that contains a clause that means that motorcycles must have zero CO2 emission too. Here it becomes interesting. We already see electric motorcycles. They are not sold much yet and the market for electric powered two-wheelers consists mainly of mopeds and small, city-oriented motorcycles. There are large ones too, think of Energica, Zero, Livewire, but these are expensive and still offer an at best moderate range. Range and costs are the main reason that not many larger electric motorcycles are being sold yet. A 150 km range may be enough for the commuter and the average leisure rider, but you do not spend more than € 30,000 on a commuting bike.

As was recently pointed out in an article on the Bennetts website, with motorcycles, the drivetrain is a larger part of the vehicle, compared with cars, and the higher costs of engine, battery pack and software, that also must be special developed for motorcycles on a smaller scale, have a larger effect on the purchase costs of the motorcycle. This may be one of the reasons that the established motorcycle brands are slower than their colleagues of the car brands. Another reason could be that with present development of batteries when you want a larger range, they will use a lot of space and add much weight to the motorcycle which has of course consequences for the handling. All good reasons why electric motorcycles are not as obvious, yet as electric cars may be.

Next to the motorcycle themselves (weight, price, range), there are other reasons why maybe we should not be very keen on a quick transition to electric motorcycles.

  • There is the issue of the infrastructure. Only a few countries in Europe have a proper charging infrastructure, and that is directed exclusively at cars. Some motorcycles cannot even charge at all charging poles and the parking lots that comes with them are designed for cars. Car owners will not be happy with you when you keep one of ‘their’ parking spaces occupied while charging. Neither will you, because the charging stations ore often located at a far end of the service area with no facilities, social security, or anti-theft provisions. We asked for that in a letter to the rapporteur of the new Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Regulation, MEP Ismail Ertug, but he has ignored our input to his report.
  • Then there is the issue of the grid and the production of electricity. In the EU member state that is most advantaged in implementing a charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, the Netherlands, there is a problem with the grid already because of the great number of electric cars and the transition from heating of buildings and houses with natural gas to electricity. Even to the point that at present new companies are denied a connection to the grid. More or less the same do we hear from other countries. For producing electricity coal plants are re-opened or their capacity is enlarged because of the larger demand, the present situation with the shrinking supply of natural gas from Russia, the rising cost of oil and the lagging production of sustainable energy. To be honest: e-fuels are not available yet on a commercial scale, the price will also be high and there is no guarantee that it gets cheaper on the long term.
  • There is the element of the production of batteries, solar panels, and turbines. All needed to produce and store electricity. This needs large amounts of rare materials that can only be delved at high social, economic, and environmental costs. This is also often the case with oil, let us not forget that. But still, contrary to what was and still is predicted, the prices of these raw materials and thus of batteries is rising and there is a good chance that they will rise even further with a growing demand. As said before: this has a larger effect on the price of motorcycles than it has on the price of other vehicles.
  • Motorcycles, partly due to lower mileage per year, last very long, much longer than cars. In the European parliament, the Havana-effect was already mentioned: people will use their vehicles as long as they can to avoid purchasing a new car or motorcycle that they perhaps cannot afford or that they just do not want to have. This transition period will be very long for motorcycles because of their longer lifespan. If you want to lower the CO2-emission it is better to have cleaner fuel than to wait until the end of this transition period.

The motorcycle industry should not be forced to completely switch to electric in 2035; there are still too many unsolved problems to put all efforts on one technique.

This being said, the Japanese big four in motorcycles have already announced that, due to environmental legislation in Japan, many existing models will not be made after this year, even the iconic Honda Gold Wing and the Yamaha FJR1300 will not be sold anymore. They have also announced that they will shift to electric. Honda will completely switch to electric from 2040, Yamaha will make 90% of new vehicles plug-ins by 2050.

Concluding: for many motorcyclists, electric motorcycles can be a good solution, but not for all. In view of the above-mentioned issues, even more than the car industry, the motorcycle industry should not be forced to completely switch to electric in 2035 already, even while some manufacturers seem to have made that choice themselves. There are still too many unsolved problems to put all efforts on one technique. Given the small number of motorcycles and the potential of building very fuel-economic and clean motorcycles with an internal combustion engine, it is more effective from both economic and environmental perspective to go for a multiple approach: electric (for urban-oriented PTWs), and the combustion engine for larger motorcycles that are meant for the longer distances.

Written by Dolf Willigers

Top photograph courtesy of Maeving & Triumph

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