Hero to Zero?

Image via Uncrate.com

The future has arrived in South Africa. Electric vehicles — filed in the science-fiction part of my brain along with flying cars — have begun arriving on our shores, and yet to an astonishing lack of fanfare.

Electric was supposed to happen a decade ago. In fact, it did. Hollywood starlets were leasing (and loving) the American EV-1 way back in the early 2000s, and there was a long waiting-list of buyers, until it was mysteriously recalled and pulped (See ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’ 2006), and from then it seemed that Big Oil would be tracking down and murdering all pretenders to its throne.

And yet with the Nissan Leaf and the recently launched BMW i-Series, the electric revolution has begun. Well, it has begun for those who can stump half a million bucks.

However, many consumers may have missed that far cheaper electric bikes have been available here since late 2014. The Californian-based Zero Motorcycle company makes a range of shockingly quick electric bikes that have been on sale in South Africa for between R130–150k.

Again, I would expect this news to be greeted with losing-of-mind levels of excitement, but rather there is a collective ‘meh’ about the whole thing. Car Magazine’s review described its incredible stats, but resorted to mixed critique, such as ‘the rear suspension is too firm’ and ‘getting used to no gears will take a while’ (which as scooter riders know, that ‘while’ is about 30 minutes).

Sure, it’s not a touring bike, but there is a dual-sport option…

I spoke yesterday to the agent of Zero bikes in SA up til now, and apparently South Africans are cool on electric bikes because we’re a leisure market, not a commuting market. In other words, most of us prefer gridlock and high car prices over sitting a learner’s test for a second time. The fairly limited range of the Zero (about 150km without a spare power pack) means that it is not an ideal touring bike, and for the same money, you can get a BMW 1200, which is.

As a result, SA sales volumes are small — one or two a month. California won’t deal in such small volumes, and so for now Zero is winding down until a new agent can invest several millions in trying to widen the market.

The argument usually runs: why would I buy a Zero when I can get a BMW or a Honda Fireblade for the same money? Well, by all accounts, the Zero is plenty quick enough (0–60kph in 3.6 seconds), and the accumulated costs means that it is not the same money.

It is bizarre to me that so few South Africans see the value in being free of oil, (largely) free of maintenance, and free of traffic. It is bizarre that we might kill the electric bike here because we focus entirely on petty weaknesses. Your car — if it is reasonably efficient — costs you approximately R1 per kilometre in petrol alone. The BMW 1200 is not much more economical than that. In its place, you could have a high-performance vehicle that is ideal for the vast majority of your personal road-use, and — if you clocked up 130,000 kms on it — would have effectively paid for itself.

It’s a shame that this option makes sense to only about one South African per month, and may soon be available to none of us.