BMW this week unveiled a concept electric motorcycle that it says is designed to capture the spirit of its iconic boxer twin engine configuration, while somehow not being that at all. To showcase this magical powerplant, the German manufacturer has chosen to create what appears to be one of the most sadistically uncomfortable motorcycles in riding history.
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The BMW Motorrad Vision DC Roadster has been designed to “retain the identity and iconic appearance of BMW Motorrad in distinctive form while at the same time presenting an exciting new type of riding pleasure,” said Edgar Heinrich, head of design BMW Motorrad.
The concept shows up less than a fortnight after Ireland announced plans to ban the sale of new unleaded- or diesel-fuelled vehicles by 2030. That puts the European country toward the front of dramatic emissions regulations set to be enacted within my own riding/driving lifetime. Norway is planning to enact a similar ban in 2025 – the same year in which Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City are set to issue an all-out ban on diesel-fuelled vehicles. A ban on the sale of new internal combustion engines is being promised for the whole of France in 2040, with the same thing promised for the United Kingdom in 2050. Germany has not announced concrete plans but Chancellor Angela Merkel has said in the past that Norway, Ireland, France, et. al. are taking “the right approach.”
Add in the Ultra Low Emission Zones enacted a few months ago in London (and similar zones in a number of cities around the world) and it’s clear that all vehicle manufacturers need to be focusing intently on the development of electric motorcycles. For many motorcycle manufacturers, the process from concept to delivery can take seven years. If you’re planning to sell bikes in Norway that means you’re already behind the curve.
So it is absolutely right that BMW should be developing a bike like the Vision DC Roadster. You will find no discussion of the relevance of electric motos here. I have long been a proponent. What baffles me is that BMW’s designers are still locked in the old-school “It’s From The Future!” mindset of making bikes that look strangely cool but that are lightyears away from being the sort of thing anyone would actually want to ride.
I mean, look at this thing. It appears to be the motorcycling equivalent of Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes, with the rider squatting high off the back, reaching for bars that are receding away from him.
That said, I’m not necessarily taking issue with BMW’s basic premise here. Jensen Beeler of Asphalt and Rubber feels that the German manufacturer’s attempt to incorporate its classic boxer design/spirit into an electric vehicle is “a design without any purpose other than to worship at the altar for BMW’s greatest sacred cow.” Maybe, but consider the fact that one of the biggest challenges for an electric motorcycle is the size of the battery. An electric motor is relatively small. By comparison, a battery takes up a colossal amount of space – especially if you want to have any hope of meeting modern riders’ expectations. BMW effectively frees up some of that space by moving the battery’s cooling elements out to where a boxer engine’s cylinders would be sticking out.
Think about what BMW’s doing here and it makes some sense. Boxer engines have been used in BMW motorcycles for almost a century; if riders have grown comfortable with their unique configuration – used to having cumbersome sticky-out bits – why not use that to your advantage?
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Obviously, though, aesthetics isn’t really the reason riders over the years have been so in love with the boxer. It’s the engine’s unique character that makes people (myself included) swoon. To that end, I suspect electric bikes will present a real challenge for all motorcycle manufacturers because the nature of electric motors make it difficult to be distinct. You can tweak how quickly/aggressively power is delivered but – to my knowledge – there’s not much you can do to alter the character of an electric motor.
I personally enjoy an electric motor. Torquey and smooth, the experience has a real purity to it. But the sameness of electric motors means that the difference between a Zero SR/F and a Harley-Davidson Livewire is largely aesthetic*.
So, perhaps that is really at the heart of BMW’s nuevo-hipster/Judge Dredd look for the Vision DC Roadster: the German company wants to make a bike that looks different, aware that its motor’s character won’t be.
“The low front section and the short, high rear convey a sense of agility,” claims a BMW Motorrad media release.
To me it conveys extreme discomfort.
“Elements such as the seat and the cooling system appear to hover around the battery,” continues the release. “On the frame itself, lengthwise milled grooves create a fascinating visual effect, reducing the perceived volume and highlighting the bike’s longitudinal dynamics. This impression is further underscored by means of openings in the milled aluminum frame and the tubular frame structure arranged above it. High-tech materials such as carbon fibre and aluminum reduce the overall weight and give the BMW Motorrad Vision DC Roadster a technical aesthetic.”
Wait. Aluminum is a high-tech material?
But the real question is: where does this all go? BMW already has an electric vehicle in production – the frequently overlooked C Evolution scooter – so it’s arguably several steps ahead of every other “traditional” motorcycle manufacturer. In theory, it could deliver an electric bike very quickly. So, perhaps this concept is less an intended direction, as we usually assume concepts to be, and more a case of fishing around trying to figure out what sort of electric motorcycle people want from BMW.
For my part, it’s not this thing. Maybe make a bike that looks enjoyable to ride. Keep the shaft drive, though; chains can be a real pain in the ass.
* I’m guessing that as we move more firmly into the electric future, manufacturers like Triumph will want to argue that chassis and suspension play a big role in defining a bike’s character. The British company hasn’t even developed an electric bike yet and already it’s adopting the argument that these aspects will set its electric motos apart from contenders.