What the BPG Uno means for motorcycles

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If you read about gadgets or technology, you’ve undoubtedly seen plenty of coverage of the BPG Motors Uno III over the last two weeks or so. Its makers were present at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the press in attendance went gaga for a product that wasn’t yet another iPad rip off. In its short history, the Uno has garnered a huge amount of attention, even appearing, in a previous iteration, on the cover of Popular Science and on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That’s a lot more coverage than any single motorcycle has received recently, which is indicative of a huge problem facing motorcycling in America.

I’m actually talking a lot about Jay Leno this week. After placing 2nd and 3rd in races against ICE motorcycles last weekend, Chip Yates decided he wanted to make an appearance on The Tonight Show and, because I like helping, I’ve been trying to make that happen. As part of that, I reached out to a major motorcycle OEM who’s thrown parties at Jay’s garage looking for a good contact. In response, I was told, “when we tried to get [famous racer’s name redacted] and [other famous racer’s name redacted] on the show Jay said that while he really loves bikes, his audience is too broad and does not care all that much.”

And yet a silly folding unicycle that sets out to provide half the utility of a normal scooter made it on the show.

Last spring, I took on another little project trying to find a mainstream media home for another ridiculously awesome electric motorcycle, the 2010 MotoCzysz E1pc. Wired shot it down completely, as did Popular Mechanics. Popular Science picked it up, but only originally for their website, eventually giving it a spread in the print product after they’d realized how awesome it was. But two pages in the front of the book does not equal a cover.

Not only did a device which sets out to provide half the utility of a scooter through ridiculous over complication make the cover of PopSci, it became one of that magazine’s top ten inventions of the year. Which version of the future would you rather come true? MotoCzysz’s or BPG’s?

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So what is this thing? It’s an electric scooter that folds into a unicycle for very low-speed maneuverability and easy storage. Gyroscopes help it balance Segway-like while it’s on one wheel. This video explains the concept better than I can. It can do about 35mph and looks a lot like a Gilera DNA when its front wheel is extended. The guy that came up with all this, Ben Gulak, says he sees electric motorcycles and scooters as an ideal transportation solution for crowded cities, “if they were cool.” Which is sort of his mission, to make an electric scooter that actually appeals to a mainstream audience. It’s worked, now he just needs to figure out production.

If you’re anything like me, a motorcyclist, you can probably identify more problems in the Uno’s design than their are solutions. While the ability to go unicycle for storage or for placing in an elevator (What building’s going to allow that? Most in NY get bitchy about bicycles), the ridiculous level of added complication needed to facilitate the transformation adds potential failure points, weight and expense. Weight and complication are the enemies of two-wheeled transportation, the main advantages of which are the simplicity and light weight. Expense is the enemy of everyone.

There’s no unprecedented electric powertrain innovations here, so that added weight and the need to power the transformation will sacrifice range and performance in comparison to any basic two-wheeler wearing the same capacity in batteries. The extra suspension components, the extra wheel, the gyroscopes, the extra computer power, that’s all going to add production cost and purchasing price. Sure, operating an electric saves money versus gas, but operating a normal electric scooter will save money over the Uno. It also does without other scooter advantages like the sit-up-and-beg riding position that’s friendly for carrying packages, for riders of all shapes and sizes, for carrying a passenger and for a variety of clothing. You couldn’t ride the Uno in a skirt, which as anyone who’s visited Italy knows, is a damn shame. No underseat storage either, where would Audrey Hepburn keep her purse and shopping?

But the purpose of this article isn’t to hate on some guy’s big idea. Good on him for having an idea, sticking with it, raising investment and moving towards making this a real product. We hope he experiences great success. No, the purpose of this article is to point out what it means for motorcycles. What it means is that motorcycles and scooters have been totally marginalized in mainstream American culture. Chip Yates’ garage project might kick gasoline-powered superbike ass, the MotoCzysz might point out the future of two-wheeled electric products, but nobody cares. Jay Leno was right, no one gives two shits about Valentino Rossi except for a bunch of misanthropic gearheads like you and me.

Whether its the pussyfication of America that’s suddenly got everyone fearing for their lives the second they step outside, whether it’s the departure between the kind of products offered by the motorcycle industry and the needs of most people, whether its the motorcycle industry’s fervent belief that the earth is flat and roughly Orange County, California-shaped, whether it’s the ridiculous caricature motorcyclists are presented as during their infrequent appearances in the outside world, whether its simply an epochal shift in American society, we’ve got a problem. Motorcycles are no longer relevant to Joe and Sally Average.

How do we fix that? I’m not sure, but we’re going to keep trying.

  • Deltablues

    Wes,

    Motorcycles require skill to ride. Motorcycles require the riders to be exposed to the elements. Few people these days are going to give up a 2-ton cocoon for the thrill of riding a motorcycle. That is just the way things are now. This isn’t like the late 1960′s or early 1970′s when my Dad was riding. He had a Honda CB360 and used to take me for rides whenever he could after work. Now, these days, a ’360′ anything would be laughed at, but back then the attitude towards motorcycles was very different than now. In fact, almost all my friends had Honda or Yamaha trail bikes. My favorite memories were of riding with my friend on his two-stroke Yamaha on the dirt roads around our small town.

    Motorcycling is not going to die…not even in America where it seems motorcycling is viewed purely as a recreational activity. But motorcycling is shrinking. I would like to think the core riders are hanging on and going to be able to pass the love for two wheels to the future.

    And if you ride a Triumph, like I do, then you really get a sense of just how out of touch most average Americans are with motorcycling. Living here in the Ouachitas in Arkansas provides me an opportunity at almost every gas stop to answer the same old question…”Is that a Triumph? I didn’t know they still made motorcycles.” Oh, and I also get asked a lot if my 675 SE is “air cooled”. Then you know what is sad, those old codgers will go into long wistful tails about the beautiful Bonnies and Tridents they all owned and raced.

    • Jeremy

      Well said, I ride a speed triple in Louisiana. I get about as many stupid comments as i get strange looks riding on it.

  • Ceolwulf
    • Core

      Just want to say FREAKING THANKS FOR posting that link.

      Really appreciate it. (:

  • Gregory

    Motorcycles need to be more practical and more convenient. My KLR requires gear (leathers, armoured jacket, full-face helmet) ’cause I travel at highway speeds down I-5. I’m amongst modern-day 4-wheeled vehicles (and 18-wheeled vehicles) that can smush me. The gear requirement makes motorcycles somewhat less convenient. Now, a Honda SH150i with a yarmulke-sized helmet is much more convenient, much more practical. It’s useable to go to the market or to work. However, wouldn’t want to go at highway speeds amongst 4-/ 18-wheeled vehicles. So it’s infrastructure. Interstates require a motorcycle rider to gear-up: against the elements, against the dangers. Smaller city streets alone, and I’m happy on my Hyosung or Honda or Vespa. In sum: I blame the Interstate system. Hollywood, too.

    -gceaves
    Portland, OR
    KLR 650 with milkcrate

    • ursus

      Hi Gregory,
      Also in Portland, DR650, getting wet in the winter, Pelican topcase but no milkcrate.

    • Tony

      Very true. I had my little 49cc moped with a milk crate and it handled getting around PDX just fine (except for the hills). The milk crate held my fuel reserve and bag. As long as I could carry my laptop comfortably and keep moving, I was happy.

  • CG

    First, this is why I paid the big bucks for a year subscription to this site. Second, luckily for all of us, fashion changes. Listening to my 25 year old daughter bemoaning that the wife finally got rid of her ’70s era Urban Cowboy boots instead of keeping them around for eternity is a “just goes to show” type moment. Somewhere past the greatest generation, baby boomers, the X to Z’ers will come a generation that might once again become enthralled to the delights of the motorways. With a little luck the industry will not have been MBA’d to death by then. Cross fingers.

  • jonoabq

    It seems that it’s somewhat problematic for companies to market a motorcycle as “practical”. What you are left with are the tails of the bell curve, cutting edge race bred liter bikes and some goofy engineering oddity. While I sometimes like the engineering exercises I don’t ever see any in the parking lot at work. (I do see a few KLR’s with milk crates though)

  • Kyle

    I’m glad that motorcycle companies are targeting youths with smaller displacement bikes but the other side of that is you have more inexperienced kids riding bikes if a few of them get hurt it only takes one activist group of angry parents to take a shit on the image of motorcycling (something that lasts a long time) because some dumb ass was messing around and decided the use of his legs wasn’t important.

  • http://www.ninja250blog.com R.Sallee

    “How do we fix that? I’m not sure, but we’re going to keep trying.”

    What’s the ideal end? Honda makes more accessible bikes, Harley gives up cruisers, motorcycling becomes blissfully mainstream…and what? Motorcycle fatalities go up, government interest in regulating the industry skyrockets, motorcycles all ship with seatbelts and air bags, Triumph start making scooters, motorcycles no longer impress chicks, helmets grow cup holders, lane splitters clog the white line, DCTs replace clutch levers, Jack in the Box antenna/turn stalk balls, infotainment systems replace lap timers…

    Clearly I’m being pessimistic. But do you think the auto industry as we know it is more interesting than a theoretical auto industry that exists only for enthusiasts?

    • Steve

      Triumph did make a scooter…

    • seanslides

      I’m not sure where you are, but if motorcycle impress chicks, I think I wanna go there.

      • Mr.Paynter

        Agreed, girls here are anti-two wheels!

        • seanslides

          It seems that the general consensus among women is that motorcycles are cold, dirty and dangerous, those being unattractive qualities…

          • Ian

            When I first read that, I thought you were describing the women…

  • http://plugbike.com/ skadamo

    I’m sure there are a lot of cool and useful new electronics in the BPG. There, I found something nice to say about it. When I saw you covered it I got scared I might have to find another planet to be from. Planet HFL is safe!

    Great post. That is cool you tried to help out Chip.

    Maybe Specialized Bicycles has part of the answer. A common story for motorcyclists is “I used to pretend my BMX bike was a motorcycle”. I see a lot of racers on Spe these days. They started concentrating on the youth market recently. http://creativextreme.com/?p=446 Unfortunately it will take a decade to find out.

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

    “How do we fix that?” Here’s my take; tell your friends. Tell your co-workers. Tell them how awesome it is motorcycling. Tell them you buy 4 gallons of gas every two weeks. Tell them how tightly a girl you just met the other night will hold onto you when you pick her up for brunch in the morning. Tell them how it satisfies every adolescent dream of going fast. Tell them how you had to spend four hours pulling the carburettor, and another 3 to reinstall it, but how much better you felt about yourself for being able to fix something without throwing money at them.

    Tell them why you ride a bike in the first place.

    • Mattro

      A+

      doesn’t generally work, but keep doing it.

    • Deltablues

      I am a nurse and one of our APN’s was talking to me the other day about her husband and the motorcycle she bought him that he no longer rides. She is genuinely upset he does not ride it. She WANTS him to ride. I think a lot more women than we realize understand the primal sexy nature of motorcycles.

      • Gregory

        I don’t think anyone finds my reflective vest sexy.

        But I do see a lot of “accent motorcycles” in the advertisements in Women’s Health, Men’s Health, GQ, Oxygen, et cetera. It’s as if the “image” of a motorcycle, accenting a model’s watch, for instance, is worth more than the “real” motorcycle (cold, wet, muddy, loud, dangerous, et cetera).

        -gceaves
        Portland, OR
        KLR 650

  • http://twowheelsplus.blogspot.com/ andehans

    Isn’t part of the problem media’s urge to push something that’s clearly new instead of something evolutionary? Also I guess the public want’s something that’s communicating new and different. Take the Prius. No better (well actually worse) fuel consumption than a BMW 320d, but it communicates some kind of easily digested goodness to the public. Then again, I don’t really understand why Wired wouldn’t be interested in MotoCzysz. They have featured quite a few articles about electrical cars, and most recently Tesla. Maybe its because is a lot of these companies have their roots in Silicon Valley and the tech industry and not the traditional motor industry?

  • seanslides

    How do we fix motorcycling? As a motorcyclist, I’d start by riding whenever possible. In the rain, in the cold, to the store to get groceries, all of it. Then, hassle your friends when they park the bike for 6 days a week, only to take it out on sunday like some sort of plaything. There are plenty of things that will help, but I think those two are a good start.

    As for the Uno, it looks like the kind of thing someone in florida would build for Super Streetbike magazine. Those investors must have either lost a bet, or they’re just bored and figured they can afford to lose a few hundred grand each. I’m sure there’s some interesting tech in there, but no matter how many bells and whistles you have, it’ll never be anywhere near as controllable as a regular old motorcycle.

  • Simon

    I agree with the sentiment that articles like this are why we pay the subscription. I also see the above BPG as an oddity that solves no existing problem. I live in a congested city in Europe and drive a 1200cc BMW bike; the last last on my mind is where am I going to park it.

    In addition to my modern bike, I drive an old 80′s GS which I use for touring and longer distance work. In the near future I will be trading in my BMW 1200 for one of the new Brammo Empulse bikes when they arrive on this side of the atlantic, the 100 mph / 100 mile range is perfect for the city and 99% of my commuting requirements while I will still have the GS for the long haul stuff. This solution for the moment is the way to go for me, but I’m lucky I can afford it.

    One thing that I note, however, is that all the innovation in electric biking, particularly in the large bike categories (as appposed to scooters etc) is coming from the States; don’t overlook the possibilities in regaining manufacturing market share in the future, I’ll be buying my first American bike ever.

  • dan

    The future of motorcycling will be what it will be. There is no one that can save it. Let’s face, the risks are higher, the skill level required is higher, you are exposed to the elements and if you go AGATT, its less convenient. It is sort of like eating liver, either you like or you don’t.

    The US never really had as agreat a love affair with PTWs like Europe did. In fact, even in Europe driving habits have changed and there is more a shift to cages. I assume that will happen in Asia too as they become more affluent.

    When gasoline prices are as high in the US as they are in Europe, then you might see some attitudes change and some few will shift to scooters (I ride motorcycles and scooters). But even that (scooter riding) is a sort of a cult here in the US. It is geography and low gas prices that made Americans love cars.

    The bikes will have to be left to us cowboys and cowgirls, although we are getting pretty long in the tooth.

  • Kurt

    Motorcycles never have been, at least in the 40 years or so during which I’ve been paying attention, relevant to Joe and Sally Average.

  • alexio

    finally, an article that justifies paying for a subscription to HFL. agree with everything that was said… great points.

  • brutus

    why do we give a shit if motorcycling is important to people who are generally dumbasses? Ive been obsessed with motorcycles since i can remember, i didnt need the media to portray them in a good light, they have their own wonderful aura, which needs no advertisement.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Less people riding = more anti-bike sentiment/enforcement/attitudes.

      • nick2ny

        Right–and no on-street parking for us either. I for one would love it if the brooklyn bridge were full of motorcycles instead of SUV’s so wide that people won’t pass each other because it’s too spooky to be driving in a lane that is only 10′ wide.

  • http://www.ClevelandCycleWerks.com scottydigital

    Kinda the exact opposite as my companies solution. But then again, I am a motorcyclist, and the guy that designed this is not. I have seen outsiders change industries before: IE, obvious reference to what the iPhone did to the mobile phone industry. I am an early adopter, however, I do not see the need for something this over complicated. Really an engineering exercise that someone is trying to turn into a product, good for him chase that money. My company is Cleveland CycleWerks, I am not kidding, the exact opposite to this Segway motorcycle.

    • http://michael.uhlarik@amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik

      Agreed

      The iPhone was a paradigm shifting product in a mature industry because it was an improvement on existing products: easier to use, better looking, more versatile…
      The Uno is less an improvement than an alternative altogether. It is not intended to change motorcycling, it is intended to change a car audience of early adopters, who would never otherwise go on two wheels.

  • slowestGSXRever

    +1 for “pussyfication of America”. I have plenty of fears but I’ll be damned if they get in the way of fun.

    • Bronson

      Well said brother!

  • markbvt

    I’m convinced that the only reason this contraption has garnered so much attention is because the inventor was in his teens when he built the first iteration.