The apparent reluctance of the major motorcycle manufacturers to risk their existing markets by innovating is hurting their sales – Japanese motorcycle production was down by 44.1% in May compared to last year – and has opened the way for small, innovative manufacturers, using components readily available from China and elsewhere, to capture market share.

In the United States, the Zero X Electric Motorcycle has been in production since April. An entirely new design, its 300-plus component parts were engineered from the ground up, sourced from manufacturers around the world and assembled in the Santa Cruz in Northern California.

Zero X

Zero X

Zero is already setting up a second production line to meet demand and expects to sell about 500 motorcycles next year.

Zero bikes, which currently cost $US7,450, are available only over the Internet. Buyers e-mail an area sales representative, who will bring a bike to their homes for a personal test ride. If they decide to buy, the sale is completed online and the bike shipped via United Parcel Service.

The Zero X is intended for off-road use. It can travel about 65 kilometres on a single charge and fully recharge in two hours – or the battery pack can be swapped in 30 seconds. It can accelerate from 0 to 50 kilometres per hour in 2 seconds.

Zero plans to introduce a street bike, with a larger battery pack that will last for over 100 kilometres and produce a top speed of 100 kilometres per hour, in January. A sports bike should be ready in 2010.

In Thailand, a new manufacturer, Toyotron already has three electric motorcycles in its range and plans to add two more in the very near future.

The top-of-the-range Toyotron Hunter is selling in Thailand for THB 59,000 (about $1,800) and can run for around 70 kilometres on a single charge from a standard power outlet. The Hunter has a top speed of around 70 kmh.

The bike has a practical design which might make it a lot more popular with Asian customers than the polished and stylish Japanese designs which currently prevail. For example, the passenger seat flips upwards to offer the rider a comfortable seat back at the same time as revealing a wide and practical luggage area.