Design Analysis: Brammo Empulse

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DA-Empulse-1.jpgWith the launch of the Empulse, Brammo may well have succeeded in
monopolizing the limelight for the 2011 model year. Since the collapse
of motorcycle sales started in 2009, the major OEMs have pretty much
eliminated new product releases (with a few notable exceptions).  With
the all-important Milan EICMA global trade show looming in November, and
slow signs of recovery on the horizon, the pent up expectations of a
public eager for new motorcycles is great. Now, a small player with
barely a couple years of production experience has debuted a credible
alternative to the mainstream that combines this desire for novelty with
the first electric production motorcycle that looks like a genuine
motorcycle. Here’s an in depth design analysis of the first motorcycle
created for the 21st century. >

The Good

Unlike many purported electric production bikes presented in the past 12 months, the Brammo Empulse is designed from scratch to fulfill its role as a battery-powered vehicle, sharing no common parts in its frame with a similar ICE powered machine.  However, unlike many of the more esoteric e-bike designs, the Empulse still carries within it the DNA and proportions of a classic naked roadster, and as such is instantly recognizable and easily digested.  

With so many designs appearing on the internet proclaiming to be “the future”, it is refreshing and exciting to see an electric motorcycle that finally gives bikers what we want: a visceral, raw and mechanical machine that hides little, uses the latest innovations, but is still a motorcycle.

DA-Empulse-2.jpgIt makes no attempt to hide its batteries like the KTM Freeride, or simply hangs them out in the wind like everything else including the 2010 MotoCzysz E1pc.  Rather, it boldly displays the new architecture of energy cells architecturally linked in series along its twin spar frame.  Each cell, while just a yellow box and lacking the visual interest of, say a deeply sculpted clutch basket, is highlighted by sharply cut metal cross braces.  The sheer functionalism of the whole mechanical (if that is the right word) package, with its folded black sheets, chrome hardware and clean wire management is reminiscent of a precision digital instrument, like a Cray supercomputer.  Even the heat sink that covers the controller is deeply finned in a whimsical wave, taking the familiar language of cylinder air cooling but rewriting it to match the digital age.

The Bad

The body design of the Empulse is where the masterclass narrative ends.  Unlike the engineered beauty of the naked machine, the plastics tell no consistent story, relating neither to the mechanical package nor Brammo, or finally to the human occupant.  

There is also no visual cue to link it to the first Brammo motorcycle, the Enertia.  Of course, most ardent bikers with agree that is a good thing.  The Enertia is almost an anti-motorcycle, devoutly flaunting its lack of normal wheel size, proportion or styling.  But the Enertia was first, not only the first bike manufactured by the Brammo brand, but the first modern, mass production electric motorcycle.  It is a missed opportunity to not have at least distilled one styling detail, however small or subtle, with the Empulse.  

The silhouette is strong, but not flattering.  The “tank” is crude and immature, from it’s overtly downcast angle and box construction, to the simplistic knee cut outs.  It screams home-made streetfighter, which although bold and aggressive, does not mirror the finesse present in the mechanicals.  In execution, it is more like a $5000 Moto-Hispania  MH-7 125 than a Ducati Streetfighter.

DA-Empulse-3.jpgA tank is the center piece of all motorcycle design.  It is visible in both plan and elevation, often both at the same time, from standing still and from the rider view.  The rider touches it constantly with the most sensitive and intimate parts of their body, using its surfaces to pressure and guide the motorcycle through turns and to balance.  Every part of a motorcycle’s style and shape converges at this central point, from every view. In the case of a naked roadster like this one, it also forms the largest styling component.  A bold tank need not be complicated, but it does need to communicate man-machine interaction, more than originality.  The total profile of the complete motorcycle delivers the unique brand message, the details should only reenforce them.  

The tail is original too, and apparently ergonomic.  Its general side view is like an XR750 dirt tracker, the most successful American racing motorcycle of all time, an excellent theme to start with.  But here too the design is short of convincing.  Compared to the short, vertically stacked, boxy tank, the tail looks like it came from a different bike.  The bid for originality in the back end disappears with the anonymous upside down half moon brake light seen on millions of machines since the first BMW F650 in 1993.

Finally, several of the details need further integration.  The knee pads are random enough that they appear to act like covers, as though hiding something.  Whether they are or not as important as why they look like flat plates in an area so critical to man-machine interaction.  They, like most of the plastics lack a strong 3 dimensionality, almost as though the whole machine was designed in strict side views or by a CAD jockey with limited time or resources.  

Although I am mildly flattered that Brammo chose the MT-03 headlight for this first prototype, I do hope that the final production unit carries with it some of the mechanical purity of the frame/battery/propulsion unit, perhaps using the triangular battery supports as inspiration for the headlight brackets.  

The Great

If it appears that I am overly critical, it should be noted that it is because the total effort the Empulse represents is so great, so unexpected and so far above the electric motorcycle pack that it really needs only another 10% to be considered on par with the major OEMs.  This little company has now demonstrated its ability to manufacture and survive.  If it can deliver the Empulse as promised, with some further refinement, then Brammo will have punched well and truly far above its weight.

DA-Empulse-4.jpgAt long last, an electric motorcycle design that is proud.  It does not hide behind plastic or excuse itself for being what it is.  It stands alone as the first honest attempt to create a new electric motorcycle design aesthetic, without resorting to cliches, looking like a plastic box full of Duracells or being so wildly weird that it won’t be accepted by that most notorious bunch of conservative tribes : motorcyclists.

Michael Uhlarik is the designer of the Yamaha MT-03 and 2003 Yamaha M1 and works as an industry consultant.

  • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

    Great review, as usual Mr. U. Re: the lack of styling elements coming from the Enertia – what about the diagonal frame itself?
    Oh, and this: “The rider touches it constantly with the most sensitive and intimate parts of their body, using its surfaces to pressure and guide the motorcycle through turns and to balance.”

    Sweet.

    • http://oilygauntlet.blogspot.com Hank

      Read: The rider doesn’t want to squash his or her nuts on something visually unappealing.

  • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D.

    Re: the black knee pads; some black hardware would be a simple way to make them look less like coverings!

  • Kidchampion

    You keep referring to the “tank”. What tank? This is just a visual reference to a tank.

    • Grant Ray

      I think it’s okay to assume we all know this to be obvious. The same goes for that shell form used on nearly every modern sportbike, which we all know is in reality a covering that both houses the airbox and usually the fuel-cell as well as filling duty as a user interface for controlled riding and feedback.

      He’s the using the word as the signifier and generalism that object/component/interface is most commonly referred to by the larger audience.

  • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

    I have suggested elsewhere that “tank” is outdated. Given the rider position on the Empulse, and continuing with the suggestive nature of the text, I propose we call it “the spoon.”

    • Grant Ray

      FTW

  • deckard

    Lose the tank already, it’s a paradigm shift, get on with it.

  • robotribe

    Styling-wise, there’s much about this bike that I find to be derivative, half-baked (that tail and plate hanger are prime examples) and plain “useless”: that rear hugger, while cool-looking in the Appleseed universe, would do more for the bike if it were facing towards the rear shock. The front cluster arrangement doesn’t look complete for a naked bike; older SVs, Monsters and Speed Triples have found a way to make this work and still look finished. In the case of the Empulse, the front looks like a faired-bike being torn down for a naked conversion. And while the where the writer sees design purpose in the battery cluster arrangement, I think a black or gray cover for those batteries would have gone a long way to please the motorcycle masses instead of it’s current state which makes it look like a kangaroo delivering packages for UPS.

    Still, NONE of these things stop me from wanting this bike. I’d hit it in a heartbeat.

  • JR

    I like the tank/not tank. It looks like a fine place to put my intimate parts.

    Let’s not kid ourselves and think that a single person that reads this article is going to be oh-so-confused when this guy references “the tank”

    • Kidchampion

      I do realize that everyone understands what he means by the “tank” but usually, even when it is not really a tank, it still where the gas nozzle is placed for refueling. This specific design is a postmodern reference to a tank – but it could have been something very different. The design criteria need only be: 1. accommodate the knees 2. keep the seat in the saddle 3. Buffer the nads.

      • Oleg

        Frankly no, because if you look at the rectangular shape of the battery pack it’s quite clear that a good chunk of it is housed under that “tank”. The rest serves as the point to lean up against and brace with your knees/things, and likely houses electronics. It quite clearly serves a purpose on this bike besides being an aesthetic throwback, which by the way is also important if you want to sell it to current generation of motorcyclists.

  • Sean Tempère

    Is this going to be USA-only?
    I’d very much like to ride this around here… (here beeing paris, france).

  • JR

    Of course, I just think it’s a bit silly that we’ll argue the name of the tank, when everyone clearly knows what is being referenced.

    Basically, I think that this tank is a fine way to accomodate the knees, keep the seat in the saddle, and buffer my nads. I personally like the way it looks too.

  • MTGR

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and yes some of the angles on the tank and tail might be a little off and the rear of the tank looks too square/chopped and the taillight is ugly. I agree the tail has element of the XR, but the prior Brammo also had a (very) few elements of dirt track, so maybe that is your coveted link. Personally I feel the fewer links with prior e-bike designs the better.

    Having said that, the tank (or whatever you want to call it) is not as wildly out of proportion as on the new Ducati Monster line and the angles in general are not ridiculous like on the new Ducati Streetfighter.

    Then again, I think most modern motorcycle designs are overdone, overcompensating, caricature of prior simple, elemental, and beautiful designs. And that includes many of the elements on the Mt-03 and M-1, neither of which were big hits as I understand it, sorry.

    Point is it is difficult to find a bike these days where they did not screw up at least one major portion of the styling and, for me anyway, this bike did not miss the mark nearly as badly as a lot of contemporary ICE designs, some from legendary designers.

    Change this proto too much based on outside opinions and you will end up with something as bland and lost as all the other mainstream machines out there now in which case you might as well have stuck with the plastic origami boxes all the other e-bikes are.

    • Kidchampion

      “Change this proto too much based on outside opinions and you will end up with something as bland and lost as all the other mainstream machines out there now”

      Or you wind up with the MadAss 125, as seen in the ad at the top of my screen.

    • http://www.amarokconsultants.com Michael Uhlarik

      You are 100% right, MTGR, the M1 was not a big sales hit, seeing as it was a factory MotoGP motorcycle available only to Max Biaggi and 3 other people worldwide for one year.

      Industrial Design is a profession with a rational process, not a pissing contest about what looks “good”. A designer must assume the role of an indicated target consumer, and think like them, often contradicting their own personal taste. The above is a non-personal judgment about the merits of a product design, from the point of view of Brammo as a brand, its perceived values and those of what I estimated to be their target audience.

      Subjectivity will always rule the roost in any discussion about states of attraction, but the successful professional designer learns to understand and appreciate tastes of the target, and uses their skill and experience to craft a well executed form of it.

      The difference between a designer’s opinion and that of anyone else is that they have climbed into the mind and skin of the end user, and are therefor representing them, not the company that hired them, the critics, nor even themselves.

      By the way, if you are attacking my credibility as a designer of commercially successful motorcycles, you ought to do some research first.

      The MT-03 was produced for 5 years (2 more than planned) in Italy and Brasil. The TZR50 was and has remained the best selling bike in its class since its debut in 2003. Then there are various Piaggio, BRP and other products …

      M

  • brettvegas

    The bike is a rehash of the isle-of-man bike from last year, ‘stock’ fairing torn off, and tank and tail slapped on. Michael spots the ‘mash-up’, having designed ground-up bikes.
    It is good that they exposed the batts, hiding all that shit is a huge mistake in design. Get grudging kudos from me.
    The price points for the bike is pure dreaming.
    This is just an attempt to get more investment $$$.
    Hype.
    The guys there work very hard, at least they are headed in sorta the right direction now.

    Still questionable that a market exists for a streetbike, the realities are harsh. Low volume in sales will be a truism, no matter who builds.

  • eric

    Michael, I really appreciated your critique of the bike, especially the point about how the battery brackets, etc. are articulated. I think your commentary about the ‘tank’ is a little harsh, but agree that the tailsection could be refined a bit. It seems a little large, and it’s lines don’t seem to follow those of the ‘tank’. In general, I think if Brian reduced the profile of the plastic below the seat (from a side view), and gave it a slight upward angle, similar to the upper edge of the black tank side panels, it would serve to tie these two elements together better. Still, this is a really impressive effort, and I really like the overall direction. As one of my architectural design professors used to say, “if it’s good enough to criticize, you’re on the right track.”

    • eric

      I meant to say “lower edge of the black tank side panels”, not upper edge.

  • http://www.twitter.com/distantbeats Tom

    The tank is more than a design cue, it’s really an integral part of riding a sport type motorcycle (i.e. non-sled style cruiser). Braking, turning, a place to put your chest while going fast. I wouldn’t buy a high performance e-bike if it didn’t have that feature. I guess it could be shaped another way to still perform those functions but look totally different…but I’d rather ride a new e-bike knowing already how to handle it like every other motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.

  • Chris

    “his or her nuts”- loved it. Works better than ovaries, I suppose

  • John

    Well, that’s all fine and good, but I’m FAR more worried about the flat seat, lack of passenger capability, ultra low bars that will put way too much weight on the wrists. Ergonomically, it’s a non-starter IMO.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/christophercullen/sets/72157622530167071/ CMC

      Per the original article, it doesn’t come with clip ons, but rather “regular” riser bars. Apologies if I’m not using the right terminology for the bars.

      Personally, I love it. More range (which will come in time with further development, I’m sure) and it would be about perfect.

    • baconpocket

      you’re clearly not the target consumer

  • chili sv

    All the critique seems valid, however I have to take issue with the assertion that the 2010 MotoCzysz E1pc “simply hangs [batteries] out in the wind,” which is a bit disingenuous. Those beautifully designed pieces are a feature of the design. They are integral to the function of the machine and the process of interacting with it. They are designed as they are to be easily replaced with fully charged units for track day duty. It would appear that they are more easily replaced than those of the Empulse. This is a clever solution and important function; one that was not addressed in Mr. Uhlarik’s Empulse review.

  • http://www.theebbtide.blogspot.com ebbTIDE

    The two design elements that I would reference from the Enertia with future products would be the more organic and stitched saddle (which looks inviting rather than threatening) and the more graceful lines of the non-tank that arcs back and down. Both elements were original and unique. That said, not sure either would fit well on what is clearly an effort to be a more aggressive tool. Would love to see the ABS knee pads on the side of the tank replaced with the sort of inset and textured rubber seen on bikes from the 1950s and 60s. http://www.jamb.ca/gallery/Antique/1967Honda305Dream )

  • K2theM

    I dig the naked vibe, but the top feels to jerky/weighty. For something so “minimalistic” it sure looks bulky from the side. It feels rather slow.

    All it really needs is adjusting. Slim the Tail down and kick it up a few degrees, add a front fly-screen of sorts and make the lines on the tank a bit softer.

  • baddad

    It looks like imitation of mainstream machines from past century not like 21st century e-bike.

    • sperglord

      That’s precisely why most of us like it.

      It looks like a motorcycle and not something one would piss over.

  • PJ

    holy ostentatious design critique

    • fazer6

      It’s not ostentatious if you have the credentials to back it up.

      Good critique, though I try as I might I can’t love the Duc Streetfighter–However I love the MT-03.

  • MTGR

    My previous rebutal seems to have been sensored so I will just say I am sorry if you took personal offense to my comments Michael.

    And speaking of accurate research, you misquoted me, I never said big “sales” hit, just big hit. I am aware the M-1 was MotoGp not a production machine, but it was still ugly in my opinion.

  • Ken

    Can’t help wondering if the cafe racer styling makes promises that the range – good but still pretty limited – can’t keep. The styling says country roads and dead insects on your visor, but I’d be nervous about taking her too far from a wall socket.

    I know that’s a miserably pragmatic proviso to put on such a great design effort, but will anyone feel confident enough to use this thing for what looks its natural calling? Or is what we have here in fact just a cool but slightly uncomfortable commuter?

  • Domenick

    Regarding the whole “what do we call a tank now” issue. Simple, it’s the pommel.

    http://www.equusite.com/articles/basics/basicsEnglishSaddle.shtml

  • ramto

    I think they should send home their designers. Missed opportunity to do something memorable and amazing