- Zero Motorcycle wants to emulate Tesla and make electric motorcycles into emotional experiences.
- The company’s CEO Sam Paschel joined last year.
- He’s focused on getting Zero to appeal to customers’ heart, not the head.
Zero Motorcycles was started in a Northern California garage in 2006, began selling bikes in 2009, and has grown considerably since then. But it has also endured the financial crisis and an electric vehicle market that hasn’t been especially kind to anyone except Tesla.
CEO Sam Paschel wants to change that. Paschel – who joined Zero in early 2017 after two decades at various brands, most recently Burton Snowboard and headphones and earbuds maker Skullcandy – thinks that electric motorcycles are being marketed all wrong.
“Zero has been telling a rational story,” he said in an interview with Business Insider. “But motorcycles are emotional. So we need to tell a more emotional story.”
Paschel has a point. The electric-vehicle world – two-wheeled, three-wheeled, or four – has pitched itself to consumers as eminently logical. Why wouldn’t you want to escape fossil fuels and do your part to improve the environment?
In that context, Zero was the thinking persons motorcycle company, while stalwarts such as Harley-Davidson continued to build the big, loud, two-wheelers.
Following Tesla’s example with electric motorcycles
Motorcycle sales have been declining since the financial crisis, due in many respects to ageing enthusiasts and the industry’s inability to attract new, young riders. Milwaukee-based Harley Davidson has been hit hard and recently announced an investment in Alta Motors, a Silicon Valley electric motorbike startup, as well as plans to bring an electric motorcycle to market in 2019.
But Zero has enthusiasm behind it – New York private equity firm Invus has led $US86 million in funding since Zero was born – and depending on who you talk to, growth ahead of it. Electric motorcycles are seen as an area of the business that could boom in coming years, even as traditional gas-powered bikes wane in popularity.
Paschel has a predictable North Star to guide Zero: Tesla. “We’d like to have the same passion on the two-wheeled side that Tesla has on four,” he said.
He added that Zero enjoys natural tailwinds. The overall electric vehicle market should grow over the next decade (although the rate of growth is subject to a lot of speculation.) Internal-combustion motorcycles are up against stricter fuel-economy and emissions standards. And battery technology is steadily improving.
Zero has a compelling lineup of electric motorcycles
Zero offers a lineup of four bikes in essentially two categories. The FX and FXS, a sleek dirtbike and a supermoto, respectively; and the S/SR and DS/DSR, the former a street bike and the latter a jack-of-all trades. Range of the lithium-ion battery packs varies by model, from a low of about 20 miles per charge on the base FXS all the way up to over 200 for the S/SR series. The company builds about 2,000 motorcycles annually, with pricing running from $US8,500 to over $US10,000.
As Paschel is happy to note, electric motorcycles have some significant advantages over conventional bikes.
“I threw leg and decided that this was where I wanted to be,” he said of testing out the motorcycle when he joined as CEO. “The acceleration” – electric bikes, like electric cars, are very snappy off the line – “was a profound experience. Our bikes engage all five senses.”
But the motorcycles don’t look crazy. Paschel said that from a visual standpoint, they’re no different from traditional bikes. The riding experience, however, is another story.
“There’s no noise, no smells, no fumes,” he said. “All the vibration was gone, and all I was feeling was the road.”
Overcoming preconceptions about electric motorcycles
That might be a negative for some riders, those who like to feel a big Harley V-Twin motor rumbling beneath the seat. But for many newer riders, the combination of flat-out speed, lower maintenance costs, a more virtuous relationship with the climate, and simpler operation are selling points. Recharging a Zero bike’s battery is also a snap: plug into a regular wall outlet overnight and you’re good to go, although faster charging is also available.
Electric motorcycles, unlike most gas-powered bikes, don’t have a clutch or gearshift – they effectively have one gear. This makes learning to ride much easier, and for experienced bikers like Paschel, it offers the chance to simply take to the road without having to deal with the cognitive demands they have grown accustomed to.
With bikes that have power and style, there’s also no mistaking your ride for a scooter.
For Paschel, the effort to emulate Tesla has high stakes. There’s competition in the electric motorcycle space, chiefly from Polaris, which acquired Brammo, an electric-cycle startup, in 2015. But there’s also the simple fact that motorcycles aren’t considered by Americans to be an indispensable as cars.
“We do everything we can to be on the motorcycle market dynamic,” he said. “In the US, nobody needs a motorcycle. It’s an object of desire.”
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