Big news in the recreational and utility vehicle world today as snowmobile, side-by-side and Slingshot maker Polaris has inked a 10-year partnership with the Zero Motorcycles, a worldwide leader in electric motorcycle design and production.
To be clear, Polaris is not going to start selling Zero motorcycles at Polaris dealerships. The partnership will initially be focused on bringing electrification to other products in the Polaris lineup, including their market-leading side-by-side four-wheelers and, yes, snowmobiles. But never say never.
Electric vehicles are not new to Minnesota-based Polaris. A decade ago, Polaris invested in the upstart Oregon company Brammo as they tried to achieve the ambitious goal of bringing a full-blooded, full-size and feature-packed EV to market: the Empulse electric motorcycle. At the time, Polaris already offered an EV entry in the utility category with their electric Ranger side-by-side four-wheeler. The model costs $11,899, makes 30 horsepower and remains in the lineup.
But in the end, the Empulse did not sell well enough to make continued production financially feasible, and Polaris absorbed Brammo’s motorcycle division (it became the Victory Empulse for a short time) while the rest of the company’s battery tech and IP was eventually bought by Cummins. Polaris is also the parent company of the popular Indian Motorcycle brand and the now defunct Victory Motorcycles, which Polaris folded up in 2017 due to poor market performance.
But 2011 may as well be 1911 when it comes to the pace of change in the electric vehicle market. Today, Zero’s electric motorcycles, including the new SR/S and the DSR Black Forest, are at the leading edge of motorcycle battery and electric powertrain development – and they’re selling well. And while Zero continues to develop and sell its electric motorcycles under the Zero banner during the collaboration, they’ll also have the resources, R&D and engineering talent of a nearly $6 billion dollar company at their back. It’s a huge win for Zero as the electric motorcycle space begins to heat up.
Forbes.com com talked with CEOs from both Polaris and Zero about the new cooperative effort, which has already resulted in a prototype vehicle, codenamed ZZ Top (no joke). Neither CEO would say what kind of vehicle is being tested.
Scott Wine, CEO of Polaris, said the early stage focus of the partnership will be on battery technologies and drivetrain development for future Polaris products, with the first product – unnamed so far – coming next year. As mentioned, future electric products will include snowmobiles, and the offroad powersports electrification project is going by the “rEV’d up” moniker.
Wine also said that during a recent outing on some snow machines, he was asked several times by riders if Polaris is planning to develop electric snowmobiles, and Wine confirmed to Forbes.om that they are indeed planning to produce them, but everything is in the planning stages so no specific details are available just yet. “Zero Motorcycles’ pioneering electrification experience, proven leadership and mastery of the electric powertrain for powersports are unmatched in the market. We believe this transformative partnership will enable us to leapfrog technological hurdles around range and cost while providing a tremendous speed-to-market advantage – an instant offense,” Wine said in a press release.
Why electric snowmobiles? Wine told Forbes.com that the primary complaint against current gas-powered machines is the noise level. All of Polaris’ snowmobiles are powered by two-stroke gasoline engines, which any motorcyclist (and snowmobile rider) knows make tremendous power per cubic centimeter as well as being relatively lightweight, but they are noisy under throttle and have a high level of emissions. For some owners, the noise is part of the appeal, but Wine said many rider he talked with were looking for a more serene experience. He also said that for more industrial users (for example, ski resorts), an electric snowmobile that mostly makes a lot of short trips is a perfect fit, both in terms of performance and operating costs. Like electric cars, an electric snowmobile will be a much simplified machine compared to a gas-powered sled, and much quieter if not near-silent. Maintenance costs and fuel/electricity costs should be much lower as well. For those who take longer backcountry journeys by snowmobile where an electric version might run into issues with recharging, Wine said gas-powered snowmobiles will continue to be available for years to come. But clearly, the tide is beginning to turn.
For the side-by-side segment, Wine said many of the same positives of electrical power come into play, especially for vehicles being put to work on farms or in other short-hop commercial applications where they can easily charge on site. Wine said current side-by-side customers have been asking for electric versions due to their lower operating costs and quiet operation. Indeed, Wine mentioned the noise issue several times, and with electric powertrains also offering overall improvements in power output and performance, Wine said Polaris believes there will be strong demand for electric versions of many of the gas-powered products they now sell. “This is not a trial or a test,” Wine said of Polaris’ commitment to electrification. “This is about taking a bold step to do big things,” said Wine. At the outset, the EV versions of products will join their gas-burning counterparts so consumers have their choice of motorvation. According to a press release, Polaris is hoping to have their first Zero-influenced machine for sale late in 2021 and a slate of offerings available by 2025.
The partnership is just that, of course. Wine said that Polaris will be invaluable to Zero in improving their manufacturing system and other aspects of production. Does that include possibly applying some engineering muscle to the motorcycle lineup? “They’re our partner. If we can see a way to help Zero streamline production and lower costs, of course we will help,” Wine said. Will we see Zero motorcycles for sale in Polaris showrooms? For now, Wine said no. In the future? Wine said he would not rule it out, but for now, only Zero and their dealers will sell Zero electric motorcycles and Polaris will stick with promoting their own products and supporting their distribution matrix. But down the road? Wine said that if at some point it makes sense, then the idea may come under consideration. But with the ink still wet on a 10-year partnership, the focus for now is on EV development and leveraging the strengths at both companies.
Meanwhile, the Polaris/Zero partnership is certainly great news for Zero Motorcycles, which has grown steadily over the last 14 years. CEO Sam Paschel is excited for the future. “I see this as an accelerant,” Paschel told Forbes.com ahead of the official announcement. In terms of development and scaling Zero up, “we get there faster,” he said. But Paschel reiterated that at present, the deal has no direct bearing on the motorcycle side of Zero’s overall business. “There’s really no effect to our existing motorcycle business.”
But over the decade plus since Zero began making bikes, they’ve also developed a growing expertise in an important niche: electric powertrain development. And it’s there that the Polaris partnership will have the most impact, Paschel said. Currently, Zero provides powertrain components for a growing list of companies, including some that motorheads are familiar with like Vanderhall, kart maker Birel, and for some of the wild machines over at Qooder Vehicles (below). With the Polaris partnership, that list will certainly grow, which will then likely improve funding as well as R&D muscle for future Zero motorcycles. Paschel said that currently, the powertrain part of Zero’s business makes up about 10 percent of the company, but he said with Polaris’ backing, staffing and investment will be ramped up.
Paschel said Zero’s ties with Polaris go back from before he became CEO in early 2017, but it wasn’t until this past January that things began to get a bit more serious. Polaris CEO Scott Wine said they talked to several companies along with Zero before deciding the motorcycle maker had what it took to help bring Polaris into the electric future.
Paschel told Forbes.com that before the official agreement was put in place, some proof-concept-vehicles were constructed and driven, but what really stood out was how well the teams at the two companies worked together. “We recognized right away that there were very similar and very engaged cultures that melded very well,” Paschel said.
But when it came down to the issue of Zero Motorcycles appearing in Polaris showrooms, Paschel said that was a step he did not want to take after years of building relationships with Zero’s current dealership network. Also, with Polaris operating at such a large scale and not selling electric motorcycles (at least, not anymore), Paschel said that aspect didn’t seem like a great fit, a sentiment echoed by Wine. Paschel called Zero a “strategic technology partner to [Polaris],” and in terms of suddenly switching up their dealership network, said “we don’t need to go a fundamentally different thing on the product distribution side.”
But what about down the road? “I’m not dogmatic,” Paschel said. “What we’re focused on now is this announcement, this category of [off-road] products and bringing them to market as quickly as possible. If this partnership proves to be all the things I hope it can be, if there are synergies and amazing dealers in areas we could be selling Zero motorcycles, and doing that not at the expense of existing dealers, I am wide open to every place where there is a complementary relationship between Zero and Polaris that we can use to serve our consumers in a better way and bring amazing products to market. But right now are laser-focused on what’s in front of us, which is the development project to bring the first [electric] product to market” for Polaris.
Paschel said he’s familiar with the ZZ Top dev machine and has spent a bit of seat time on board, but he and Wine are hoping to get together soon and put the project machines through their paces at a secret location. “It’s one of those things where you think ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this,’” he said. “It’s an incredibly exciting time for us.”
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