For as much harping as I do about Zero Motorcycles, here comes some news from the Scotts Valley company that even my cold heart can appreciate. For those who don’t know, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) has very strict criteria for the motorcycles that its classes can use during the hands-on portion of their curriculum. The various restrictions include things like seat height, displacement, weight, power, and so forth. Additionally, the classes concern themselves with the cost of the bikes themselves, the cost of maintaining the machines, and the cost of the replacement parts, which invariably will be needed as new riders cut their teeth on two-wheeled transportation.

Getting the nod from the MSF that the Zero XU can be used for its rider courses, Zero Motorcycles’ urban commuter is the first electric motorcycle to be certified for use in the popular rider training program. Not only a boon to the California-based company, the news is a step-forward for the MSF, as the clutchless, gear-less, noiseless, and effortless motorcycle is the ideal platform for a new rider to learn how to safely ride a motorcycle. Best of all though, the news bodes well in training soon-to-be motorcyclists more effectively, as well as increasing the likelihood of attracting otherwise disinterested riders into the world of motorcycles.

The whole subject harkens back to a conversation I had with then Skip Barber instructor Michael Czysz about the mental bandwidth required for riding a motorcycle (or really anything in life for that matter). His theory states that your brain has only so much processing power available when it performs a given task, like for instance riding a motorcycle around a race track.

For a new rider, riding on a track at speed is very difficult, as they still have to think about the basic operations behind riding a motorcycles, e.g. shifting, braking, throttle-control, etc. More advanced riders have already mastered the basics, and can focus on things like body-position, brake-markers, the racing line, and so forth. Meanwhile, professionals motorcycle racers have become so tuned with the track and their bikes, they operate on a completely different sensory plain, managing things like wheel-spin, tire feedback, and suspension response with the same effort that it takes many of us to breathe.

Now, take that philosophy to a truly green motorcyclist, and you begin to see the importance of using electric motorcycles in an environment like the one MSF provides in its rider training courses. Removing extraneous elements and mental distractions, a bike like the Zero XU allows an even lower step for new riders to enter into the world of motorcycling. Instead of having to worry about shifting and operating a clutch, the single-speed electric motor simply requires a new rider to learn basic throttle control.

Additionally, the lack of noise, heat, and other elements not only make it easier for a rider to get instructions from the MSF RiderCoaches, but it also means that their attention can be focused 100% on learning the basics of acceleration, stopping, and counter-steering on a motorcycle. Not only would such a platform open up two-wheeled adventure to those who may have been put off by the challenge of basic motorcycle operation, it provides a stepping-stone to students whom require more time to hone their motorcycle-craft — with the Zero XU in this case providing a platform for new riders to more effectively compress the mental bandwidth of motorcycle basics down into a stream of consciousness that allows room for more advanced motorcycle operation.

I can already hear the collective eye-roll from veteran motorcyclists who don’t want to see new riders licensed when they cannot operate a “real” motorcycle, as taking the MSF rider test on a Zero XU could easily be considered cheating in some books. To that, I succinctly reply: a motorcycle is a motorcycle. But more long-windedly, I think my track time on the BRD RedShift SM prototype at the Sears Point Raceway kart track provides an interesting anecdote.

Already a veteran of riding a motorcycle that sucks, squeezes, bangs, and blows, my lap times on the electric-powered BRD were a solid two seconds faster than those I was capable of on the KTM 250 supermotard we were splitting sessions on (that’s a sizeable improvement on a track with near one-minute lap times). This result had as much to do with the technical specifications of the two machines available, as it did with the electric powertrain on the BRD allowing me to concentrate on other things on the track, instead of the clutch and transmission operation of the petrol-burning ‘tard.

Because of my brain having the available extra mental bandwidth, I was much more likely to learn the intricacies of riding in a supermotard environment (something I had never done before that bike test). Unsurprisingly, where my lap times on the gas-powered KTM plateaued after several laps, my lap times on the BRD were faster within just a lap of being on the bike, and continued to drop with each subsequent lap around the course, until I ultimately had to bring the electric bike back into the pits at the end of my session.

The interesting experiment we didn’t get to perform in this test would have been sticking me on the KTM again, and seeing if my lap times on it now dropped because of what I had taken away from the BRD. I suspect they would have, and that the electric would be to blame for ramping-up my learning curve on riding these style of bikes, and thus converting me to the dark side of cheaper motorcycle track days.

Chalk up my response to this news with Zero and MSF then as a win/win/win for the organizations involved, as well as the new riders who will benefit from learning via electric. Does that mean one of the Seven Seals has just been broken. Repent petrol-sinners!

Source: Zero Motorcycles

  • I see no difference, then, between teaching a rider on an electric motorcycle, vs. teaching them how to ride on a scooter. What’s the difference??

  • Nick

    If there were two levels of MSF classes; the first being on an electric bike (to mitigate over-processing for new riders) so they can focus on balance, steering, and throttle control followed by a second course on a real bike then I believe I can see the value here. However, completely eliminating the need for achieving even a basic mastery of clutching and shifting during these courses will do the riders and those they will share the road with a major disservice, unless they plan on only riding an electric bike their entire life (an awful thought). As the article mentioned there are different levels of riding and at each different factors become natural and focus is shifted to more advanced aspects so using that methodology here would imply allowing riders with sub-par motorcycle skills onto the road. What will happen when one of these decides he wants a real motorcycle for the road after having trained on an electric bike? – I guess I relate it to driving an automatic car to a manual, I would definitely say when I made the move to a stick 100% of my focus was NOT on the road and rather on getting my clutching and shifting correct, so taking into account I was in a car with airbags compared to a motorcycle I think it is a disservice and irresponsible to teach/license a new rider on an electric bike.

  • Leo

    “Not only a boon to the California-based company, the news is a step-forward for the MSF, as the clutchless, gear-less, noiseless, and effortless motorcycle is the ideal platform for a new rider to learn how to safely ride a motorcycle.”

    I hope they hand out limited licenses too… All we need is more squids getting their license on a baby bike only to turn around and get Superbike….

  • Mike

    So you don’t want the MSF to give new riders on-bike clutch control and shifting instruction?

  • Let’s think about this for a minute. What is the purpose of the MSF course, and what factors are often attributed to new-rider crashes?

  • Graham

    It’s already legal to take the motorcycle license test on a scooter in California, so I guess there is no difference between learning on a zero or a scooter. A Zero is basically a big fast electric scooter.
    I do agree that it is too easy to get a license (in a car or on a bike), but, if you’re allowed to get a license by driving an automatic car or on a scooter, I don’t see the harm (increasing) in letting people learn on a Zero. If you want to re-structure the whole system so you can only pass the test on a “real” motorcycle and/or in a stick shift automobile, I’m all for it, but until that happens let them teach on an electric and get more two wheeled riders on the road.
    Also, for everyone that talks about how electrics are inferior and will never be as good as ICE powered bikes (or cars) – You all remind me of myself when I used to compare 2-strokes to 4-strokes – HA… Look at 4 strokers now, they dominate racing classes and the same will happen with electric, it’s just a matter of when.

  • AndrewF

    I have to agree with Nick above; it makes sense to start complete novices on something very easy to ride (although I don’t see much advantage over a humble scooter here). but not if this is the sum total of the training they are going to receive before hitting the road… which they will most likely do on a conventional motorcycle.

    The problem with making learning too easy is that you might end up not learning much at all.

  • Campisi

    Good for Zero; I wish them well. However, when I took the MSF course at the young age of 17, I was primarily interested in two things: skipping the DMV motorcycle test, and learning to use a motorcycle clutch without burning up the clutch on a family bike. Learning on a Zero would have been a blast, but the mental barrier the clutch manifests itself as in the mind of many newbies would have remained as daunting as ever had that been the case. The current motorcycle marketplace simply does not allow a rider to forego the clutch unless they’re planning on sticking to scooters, at which point the rider may as well just take the scooter-specific MSF course.

    By all means, use the Zeros, but have a few 20th-century bikes available for use as well.

  • I don’t see how learning to ride on an electric bike is a disservice. How many people initially learn to drive cars with automatic transmissions and then later learn a manual? That was certainly the case for me and it was ridiculously easy. The basic driving skills were already in place, so adding manual clutching/shifting wasn’t a huge burden.

    The same applies to bikes. Who here learned how to ride all on their own? I sure did. Having new riders take a course on an electric leaves them well prepared to figure out the intricacies of clutches and gears later on. Making it sound as though they’re forever behind the learning curve is specious. Riders who learn on electrics are no less capable of learning to row a gearbox than anybody else. Meanwhile, they get on the road better prepared to deal with the hazards of riding a vehicle that precious few others on the road actually see.

    100% win, IMO.

  • Nick

    Trane, I think you misunderstood my point. I don’t think you should be able to drive a stick to pass a car test because it is not necessary for most people as some may never even drive a manual in their lifetimes. However, if you look at the motorcycles available today how many are clutchless and don’t require shifting? . . exactly.
    My main point was when you are enrolling in a class to learn to ride (which from my experience quite a few prior to the class I was in had NEVER ridden) then learn to ride a proper bike. I grew up riding dirt bikes and the skills acquired there have saved my ass countless times on the road. So when my friend with zero experience sees me riding now and says he wants a “a small bike, like a 600” I cringe on the inside and tell him maybe he should try riding something more forgiving, like a dirt bike or 250cc road bike first to get the feel and instinct necessary to ride without focusing on the actual process of riding. The street shouldn’t be a place to learn AFTER taking a course where the skills can be acquired via a class and instructor that you are paying to be in to learn to ride in the first place.

  • Westward

    +1 to Graham, Trane Francks, and Jensen Beeler

    Nick, I think you miss the point.

    The majority of the basics are concentrating on the road and road hazards. I know many guys that learned to drive with an automatic car, and then learned to drive a manual after.

    Anyone that goes from an electric bike to an ICE will be fine. I seriously doubt anyone that does. is going to run out after taking the MSF course, buy an ICE bike and ride it home.

    They are more likely to have it delivered or have a friend ride it home, and then learn or practice in a parking lot or on their block at home. Or, they will take another class to specifically learn to use the clutch and shift, and not have to fret about passing the test for certification.

  • Obviously, I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but I didn’t have any difficulty learning to operate the throttle, clutch and to shift gears. When I bought my bike, I tooled around the parking lot working it out over the span of about 20 min. Shifting just wasn’t where I was a risk to myself or anybody else. I’ll tell you what I was personally lacking due to having no instruction whatsoever: Any clue whatsoever of countersteering.

    I rode around town and did really well. Got the nerve up to hit the highway and did really well, right up till the offramp, at which time I found my newbie butt on gravel shoulder at velocity. Somehow, I didn’t crash. And somehow I lived long enough to learn what was what. The point? Riders on e-bikes taking an MSF course will come away from that course with a sound grounding in the operational theory for riding at speed. I sure wish there’d been such a course available to me all those many years ago.

    I agree about the 250cc being a great ride to start with. My first bike was a Yamaha XS360, which was probably a fair bit slower than a modern 250. The biggest displacement I’ve owned is a KZ650 and I’m pretty sure my next bike will be an FZ6R. I just don’t need any more motor than that. (Most giggles/mile: my RD400 Daytona Special. WHEE!)

  • Eric

    I agree that this is a bit win for everyone involved, especially zero and the e- moto crowd.

    Incidentally, aprilia’s Mana 850 is a full-sized motorcycle available with an automatic transmission. Perhaps some of these newbies will eventually move up to bikes like this, generating a whole new market.

  • Frenchie

    From my point of view, it was kinda surprising to see that most people in the US learn to drive (and most of them will only ever drive) automatic cars. That’s definitely a minority in Europe, even if the trend is for high-end cars to become automatic.
    I don’t think you’re allowed to pass you driver exam on an automatic here. But people are dangerous on the road everywhere and it has little to do with their ability to drive manually or not.

    So now if you can pass your motorcycle license riding a scooter or an automatic motorcycle, I don’t see much difference, clearly this not where the danger is for the user and others around him.

    I’m not sure what the exam is for motorcycles in the US (depends on states I assume?) but IMHO reinforcing this exam to ensure people master basic skills would do much bigger difference than letting them ride automatic or manual motorcycles.

    Just as an example, in France the motorcycle exam consists of 4 steps.
    First you get your learner’s permit (road signs and so on), then you get minimum 20 hours training in a riding school (first off the road, exercise with cones, gates and such, then on the road).
    When you completed the 20 hours training (more hours are often needed) you are allowed to pass the “off the road section” (very technical, 3 courses, the first pushing your bike through cones, the second riding low speed through very tight gates and cones without putting your feet on the ground more than twice (or you fail the entire exam) and the third is timed, slaloming through cones at speed, U-turn then straight back and emergency braking in a determined area or “emergency avoiding” which is left-right-brake hard in a tight alley defined by cones, 3 tries, if you’re too slow you fail the exam).
    If you succeeded at once in every step of the “off the road test” then you can pass your “on the road test” which is pretty easy, just riding around following instructions from the instructor via an ear-piece.

    Just an example, my point is that the training you get (and the quality/difficulty of the mandatory test) is more important that the motorcycle you ride, even if it’s automatic.

  • Damo

    I personally would have never paid for an introductory riding class that didn’t teach me how to use a clutch and a gear box.

    Twelve years ago when I first got my motorcycle license, I opted to take the local MSF compliant safety course. (In Massachusetts you can get your license through the course instead of taking a test with a state trooper, not sure how other states do it.)

    The class had about twelve new riders in, several of which had never operated a standard transmission before. We all learned on Honda Nighthawk 250cc and there was not one incident in the class and by the end of the weekend everyone passed their riding tests.

    I don’t see learning on a clutchless bike as a pathway to developing good riding skills, I guess.

  • Safe or unsafe riding does not revolve around an understanding of how to operate a manual transmission. There are HEAPS of incredibly dangerous drivers on the road who learned to drive an automatic and always drive an automatic. By all means, make courses available that teach new riders how to operate manual transmissions. That said, somebody who drives safely, will do so regardless of the type of transmission on the vehicle. Likewise, somebody dangerous will always be so regardless of transmission.

    IMO, YMMV, etc.

    The parody of a lurching/bucking operator of a manual transmission is just that. They’re simply not difficult skills to learn (but I do see a lot of value in teaching those skills in a rider course).

  • JoeD

    As a RiderCoach, this is one of the worst things to happen. Motorcycling requires a level of awareness above that of four wheeled vehicles. Using a clutch PROPERLY is a basic skill directly related to control and safety. There are reasons why scooters are not allowed to be used at our college-the controls are non standard and there is no way to separate the power from the rear wheel should the throttle malfunction are two. What happens when the auto tranny disengages at low rpm while in a tight turn? Loss of contol and a crash for those unpreparred for it. We already have too many incompetent drivers given the rubber stamp auto liscense- now we must contend with the same on two wheels? Another example of the Dumb Down plague infecting every segment of society. Bad decision. Bad Bad Bad

  • Daniel Croft

    This is great for the perception and acceptance of electric motorcycles and will also be great for the MSF to help them keep costs down.

    On the other hand, I agree with the people who say that it’s missing a large part of what riding a bike is. The problem, in my opinion, is that the MSF BRC is meant to give new riders the tools they need to be able to ride a bike on the street with basic competency. What that means is that they understand the basic operation of their motorcycle (scooter, or otherwise) so that they can focus on the real threat to street riders which is other motorists. Yes, riders are also at risk when it comes to vision issues (target fixation) as it relates to corners (and everything else).

    When you take away the gear changes and clutch control, you’re asking a new rider to learn that on their own time and likely on their first motorbike. The whole point of the BRC is to avoid that. Yes, learning to counter steer is important, yes, braking is very important but if you don’t know how to grab your clutch when you brake heavily, if you’re not prepared for the inevitable stalls and push you get from leaving your bike in gear when coming to a stop (and not operating the clutch correctly), you’re not prepared to ride a motorcycle in the real world.

    This issue is particularly problematic in todays world where the majority of people have *never* operated a vehicle with a clutch. It means that, one of the things (other than leaning) that they’re most unfamiliar with is left as an exercise for the reader (as it were).

    Personally, I’d be fine with this (and scooters) being approved for the MSF in the instance where a limited license (as others have mentioned) was available as an option. That is, you could get a learner’s permit that only allows you to operate automatic vehicles but we know that’s not the case. I think that taking gear changes and clutch control away from the MSF is akin to allowing riders to take the test on a 3 wheeler; you’re removing one of the *key* skills required to ride a motorcycle and expecting people to figure it out on their own.

    I think we’ll be failing our new riders if we allow this to happen, lowering the bar to allow people easier access to licenses is not the answer. Riding a bike is dangerous, making it easier doesn’t help anyone.

  • “lowering the bar to allow people easier access to licenses is not the answer.”

    Lowering the bar is the North American way in an age where “average” is scorned as being elitism. (Sorry. I’m feeling kinda grumpy at the moment.)

  • Dave P

    Ok, it is worth pointing out–and I feel like being snarky here–that countersteering is a basic priciple that we all learned when riding a bicycle at speed (assuming you were taught by your parents or learned on your own later). Also, unless I’m mistaken, MSF courses require you to already have a D-class drivers license, which is why they can get away with a modified (truncated) road test. So all the new riders SHOULD be able to navigate the road and know something about turing the handle-bars and then transitioning to countersteering at speed (although the speed at which that transition occurs is bike specific…so which bike you used in MSF didn’t matter). So why don’t we just give a motorcycle license to all the car drivers who know how to ride bicycles? We can test them on their own bicycles to save money, too!

    To answer Jensen, the most common reason for crashes is a single rider failing to navigate a turn. Whether that’s because they don’t know the rules of the road (shouldn’t be the case since they already have a license) or failure to properly countersteer, we can’t rule out that clutch/shift control do factor into that equation. In fact, the usual response of “I didn’t know how to countersteer” is in my opinion simply a bit of mis-reporting by the downed rider. They hear “did you countersteer?” and since they never formally heard the word or a decent description of it they say “THAT’S WHAT CAUSED IT!”, when in reality it usually ends up being due to panic leading to freezing (target fixation) and of course at that point you are no longer countersteering ENOUGH.

    If you want to remove clutch/shift control from the learning environment then I believe as stated above, you are doing a disservice because most riders don’t have a clutchless motorcycle as easily and cheaply available (consider what is widely available in the used motorcycle market) and this will attribute to that panic sensation in a turn. Also, at least in my experience and in my area of the northeast, when learning to drive a car there is an abundance of people who can help teach you. It’s even easier because they can sit with you. Even though automatic cars are the new norm in the US, there are still a large number of adults who know how to drive a manual car and can teach you but there aren’t as many people available to teach you to drive a [manual] motorcycle…hence why MSF is so needed in the first place. Failing to teach important skills in a safe environment is a mistake on the part of MSF. Perhaps a limited license should be considered…not to punish the riders, but to discourage the instructors from limiting the knowledge of the students.

  • The sustained steer torque required to maintain a particular steer angle increases with speed. As such, it isn’t logical to suggest that bicyclists (who obviously employ countersteering) are even aware of it because of the low speeds that most experience. It’s this that causes, I think, new motorcyclists to be caught out by a lack of experience in the absence of training.

    On a different note, something that ocurred to me is that ICE’s days are well and truly numbered. In an e-bike world, how many will have gearboxes to shift? If the TT Zero is any indicator, I’d say not many. I suspect that e-bikes and fuel cells are the way of the future.

  • Westward

    What is it about the clutch and shifting that baffles Americans so ?

    Maybe it’s just me, but for those out there following this discussion, one would come away feeling that American’s in general are lacking in mental capacity. I am guessing it has something to do with the educational system in the US..

    I don’t think Europeans or even Asian have this level of distain for their fellow citizens…

    Clutch and Shifting error are rarely if at all the cause of crashes. I will even go so far as to say, that maybe the overly focused attention to the subject is likely to prevent the rider from concentrating on the task of cornering to make a turn.

    There is a channel on youtube from a guy that video’s riders in California on a particular turn that seems to claim so many riders of various skill level. In most of the clips I observe of riders failing to negotiate the turn, one thing that stands out, is at the point of fail, they almost alway turn their handlebars inward. The exact opposite of counter-steering. Then there are those who simply mis-judge the apex and drift wide.

  • Damo

    “On a different note, something that ocurred to me is that ICE’s days are well and truly numbered.”

    I would bet my eyes that 25 years from now ICE powered lumps will still make up more than 50% of the bikes on the road. (I bet first generation CB750’s will still be running too for that matter, haha.)

  • Stew

    Most fatal motorcycle crashes are single vehicle. Reasons…too much speed, improper brake usage and too little thought. Most common location of fatal motorcycle crashes…corners. Statistical relevance of clutch operation in those crashes….nil.

    Many of us learned to ride (if you’re reading this, I’ll assumed you survived) on our own. Why couldn’t someone else, given some basic throttle, brake, counter-steering, mental strategy of survival training, do the same?

    Full Disclosure: I’m a RiderCoach Trainer/Chief Instructor and was Zero’s liasion with MSF and helped them to scope a pilot test that encouraged MSF to approve the XU.

  • protomech

    Just a thought.

    A group of people that already learned to ride on a clutch / transmission combination may not be the best group to determine the effects of making instruction available on a non-manual bike. If 10 experienced riders gripe for every single new person that learns to ride on a more approachable bike, that still grows the rider community by 10%. And that’s no bad thing.

    Beyond simple numerical growth, I suspect we’ll see entirely new social circles start to ride. Think about when you started to ride – chances are, you had a friend/family member or two (or three, or five) that were already riding. Lowering the threshold for people with a smaller or non-existent riding circle … makes new riding circles.

    42 miles at city speeds should be far more range than an all-day MSF course needs. Lower operating and maintenance costs will partly offset the increased cost of the bikes – $7700 vs $4000 for the Buell Blasts our MSF course used – and Zero could offer a lower price to MSF classes.

    Finally, automatic transmission vs manual transmission isn’t strictly an electric vs gas issue – you can buy an electric bike with a manual transmission (Brammo Empulse) or a gas bike with an automated transmission (Aprilia Mana, Honda NC700 and VFR1200, etc).

  • paulus

    Recruitment… we need new bikers to swell the ranks.
    This is a positive way to do that.

    Unfortunately, then allowing them access to machines that will be too powerful for them is a sure way to prematurely kill some of them.

  • Ryan

    Your apparently rhetorical question is akin to asking why europeans are clueless about guns. They just aren’t exposed at the same rate. That’s just how it is. As for the rest of your post, all I can reference is correlation and causation. Just because the shifting in itself may not cause an accident, you will never prove that lack of familiarity with the shifting process did not divide the riders attention to the point that the apex was missed or whatever else you are proposing.

  • Stew

    You’re correct about not being able to prove…the riders are dead. But the riders we’re talking about (those that I based my assumption on; 87% of WA riders died in corners 1996 to 2006) were “experienced” on conventional motorcycles, so it appears that shifting experience is so low on the factors list as to be a non-factor.

  • kert

    IMO the entire riding course over in US compared to pretty much any place in Europe is a joke anyway. I had to do it here after moving, after riding for about 8 years. I cant imagine anyone actually being ready to hit the highway or any real traffic after the courses being taken here. Shifting and clutch are not going to change it much.