I sing the dirt bike electric: The Zero X takes leap into the future

When the Zero X wheeled onto the dirt track at Lake Elsinore, the Colgate-white motocross bike looked positively virginal next to the belching, candy-colored models that leaped from mound to mound around it.

Not surprisingly, the Zero X drew a lot of attention.

Two-stroke? Four-stroke? That wasn't the question riders were asking after watching the electric dirt bike roll around the track a few times and do everything a traditional, gas-powered motocrosser could do, minus the noise and pollution. No. The biggest questions were: "What is it?" and "Where can I get one?"

The Zero X is a big deal for a lot of reasons, the biggest being that it's actually in production. Unlike so many other electric vehicles that are bandied about in the media, it isn't a prototype. It's been on the market since April.

Nor is it an electric retrofit of a gutted, formerly gas-powered machine. Its 300-plus component parts were engineered from the ground up, sourced from manufacturers around the globe and assembled into fully functioning motorcycles in a facility in Northern California.

The $7,450 motorcycle was designed by aeronautical engineer Neal Saiki, whose mountain bikes have won design awards.

Saiki came up with the idea for his electric motorcycle in 2003, after participating in a NASA think tank project analyzing transportation solutions for the U.S.

"It was really obvious that electric was the right choice for the United States. It makes so much more sense than hydrogen and other technologies," he said. "The military's had extremely high-powered electric vehicles for quite a long time, and it was just a matter of time before they came down to the [private] sector."

He set to work on the X, then incorporated Zero Motorcycles Inc. in 2006. To get the company off the ground, Saiki and his wife sold both of their homes and brought in investors such as Gene Banman, a former top manager at computer maker Sun Microsystems Inc. and now Zero's chief executive.

The company, based in the Santa Cruz area, has 31 employees, has shipped 40 bikes since April and has back orders for an additional 60.

Among his customers is Google Inc. founder Larry Page, who bought three Zero X bikes.

Zero is setting up a second production line to meet demand. Saiki anticipates selling 500 motorcycles next year, both for the dirt and the street. He figures to be doing $100 million in business by 2011.

"I don't expect a lot of competition," the 41-year-old Saiki said. "It takes a lot of sophistication to get a manufacturing operation started."

The motocross category is, in many ways, the perfect application for an electric power plant because motocross bikes are ridden for only a few dozen miles at a time and battery-powered motors are typically limited in their range.

The whisper-quiet operation in the hills also won't offend nearby residents.

Electric motors are pure torque machines, which is what a motocross bike needs to launch into jumps and power out of corners. The Zero X can get to its top speed of 57 mph in about four seconds.

One potential downside to an electric application in a dirt bike is the weight of the batteries, a problem Saiki chose to tackle with a feather-light, aircraft-grade aluminum frame and lithium ion batteries.

Those batteries have a greater power-to-weight ratio than the nickel metal hydride devices used in the Toyota Prius and the Vectrix scooter.

Though comparable in performance to a gas-powered, 250-cubic-centimeter motorcross bike, the Zero X is 80 pounds lighter. The entire bike weighs an unheard-of 140 pounds, only 40 of which are the batteries.

Its light weight doesn't just make the bike more maneuverable. It may also reduce the risk of injury from the machine falling on the rider.

It also saves distribution costs. Zero bikes are available only over the Internet. Buyers can e-mail an area sales representative, who'll bring a bike to their homes for a personal test ride. If they decide to buy, the sale is completed online and the bike shipped to their doorstep via United Parcel Service for $300.

The 58-volt battery pack on the Zero X uses the same kind of batteries found in many rechargeable power tools, but there are 168 of them bundled together in a vibration- and heat-resistant package that is also modular.

It takes just 30 seconds to remove the battery pack, which makes the bike easier to move around. It also allows the X to be updated with newer battery technologies when they become available. The battery pack has a life expectancy of five to six years, Saiki said, and is 100% recyclable, nontoxic and landfill approved.

"The motorcycle industry wants to ignore this, which is part of the reason I had to do it," Saiki said. "The big companies are very invested in gasoline motors. That's what they built their reputation and heritage on."

But in these days of escalating gas prices and concerns about global warming, consumers are looking for ways to get around that are both economical and environmentally conscious.

Zero Motorcycles may fit the bill for many commuters. The X can travel 40 miles on a single charge and fully recharge in two hours. Its 2-kilowatt-hour capacity makes it the equivalent of a 500-mpg vehicle. It costs 1 cent a mile to operate.

Though the X was intended for off-road use, Zero plans to introduce a supermoto-style street bike in January with a 41% larger battery pack that will last 60 miles and reach a top speed of 65 mph. A sport bike should be ready in 2010, Saiki said.

I spent a morning on board the Zero X and was impressed with pretty much everything about it, not only from a green or performance perspective, but also its forward focus on emerging technologies and its versatility.

Almost all motorcycles on the market use manual transmissions, but the X is automatic. The rear brake is operated by hand, like a bicycle, instead of by foot. The combination means riders don't need to coordinate as many extremities to operate the motorcycle smoothly.

There are two toggle switches on the X that allow riders to customize it to match their intentions. One allows them to select between "sport" and "easy" modes, which affects how aggressively the power kicks in when twisting the throttle.

The other toggle allows riders to select between "low power," which restrains the speed to 30 mph to allow riders in some states to travel in the bicycle lane, and "high power," allowing it to get up to its full potential of 57 mph.

The icing on this already fabulous cake is the cost.

The $7,450 price tag is about $3,000 more than a comparable gas-powered model, but much less than the $11,000 Vectrix.

Despite the cost, which Saiki expects to come down in the years ahead, the Zero X may quickly pay for itself if gas prices continue to empty wallets.

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sue.carpenter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2008 Zero X

Base price: $7,450 (plus $300 for shipping anywhere in the continental U.S.)

Powertrain: Brushed DC permanent magnet motor; landfill-approved, 58-volt lithium ion battery pack; 2-kilowatt-hour capacity; automatic transmission

Maximum horsepower: 20

Maximum range: 40 miles

Maximum speed: 57 mph

Recharge time: Two hours

Weight: 140 pounds

Seat height: 36-37 inches

Source: Los Angeles Times

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Throttle Jockey

The inventor discusses his unique battery on video at latimes.com/ZeroX

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