Maybe you’ve been thinking about buying a motorcycle in the past but you just didn’t like the noise, smell, or just the environmental impact of a gasoline-powered motorcycle. Electric motorcycles can be a great alternative. But then you wonder – just how do these electric motorcycles work?
Electric motorcycles work by replacing the combustion engine of a traditional motorcycle with a strong lithium ion battery that provides the power, magnets to create the incentive for an armature to spin, and ultimate a drivetrain that moves the motorcycle.
To fully understand how these electric motors work, let’s first discuss how a traditional combustion engine works and then compare that to how an electric motor works.
How Does A Traditional Combustion Engine Work?
First, to know what makes an electric motorcycle different, you need to understand how traditional combustion engines function to provide power.
The term “combustion” is the process of releasing energy from a fuel and air mixture. The basic steps of how a combustion engine works are as follows:
- Valves open to allow a mixture of gasoline and air to enter the combustion chamber
- A piston moves to compress this fuel-air mixture
- The spark plug provides that needed spark to ignite the mixture which then pushes the piston back down
- An exhaust valve opens to empty out the spent gases
- It is the movement of the piston up and down in the combustion chamber that rotates a crankshaft
- That rotary motion provided by the powering of the crankshaft is transmitted (via the transmission…get it?) to the rear wheel of the motorcycle to get it moving down the road.
How Does An Electric Motorcycle Motor Differ In Comparison?
Motorcycle electrical theory is fairly complex and will not be strictly described here. This explanation is designed to be basic enough that an average person could understand.
There are a lot of parts that will not be present in an electric motor that are needed in the internal combustion engine: transmission, cylinder, pistons, gas tank, exhaust valves to name a few.
The “fuel” and the power come from a battery or a fuel cell. These are very advanced lithium-ion batteries that are capable of holding large reserves of electrical energy.
The rough outline of how an electric motor works is as follows:
- When electricity is allowed to flow into an electric motor (which is DC instead of our standard AC power source), it goes into an internal component called an armature.
- The armature contains an electromagnet that will activate the magnet when electricity is introduced.
- There are magnets on the outside of the DC motor called the stator that are fixed in place.
- The magnetic field created by the armature will spin 180 degrees inside the motor due to the reaction it is having to the magnets in the stator.
- To keep the armature spinning, you have to change the magnetic poles continuously.
- This change in polarity is what brushes are used for.
- Brushes in an electric engine will contact two spinning electrodes that are connected to the armature.
- This contact by the brushes will flip the magnetic polarity and propel the armature to push it 360 degrees over and over.
- That is somewhat similar to how pistons turn the crankshaft on an internal combustion engine to power the crankshaft.
A short summary: in an electrical motor, there is a series of electromagnetic fields that will push an output shaft to spin in its own axis to drive the bike.
Advantages of An Electric Motorcycle
There are several advantages to an electric-powered motorcycle that may tempt you to either switch from your traditional motorcycle or get you to finally purchase one:
- Easier to Ride – Electrical motorcycles are simply lighter because of the much smaller engine and the lack of other components like a gas tank, gasoline, exhaust pipes, etc. They also don’t have gears. That’s right, most electric motorcycles are gear-less so if that’s been stopping you from purchasing a motorcycle then you’re now good to go!
- More Comfortable – Electric motors won’t generate that constant vibration that traditional gasoline-powered motors do. They also don’t put out the heat that can occasionally burn your leg from touching an exhaust pipe by accident.
- Quieter – Contrary to popular belief, electric motors are not silent. There is a bit of a whirring noise, but it’s so much quieter than a traditional combustion engine. For some, that might be a disadvantage as they love the sound of a motorcycle exhaust. However, those folks are likely not reading this article.
- Far Less Maintenance – Internal combustion engines have a ton of moving parts that can stop working efficiently or just break down entirely. With an electric motorcycle, you can update or tune your bike with a download from your phone.
- Saves You Money – Let’s just create a whole new section for this to break down the cost savings of an electric motorcycle.
Cost Savings of An Electric Motorcycle
Let’s look at all the ways an electric motorcycle saves you money over a traditional combustion engine motorcycle. First let’s look at the costs of a traditional motorcycle:
- A traditional gasoline-powered motorcycle gets roughly 30-50 miles per gallon. There are definitely newer bikes out there that can get all the way up to 120 mpg, but most bikes are far less efficient. Gas tanks usually average 3-5 gallons of fuel. So a “typical” motorcycle can get up to 250 miles per ride.
- At a price of $3/gallon (and certainly up to $4 in some locations), a typical Sunday ride on your motorcycle will likely cost about $15.
- Oil changes on motorcycles can cost anywhere from $25-$60 depending on the oil you need. You can save quite a bit by doing it yourself but how many people change their own oil in their own car? Oil changes are recommended every 3,700 miles but there are some models that recommend more frequent changes.
- Maintenance on a motorcycle should be done as recommended by your manual, but on average most bike owners will be spending $1,000 a year to keep their motorcycles in tip-top condition.
Everything listed above doesn’t have to be done on an electric motorcycle. There’s no gas to put in, no oil to change, no regular maintenance to take the bike in for. Adjustments and software updates can be done via a phone app.
At most, after about 3-5 years (depending on usage) the battery on an electric motorcycle should be replaced. It can be difficult to nail down exactly what a replacement battery will cost as battery prices fluctuate due to available materials. Generally the prices have been coming down over time, but it can still be expensive.
Expect to pay $150-$250 per kilowatt-hour as of late 2019. However, this varies so wildly between models that you should make sure you price out a replacement battery for your bike if you plan on riding it heavy and keeping it for years to come.
If you’ve ever wondered just how an electric motorcycle actually works, now you know all the basic steps. If you’ve been holding back from buying a motorcycle because of the cost, noise, or waste factors, an electric motorcycle may be just the ticket for you to jump into the world of two-wheeled excitement!