Building green motorcycles

November 1, 2012 by Daniel McGlynn
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Fall 2012

Most of the things motorcycle makers call character, like throaty pipes, are really just covering up byproducts of internal combustion—and masking energy lost during power production. In contrast, electric motorcycles are stealthy and quiet, a trait not lost on riders.

Abe Askenazi with motorcycleAbe Askenazi, head of engineering at Zero Motorcycles. (Photo courtesy Zero Motorcycles)“If you get on these electric motorcycles the first thing you notice is a magic carpet ride feel,” says Abe Askenazi, B.S.’92, M.S.’94 ME. “It’s almost like flying. You don’t hear all of the drama of power production, you are just doing it.”

As a student at Berkeley, Askenazi started in electrical engineering but missed the constant tinkering with machines that defined his childhood. So he switched to mechanical engineering, bought a Harley and started studying with professor Albert Pisano. For his master’s thesis, he created a new mathematical model for single-track vehicle dynamics.

After working for 15 years with Buell Motorcycle Company in Wisconsin, Askenazi got a call from a start-up back in California that wanted to build electric motorcycles.

“It seemed like a good fit,” says Askenazi, now head of engineering at Zero Motorcycles in Santa Cruz. “Even during my time at Berkeley, another side passion of mine was environmentalism.” Currently electric motorcycles reduce overall emissions by 90 percent. That number will likely improve. “As the grid gets cleaner, electric vehicle emissions will get cleaner,” Askenazi says.