Fuel Efficient Motorcycles: Obstacles and Trends


Fuel efficient motorcycles are in great demand in the Asia-Pacific region. That part of the world is also the largest motorcycle market in the world with more than 70% of the global market. Motorcycle engine R&D is directly influenced by demand as well as sales and emission regulations in different parts of the world. If we can learn what’s happening in the Asia-Pacific motorcycle market today, it could help us figure out what the motorcycle market in the U.S. might look five to ten years from now. Fuel efficiency is a major driver for the global motorcycle engine management system market, according to Persistence Market Research, which provides market intelligence to transportation industries.

motorcycle fuel efficiency

North America and Europe are much smaller markets for motorcycles than Asia-Pacific, but the demand for advanced and energy-efficient motorcycles is also increasing in the western world.  Thus, the opportunity is there for engine management system suppliers as well as larger manufacturers in these regions to respond to a consumer demand for increased motorcycle fuel efficiency.

For example, India has a significant demand for motorcycles, and, combined with the need for economizing fuel in often high-density traffic, this region could be one of the most lucrative markets for engine management systems. Urban environments have a big effect on efficiency. First the rider puts energy into accelerating, then, when that energy is wasted in braking as kinetic energy is converted to heat by the brakes. (The exception to this equation is a hybrid/electric car with regenerative braking). The more starting and stopping, the lower the overall fuel economy.

The European and North American motorcycle market mainly consists of sport and touring bikes, each of which is high performing with advanced engine technology. The Asian motorcycle market mainly consist of two-wheelers with engine capacity less than 250 cc.

So What are the Hurdles to Improving Motorcycle Fuel Efficiency?

Jeromy Moore, Porsche racing engineer and former race engineer for V8 Supercar star Craig Lowndes, says it is difficult for motorcycles to match a car’s aerodynamics, because they are too short. “With aero, it will be hard to get a bike’s Cd down as it is quite short so the air has to deflect at larger angles to go around and rejoin,” he says. Moreover, why does a bike use more fuel? The engine simply isn’t as efficient at that load. According to Moore, cars are judged much more heavily on fuel consumption. “They aren’t trying to get 200hp per litre.”

The other hurdle is weight: the combined bike and rider’s weight is an important factor in racing. According to Moore, a 160 lb. driver represents just 8% of the combined racer/car weight. A similar motorcycle rider adds a massive 35% to the gross vehicle mass of a 500 lb. motorcycle. Weight has the biggest impact on fuel economy around town. “In terms of the effect of mass on fuel consumption it depends on the duty cycle,” Moore says. “That is, at constant speed on the highway more weight has an almost negligible effect due to an increase in rolling resistance of the tires.”

How to Begin the Process toward Greater Motorcycle Fuel-Efficiency

A major answer to better motorcycle fuel economy lies in forced induction in smaller capacity and, therefore, lighter engines. Other answers include reducing motorcycle weight with new materials.

One step toward greater motorcycle fuel efficiency is taking place through technology R&D. Companies are focusing on integration of smartphone mobile applications with engine management system to help track the real time performance of a vehicle. Also, aftermarket installation of engine management systems may contribute positively in the global motorcycle engine management system market.

The increase in demand for environment friendly electric bikes and scooters is putting traditional motorcycle engine manufacturers on alert. But, for the time being, most motorcycles around the world lean more towards performance than good old fuel efficiency.

Photo credit: Turismo Emilia Romagna via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

About the Author

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She’s an avid Formula One fan (this year’s trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+

  • trackdaze

    They have solved that for.the most part by including pedals.

  • Ned

    Electric motorcycles are a great reality for those riders who care about economy. Most rides are already short enough to do with ~100mi range. Those doing hundreds of miles per day are a very small demographic compared to total motorcycle owners, and wouldn’t buy a pansy electric bike anyway. Very few riders buy motorcycles for their practicality- a category that includes fuel economy. Most buy for performance and image. I don’t see fuel economy becoming a significant factor in riders’ purchasing decisions anytime soon.

    • Steve Hanley

      Your comments are accurate if you are speaking about the US market, but not with regard to other parts of the world. European cities are crammed full of small motorcycles and scooters. In Asia and India, you can’t turn around without bumping into one.

      As the story says, 70% of the world market is in Asia-Pacifica, where initial cost and fuel economy are the two most critical factors in any buying decision.

      • Michels

        Cheap electric mopeds could take over the moped market in the U.S. because no one wants to deal with a moped that doesn’t start. And a moped that gets driven twice a month and stored during the winter is going to run into fuel/ starting problems.

      • Ned

        That is true, I had not thought about the international market. China already is showing us what a electric scooter-dominated landscape looks like. I think your point is definitely true of mopeds and scooters, but I think we’ll still see performance and image dominate in full-size motorcycles.

      • DHZ

        I sell and make bikes in the Asia area and in Europe in the higher end market under the ZEV Electric brand. The big hordes of bike that you see are in the very small displacement class where if the speeds are kept low (15.5 mph in India, China for example) there is no registration, tags, license, and the cost is low. Rough market selling bikes at $500 each. (But where in the USA a dealer wants a 25-30% cut of the sale, gets about 12-15% generally, a dealer in India gets a flat $15.) The density of the Asian city and traffic means you cannot go fast anyhow. Further, in the Asian City the stream of bikes that you see all day are a high percentage of delivery bike. As to the hordes in Europe – Where the % of the population that drives cycles in the USA has hovered around 3% for years, its about 10% in Europe, so not really that huge. The fact that the land mass of Europe per population is smaller makes the visuals of a lot of bikes is deceptive as to total numbers. Having over 9000 registered cycle delivery couriers registered in Paris and 12,000 in London certainly contributes to that visual as a lot of bikes are in constant motion all day rather than just driven to a destination and parked. Very deceptive.

  • DHZ

    Aero as noted by others is a big factor. Buyers can gain big by simply buying bikes with fairings. I was surprised a few years ago when I ran tests between two identical power train ZEV Electric bikes, one with a full fairing, one naked. The naked bike on average suffered 15% more “fuel” consumption.

    Because of the high power of many cycles, they have to run large radiator systems, which radically effects the aero drag. On airplanes, cooling drag for the engine is generally considered at 25-50% of the total drag. Any most aircraft have cowl flaps to reduce the cooling drag when not at high power settings. Cycles do not. At the top speed shootouts like the Ohio Mile, you will see gas bikes with the air inlets to the engines blocked off so they just reach the temp limits at the end of the run for big speed gains. The racers rule of thumb is that to go twice as fast you need to cube the hp because of the aero. So those air blocks are extremely effective. Some cars now have a shutter that closes when the engine is running cool and blocks the air to the minimum going through the engine bay. On the electric bikes we close up the body as tight as possible to try to eliminate any air going through the bikes for the same reason. I think when fuel efficiency gets to be a critical issue to a cycle buyer, we will see more faired bike, and some sort of air control. But I am surprised that there are no aero controls on the race bikes just yet. But maybe rules prevent it.