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Friday, July 12, 2024

This Is the Greatest Electric Motorcycle in the World. But You Can’t Have One

“The first time we ran the MotoE bike at Misano with our MotoGP test rider, Michele Pirro, I asked him: ‘Tell me what you think?’ He thought for a long time because he was trying to find something wrong with it, but at the end he told me: ‘I can say nothing. Everything is perfect.’”

That’s how Ducati’s eMobility director, Roberto Canè, who has led the company’s first effort to make an electric motorcycle—developed for the single-make MotoE World Championship—describes the bike’s on-track debut. It’s high praise from someone whose day job is developing the motorcycles that currently dominate the highest echelon of racing. But even with this glowing report, it will be years before it’s possible to make an electric production bike that meets Ducati’s performance expectations.

There’s no doubt that electric power has become a genuine alternative to combustion engines in today’s cars, but the challenge of creating an electric motorcycle that can compete against fossil-fueled machines is significantly greater. Damon, Arc, and others are trying, but it may still be years before batteries become energy-dense enough to allow a two-wheeled equivalent of a Tesla to emerge and recalibrate our perceptions. Ducati, however, is preparing to be the company that does that when the time comes.

Two-Wheeled Ferrari

Ducati is a name that even non-motorcyclists will recognize. On par with Ferrari, the company is renowned for its beautiful street bikes and formidable success in racing. In 2022, Ducati took a clean sweep of manufacturer’ and riders’ titles in both World Superbike and MotoGP, and at the halfway point of 2023 it’s looking all but certain to repeat that feat.

Ducati has been part of the Volkswagen Group since 2012, when it was bought by Audi and held under its Lamborghini subsidiary. Since then, Ducati’s production bikes have shaken any lingering aura of unreliability.

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All of this success positions Ducati to pioneer electric motorcycle technology, but the company remains a minnow compared to industry giants like Honda. Still Dorna, the commercial rights holder to the MotoGP race series, has made Ducati the sole supplier for its fledgling MotoE World Championship for electric motorcycles. This is a valuable prize—not only promoting the company’s name in the field of electric bikes, but adding financial footing to the project by buying a guaranteed number of the electric racing prototypes that have resulted from the deal.

MotoE is, as its name suggests, a world championship for electric motorcycles, echoing the hugely successful Formula E championship for cars that has already attracted major manufacturer support and a field of big-name drivers. Unlike Formula E, which runs on street circuits at its own dedicate events, MotoE tags onto MotoGP—essentially the motorcycle equivalent of Formula One—running as a support class with two races at each of eight European rounds of the championship in 2023.

While MotoE has operated since 2019, the first four seasons used Italian-made Energica Ego bikes designed for the street and converted into racers under the banner of the MotoE World Cup. For 2023, MotoE has gained world championship status, and Ducati is supplying bikes in the form of a thoroughbred electric racer.

Weight vs Power

“The requirements from Dorna for the motorcycle were that we had to build a proper racing bike,” says Roberto Canè. “We were asked to prepare the fastest electric motorcycle for this championship. We could choose between two different options. We could prepare a heavyweight but powerful motorcycle or design and build a lightweight motorcycle but with reduced power. Because if you add a lot of battery, you add a lot of weight. We chose to make a very lightweight motorcycle. We used the minimum number of cells that were necessary to fulfill the requirements of range in order to have the most rideable motorcycle.”

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“The weight is 225 kg, with dimensions that are very similar to standard racing motorcycles, like our superbike or the MotoGP bike,” Canè adds. “The battery itself is a stressed part of the chassis, connected with a front frame to hold the steering parts, the shock absorber, and the electric motor at the rear and the seat and tail. The battery pack is carbon fiber and designed to have exactly the same lateral and torsional stiffness as a racing motorcycle. We worked a lot on weight distribution in order to find the best rideability.”

What has prevented electric motorcycles from taking off like electric cars have is the energy density, size, and weight of batteries. Electric cars have already proved to be jaw-droppingly fast—with acceleration figures that combustion engines can’t hope to match—and they have rapidly improving range, usually courtesy of ever-larger batteries.

But cars achieve these figures at the expense of weight. A Tesla Model S Plaid might achieve 0-60 mph in 1.99 seconds, but it’s well over 2 metric tons, thanks to hundreds of kilos of batteries. Adding weight to a car isn’t a big problem (you offset it with more power and bigger tires), but the same doesn’t apply to motorcycles. They’re more like planes in that regard: Every cubic centimeter of space and gram of mass is vital.

Cell to Chassis

As with electric cars, power isn’t a problem. The Ducati MotoE makes 110 kW (150 hp) from a motor that looks little larger than a coffee can. But the battery to feed it needs to be a purpose-made part that doubles as the bike’s main structure. Canè says: “The core of the bike is the battery. For a high-performance electric motorcycle, the battery is the Achilles’ heel, due to its weight.”

“To have a performant motorcycle, you have to reduce the weight as much as possible, so we worked on that to get the best compromise between weight and the performance,” Canè says. You see the strange shape of the battery? This is because we want to achieve the same dimensions of a racing motorcycle like a World Superbike, including the weight distribution. So we placed the cells not all in the front of the bike but also along the length. There are four layers of cells, two blocks on the sides and two in the center, so the battery is almost symmetrical. In the very back there are all the electronic devices, like the battery management system and so on … everything that controls the battery behavior.”

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The lithium-ion cells are a standard, cylindrical 21700 format (21 mm in diameter and 70 mm long, as used on older Teslas). A total of 1,152 of them are packed into the carbon-fiber battery that doubles as the bike’s main chassis structure, delivering a total of 18 kWh to an 800-volt electrical system. A aluminum front frame holds the steering stem, while the motor, rear suspension, and cooling system bolt straight to the battery pack. A carbon subframe at the rear supports the rider.

“It’s a stressed part because the battery is designed to be very robust for safety reasons, as you can imagine,” said Roberto Canè, “In a racing motorcycle, it’s not only a matter of the weight, but also the stiffness of the frame, which is very important for the riders, so together the front frame, the battery, the seat, and the rear frame behave like a standard racing motorcycle for lateral and longitudinal stiffness.”

Crash Protection

The safety aspect is an important one: There’s no crumple zone on a bike to protect the battery, so its carbon structure needs to be strong enough to ensure the cells aren’t ruptured in a crash. Like today’s hybrid F1 cars, the MotoE bikes have safety LEDs that light up green to show they’re safe to touch and red if there’s any doubt, and even those LEDs are doubled up to add a layer of redundancy.

Fire marshals patrol the pit and paddock in full flameproof gear. MotoE learned its lesson the hard way. Before the inaugural season even got underway in 2019, all 18 Energica bikes intended to be used in that year’s championship were destroyed in a fire in the paddock at the Jerez circuit when a charger short-circuited during a preseason test.

By making the battery double as the bike’s structure, Ducati has kept the whole bike’s weight down to just 225 kg, a big reduction over the 260 kg of the Energica machines used in previous years. It’s still a lot for a race bike (premier class MotoGP bikes have a 157-kg minimum weight and get almost twice the MotoE bike’s 150 hp), but the vast torque on tap means that off the line the prototype “V21L” Ducati’s initial acceleration is actually faster than the company’s MotoGP machine. At the fastest track it’s been tested at, Mugello in Italy, the MotoE Ducati hit 275 km per hour (171 mph).

That acceleration comes courtesy of 140 Nm of torque, delivered through the same traction control and anti-wheelie systems used in MotoGP. The motor itself is an AC design, weighs only 21 kg, and spins to 18,000 rpm, doubling as a generator to feed power back to the battery under deceleration.

There’s no rear brake disc. Instead, the motor’s regen system is connected to the rear brake pedal, mapped to respond like a conventional brake. As with most electric vehicles, there’s no need for a multi-speed gearbox—there’s just one ratio that takes the V21L all the way from stationary to top speed. “The motor drives through fixed reduction gearbox to the pinion and the chain, lubricated by a small oil pump,” Canè says. “On the other side of the motor, we have a water pump for cooling the motor and inverter using the small, lower radiator.”

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“The bigger radiator is dedicated to the battery only because the cells must stay at lower temperatures compared to the motor and inverter,” Canè says. “The water in the battery’s cooling system is pumped with an electric pump that works also when the bike is stationary during the recharge phase because when we recharge the battery, we need to cool it in order to have the bike ready immediately at the end of the recharge phase.”

On the Charge

Recharging is done via a 20-kW socket in the bike’s tail, and thanks to the bike’s dual cooling systems, there’s no need to allow the battery pack to cool down after a race before charging it again, with an 80 percent charge taking just 45 minutes.

Large, static chargers in each pit garage are supplemented by smaller, wheeled chargers powered by their own internal batteries, allowing the bikes to be plugged in even when they’re on the grid—and ensuring the batteries are topped up at the start of each race.

There’s no warm-up lap. Every last kW is needed for racing. Even so, the races are short. “In total there [is an] 18-kWh maximum, running at 800 volts because that allows us to reduce the wire size,” says Canè. “Higher voltage means less current and reduces losses due to resistance. We pushed a lot to achieve maximum efficiency. We have very little energy, and we don’t want to waste it.”

What about range? “It depends,” Canè says. “If you are going very fast, for example at the Mugello circuit, where we can reach very high speed and the acceleration is unbelievable, we can run only seven laps. That’s something less than 40 kilometers. But if you or I were to ride this bike, we’d be going more slowly and have a longer range.”

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“But this bike is not designed to run for a long time. It’s designed to be very powerful, and to match the requirements from Dorna. Here in Silverstone [in the UK], the circuit is very long, so each MotoE race is only six laps.”

A Squadron of X-Wings

In action, the bikes exceed expectations. It’s hard to compare lap times with conventional racers, not least because MotoE uses special Michelin tires that sacrifice outright grip in favor of 40-percent sustainable materials, but the initial acceleration lacks nothing compared to a MotoGP bike.

On comparable tires, lap times would be on a par with the 765cc, three-cylinder Moto2 bikes used in the MotoGP feeder series. And the sound of 18 Ducati MotoE prototypes at full chat is something akin to a squadron of X-wings diving on the Death Star. Unfamiliar at Silverstone, but nonetheless dramatic.

Ducati’s deal with Dorna will see the company supply bikes to MotoE until at least 2026, with an 18-bike field and several spare machines taken to each round. The bikes are then leased to teams competing in the series. The current Ducati is to be used in 2023 and 2024, with a new model scheduled for 2025 and 2026, developed using lessons learned from the first two years.

Although the bikes are without a doubt the most impressive electric racing motorcycles we’ve seen yet, there are still huge hurdles to clear before members of the public will be able to enjoy anything similar.

Ducati is clear that its intention is to eventually add a production model to its lineup, but not until battery chemistry or construction take some big steps forward. At the moment, the MotoE’s battery weighs 110 kg, but it needs to be much, much lighter and more compact for a Ducati production bike that meets customers’ expectations in terms of performance and range.

“We are working toward electric production bikes,” says Canè, “but at the moment the technology is not ready for ‘big displacement’ electric motorcycles. This is the biggest problem we are facing, because of the battery weight and energy density. Solid state cells are an interesting technology, and there are also other technologies coming.”

“As soon as we can achieve an energy density that is at least three times the current one, then electric motorcycles will be very, very interesting,” Canè says. “But it’s not something we will see in the short term. I think we will have something in a few years, but we need some time to get there.”

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