Can a battery be beautiful? This is not a question that most car designers are asking themselves, because electrification means different things to different vehicles.
Sculpted, non-structural body panels as the defining design elements is relatively new to motorcycles. The motorcycle has spent most of its 150-year life as a naked machine, proudly showing off its internal plumbing, structures and propulsive components. The art of the motorcycle has always been principally about proportion, not lines, and the interplay of contrasting elements. Successful designs are those where individual mechanical or styling parts are beautiful in their functionality, but also work in unison with the whole.
As motorcycle design has evolved and the role of non-functional bodywork has increased, so too has the influence of automotive styling. Starting in the late 1980s, fully enclosed designs like the Honda CBR600 Hurricane and Ducati Paso suggested that the inner workings of the machine had no place in the future. But that trend didn’t last. Motorcyclists and the general public like to see the machine within, or at least something that looks like machinery.
With electric motorcycles, the challenge has become the battery. Fundamentally a box, an electric energy storage device is not typically something one considers attractive or emotional. A closely finned, air-cooled engine is universally appreciated for its delicate intricacy. The spaghetti windings of exhaust pipes or organic shapes of a fuel tank are obvious sources of styling flourish.
But how does one make a battery box attractive? Since the first mainstream mass-production electric motorcycles appeared ten years ago, two diverging design philosophies have emerged: boldly styling the battery or hiding it completely.
The vast majority of motorcycles in the world historically and today are mostly or completely naked (and yes, that is the term used by the industry). With combustion fuelled variants still completely dominant, engines, transmissions, frames and other mechanical parts are left exposed with only minor surface styling applied to them.
Most contemporary electric motorcycles, nearly all of them low-cost and low-power Chinese commuter models, are conventional designs with battery modules replacing the piston engine. As such these designs do little to batteries beyond applying some graphics or a plastic belly pan to break up their harsh boxiness. Some startups like Swedish boutique brand CAKE, celebrate the battery, leaving the modules as ungarnished boxes to compliment their rectilinear design.
But bespoke batteries have emerged that think outside the box. Zero Motorcycles, the largest exclusively electric motorcycle manufacturer from the US uses the battery casing as a standalone element. The SR/F battery is an aluminum casting that acts as part of the structure of the bike and a heat exchanger. Sculpted into its surfaces are stubby cooling fins and wide, machined webs that communicate strength. The module mates with a tubular spaceframe chassis that gives the whole vehicle a sense of lightness that belies the motorcycle’s substantial mass.
Similarly, the Harley-Davidson Livewire holds its battery up as a jewel. Like the Zero, it is a cast alloy housing, but Harley adds dozens of finely pitched horizontal cooling fins that run the length of the module. The scale and texture of those fins contrasts sharply with the chunky frame and muscular bodywork, making what is a large aluminum box feel like the lightest part of the motorcycle.
Energica, a boutique manufacturer of very high-performance electric sport motorcycles, takes a rational approach. On all models, the battery is partially covered with bodywork, but one can see it peeking through openings or through the negative space between body panels and the mechanical package. Like the others, their battery incorporates heat exchange devices in the casting, but Energica’s is the unstyled, a strictly functional component in the philosophy of combustion engine design.
Perhaps the most conceptual attempt to create a new design language for an electric motorcycle battery comes from BMW Motorrad with the Vision DC. Like the previous examples, the battery is an aluminum structural element with integrated heat management. Unlike anything seen before, however, the Vision DC imagines the battery as a series of vertical slabs with the fins exposed at the top where the fuel tank would be on a traditional motorcycle. It is a provocative inversion of typical motorcycle ideas regarding positive and negative space, but is still recognizable as a naked motorcycle.
If Harley-Davidson, Zero and the Vision DC celebrate the battery, then Kymco’s upcoming electric sportbikes are doing their best to hide it. The Revo NEX and Super NEX are mass market, mid-performance electric motorcycles aimed at mainstream customers who want the benefits of electrification, but accessible pricing and a mass-market brand experience.
Roughly analogous to Hyundai or Kia electric cars, the NEX family have up to date technology wrapped in contemporary styling that makes them almost indistinguishable from gasoline counterparts. The Revo NEX takes advantage of the packaging freedom that EV architecture provides, with novel body form explorations around the ‘tank’ area. The battery is completely obscured by a wide frame and body panels that integrate it into a pleasing overall shape reminiscent of contemporary automotive engine styling. Hoses, wires and secondary components are completely hidden from view. The Super NEX is a flowing, classically proportioned, full-body superbike design that reveals nothing of its internal composition. That it is powered by a battery is unknowable from its design.
Exotic electric motorcycles take hybrid approaches. The Damon Hypersport chooses to style the battery housing with textures and patterns that complement the overall design. Like Energica, it is mostly concealed, but partially visible through different layers of bodywork and around the frame.
Damon probably follows this philosophy for practical reasons, because the bike employs new semi-autonomous technology and variable geometry ergonomics that can transform the Hypersport from a track tool to a more relaxed sport-tourer. Those mechanisms and devices necessitate a large amount of wiring and electronics that can be difficult to integrate visually. Protecting them behind a large, uniform body solves that problem and reduces the design challenge of the battery.
Fitting a Round Peg into a Square Hole
Electric car concepts used to struggle with the question of whether or not to announce their alternative propulsion through styling. After a decade of volume market electric cars, it seems pretty clear that the world wants electric cars that look like cars. Motorcycles may end up following the same path but it is too soon to tell.
There are experiments, like Yamaha’s self-balancing electric Motoroid concept or the Curtiss Zeus cruiser, that take a fresh approach. The battery design of the Motoroid and Zeus are interesting because they break out of the box and present batteries in their more common cylindrical form. The Yamaha uses the battery modules as computer-controlled counterweights to balance the motorcycle at rest. The Zeus calls back air-cooled cylinders of traditional gasoline engines from the pre-war period.
The average motorcycle customer is likely to be put off by high concept, science fiction or steampunk concepts, which is why Yamaha unveiled the quite conventional-looking PES-1 as a hedge. Big brands understand that motorcyclists are inherently conservative and like their motorcycle to look familiar, which is a shame.
Electrification offers freedom of shape and proportion that has not been previously available. Designers should accept the challenge of making batteries into something more than a box, but less than a Hollywood movie prop.