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California-based Zero Motorcycles Inc., in business since 2006, makes a lineup of nine models that vary from $12,595 to $32,990.Handout

When the stunt riders cracked their throttles this spring at the big motorcycle show in Mississauga, everyone in the hall stopped talking for a moment because they couldn’t make themselves heard over the noise. “Doesn’t that sound great?” the guy next to me shouted to his friend. “It’s been a long winter!”

We were surrounded on the floor by motorcycles of all shapes and sizes, and all but one was powered by gasoline. At a Harley-Davidson dealership stand, there was a LiveWire electric motorcycle that few people seemed to notice.

The LiveWire was released three years ago to mixed reviews. It’s expensive, starting at $37,250, and while it’s quick, with a zero-to-100-kilometre-an-hour acceleration time of just three seconds, its combined city-and-highway range is only 153 kilometres, and less with each twist of the throttle. This makes it a plaything for wealthy riders. Many motorcycle buyers are affluent, but most are looking for the rolling thunder that was everywhere at the show.

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Motorcycle enthusiasts examine gas-powered bikes at the Toronto Motorcycle SuperShow in Mississauga in late March.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Even so, electric motorcycles are coming and the LiveWire is just the high-end tip of the spear. California-based Zero Motorcycles Inc., in business since 2006, makes a lineup of nine models that vary from $12,595 to $32,990, with an easy-on-the-throttle range of up to 365 kilometres, enough to travel from Toronto almost to Windsor under ideal conditions. BMW makes large electric scooters similar to Vespas and Lambrettas and the Japanese manufacturers all have fully electric scooters and motorcycles in the works.

Motorcycles are not included in the federal government’s commitment for all new light-duty cars and passenger trucks to be fully electric by 2035, but they’ve not been forgotten. They’re just not a priority because they account for only 2 per cent of registered vehicles in Canada, and for the most part they’re seasonal, but they won’t get a free pass for long.

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The U.K. Department for Transport has already proposed that all new motorcycles sold in Britain must be fully electric by 2035. (It has a more ambitious agenda than Canada – it wants to ban the sale of all new gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, including heavy trucks, by 2040.)

The National Motorcyclists Council in the U.K. is concerned. “This landmark announcement marks a fundamental change to the nature of motorcycling as we know it and is not unexpected, given the recent announcement for zero-emission car production,” said Craig Carey-Clinch, the NMC’s executive director.

“The implications for motorcycling are profound. … There is clearly some way to go before zero-emission products will be available at a cost, specification and battery range that can encompass the needs of riders across the entire motorcycle range and for the diversity of reasons that people ride.”

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The Harley-Davidson Livewire fully electric motorcycle, which starts at $37,250 and has a range of 153 kilometres, is on display at the Toronto Motorcycle SuperShow.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

While cars and trucks can simply add more batteries under the floor for greater range, motorcycles are too small to do this. However, they do have other advantages. They’re not usually ridden in winter temperatures, which limit the capacity of the battery, and they have much less drag against the road, with just two narrow tires.

“Right now, in the car industry, you see the growth of electric vehicles at a very fast pace, but I think for two-wheeled products, the transition will be there, but at a slower pace,” says José Boisjoli, chief executive officer of Valcourt, Que.-based Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. (BRP), which builds Sea-Doos, Ski-Doos and is getting into motorcycles.

“The beauty of our situation is that the [motorcycle] industry needs to reset to go electric, but we are starting from a fresh white-paper page. It’s an advantage that I believe we have.”

BRP will do this by reviving its storied Can-Am brand of two-wheeled motorcycles, which launched 50 years ago and ceased production in 1987. The company is revealing few details, but says there will be a full line of on-road and off-road motorcycles that will cater to 40 per cent of the motorcycle market, or about 600,000 units in North America and Europe. Boisjoli says he believes this market will be worth more than half-a-billion dollars by 2030.

Presumably, this excludes the heavyweight cruiser and touring market, which are the most profitable for companies like Harley-Davidson, but are declining in popularity as their loyal riders become too old to ride. Those bikes must travel the farthest and carry the most weight – both killers of an electric battery’s capacity, but which hold the most appeal for their riders. There’s little freedom of the open road when you’re beholden to a pre-planned charging schedule.

“Riders can expect these new state-of-the-art electric Can-Am motorcycles to be perfect for everyday commuting and, to stay true to the track and trail heritage of the brand, recreational on- and off-road riding,” BRP said in a statement announcing the Can-Am revival. “The new products have been developed with many different riders in mind, more specifically for those who crave adventure, seek the thrill of the open road [or] long for a quiet ride in the country.”

BRP says it will invest $300-million in its product-wide electrification strategy, which means that, by 2026, every one of its product lines will include electric models. This will include the three-wheeled Can-Am Spyders that have become common on Canadian roads, as well as boats and ATVs. Not everything will be a smooth shift, however.

“We’re still working on some internal-combustion-engine products,” says Boisjoli. “Our industry is a bit different than the car industry. Our products are mainly off-road and some are buying ATVs or side-by-sides to go hunting, or into the desert, where you cannot recharge.” That’s why he anticipates the transition will happen more slowly than in the automotive industry, he says.

So perhaps, a decade or two from now, Canadians who yearn for the sound of a cacophonous engine to herald the return of spring will skip the motorcycle show and even the boat show, and find their way to hunting shows.

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