Premature electric expectations — stop complaining, there’s work to do

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ttxgp obit

This week, Harry Mallin asked, “what’s wrong with electric motorcycle racing?” in response to the inconsistent grid numbers, indifferent public and wildly misplaced expectations of enthusiasts. His well written and researched editorial postulates reasons for this disappointment and suggests possible solutions. As an industry professional of many years and a future TTXGP participant, I would like to add my take. It isn’t electric motorcycle racing that needs curing, it’s you the public and, by proxy, the unsustainable hype that electrification and our industry has engendered.

The Problem, For Some.
For only the second time in my career, I was a full time employee at a major OEM when the first news of electric motorcycle racing began to go public. Azhar Hussain’s herculean efforts to make a single lap, all-electric motorcycle race happen at the 2009 TT blew open so many doors, shattered so many ideas that this one event managed to spur into a life an industry that had until then been a low-cost, urban transportation side show. No one, not the TT establishment, the motorcycle enthusiast public or even Mr. Hussain himself could have imagined the kind of shock wave that one-time event caused inside the global motorcycle industrial establishment. From Hamamatsu to Pontedera, from Hinckley to Guangzhou, in boardrooms senior staff talked of nothing else that autumn. Times were changing fast and missing the electric train leaving the station was being called corporate suicide.

Only three years later, every significant motorcycle manufacturer in the world has plans, both public and private, to launch into this burgeoning field. India and China have national mandates for wide-scale electrification of commercial and public fleets (and by scale I mean hundreds of millions). Europe, always the most progressive nations in the west, also has ambitious targets. Why then, after only a handful of races in what is only the second year of the TTXGP championship, are some pontificating about what is wrong, broken, or worse, even false about this new paradigm? Some within the industry call this attitude perplexing, I call it premature. Everybody needs to take a breathe, and stop trying to affix additional rules, regulations and speculations to the teething problems we are experiencing and just get on with the work at hand.

Let’s Get Real.
The motorcycle as we know it is a 120 year old device, which makes it a very mature technology. Consumers know what they are getting, OEMs know what they are tasked at building. Even with an infrastructure of global tier-one suppliers, each of which has vast established technologies, experience and an immense body of specialized knowledge, it takes anywhere from 24 to 48 months to develop a new motorcycle. And that often excludes power plant systems, which are carried over with only minor modifications for a decade or more. Did you know that the until as recently as the early 2000s many air-cooled Ducatis could trace their engine to the Pantah of the early 1980′s? That principle architecture of the GSX-R gearbox was largely unchaged, at one point, for over a decade? The old adage “when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies in industrial mass production, particularly when volumes are small. Only the big four Japanese could (and can) afford to make all-new products relatively often, and even then for only front line products.

The “electric motorcycle industry” as it is often laughingly called by other less professional media outlets, is not an industry at all. At least not yet. There are precisely 3 electric motorcycle OEMs on planet earth today, which I define as solvent companies that are in the business of making and selling original, street legal, motorcycles (not step through scooters). Zero, Brammo and Quantya. The rest are pretenders, either reselling something made by someone else as a conversion of a gas vehicle or a far-east made low speed vehicle. All of the names regularly associated with TTXGP, E-Power and the like are hobbyists. Yes, that includes Mission Motors, Lightning, Mavizen, eCRP and even Michael Czysz, to say nothing of start ups and garagistes such as Roehr.

It doesn’t matter if they have made elaborate prototypes or slick websites or claims of international deals with giants of the automotive sector. In this business, in the industry, it only matters once you’ve made at least one production bike, in a large series (I will accept 50 as large series, to be kind) and made it publicly available. Mr. Mallin made some very good observations, citing that most of the aforementioned, high-profile companies are driven by venture capital, which as businesses are seeking high payout and so obviously are turning away from motorcycle production. As I have said many times in this magazine and anyone inside the industry will confirm, making bikes is not a huge profit generator. Selling cars and power trains, however, can be.

But that is only one small reason and only explains the lack of momentum of these celebrated “big” brands in the electric sphere. The real reason we do not have healthy grid numbers is the lack of reasonably priced, reliable and available electric motorcycles. And the reason for that is it is just too soon.

Three years! Three years and according to some, the proverbial house is on fire. Three years after Harley and brothers Davidson built their first motorcycle, they were still in a shed. Three years after Gotlieb Diamler invented the car, he was still arguing with partner Wilhelm Maybach about what whether they should move into better facilities than the greenhouse at the summer cottage. The point is, it is barely three years since this game got started and in that time we (if i may include my humble efforts into the pot) have had to reinvent the motorcycle, or at least try to get the basics laid out. There may be hundreds, perhaps thousands of electric motor manufacturers in the world, but only a few make motors that have practical application in a motorcycle. Fewer still are available for commercial sale in quantity and with acceptable quality. Batteries too, are plentiful, but having the greatest lithium cells around is meaningless if they cannot be mass-produced into complete packs, along with integrated Battery Management Systems (BMS), instrumentation and speed control units, by reliable suppliers, fit for our specific application.

Please note my emphasis on three words: quality, availability and reliability. In industry, those are the most sought after, highest priority things. To make money, satisfy customers and dealers, a manufacturer must have a supply chain that can provide all three of those features. As of this moment, only two or three electric motor manufacturers can do that, and virtually none of the battery suppliers can, in the low quantities that are currently in demand. It takes many years and colossal investment by both OEMs and partnering suppliers to get to the stage where these conditions exist, and we in the electric motorcycle game, are very far from it.

Yesterday, Today and the Great Unknown.
TTXGP, FIM e-Power and the like have a consistency issue, which is in my opinion the result of a two-tiered problem. First, the (literally) unbelievable hype that surrounded Electric Vehicles (EV’s) in the past years has been unhelpful. The general public understands almost nothing about what make electric vehicles go, how they differ in construction or the problems of supply I mention above. The tidal wave, if you’ll pardon the expression, of outrageous claims made by start-ups, governments, pundits and good hearted enthusiasts has not only created a false expectation, but has fed an almost insatiable demand for novelty and results. That is the first part of the problem, the second is a direct result of that. Nothing, no achievement regardless of how impressive, will ever keep up with that inflated expectation.

Let’s be frank, several of the players in this new game are guilty of this inflation. It is not hard to see now, with a couple of year’s hindsight, that the $60,000, Yves Behar-designed Mission One was never going to happen. Everything from the extravagant performance claims, to the production start, to the science fiction styling and market value put that product and, as a result, all electric motorcycles, into the same box as other charlatan efforts like the Norton Nemesis or Motoczysz “MotoGP Contender.” It didn’t happen and what did come forward (and I admire and respect both Mission’s hard work and results at the ’09 TT and Bonneville and Czysz’s breath-taking electric bikes) was a pretty far cry from a 150mph, 150-mile range, production superbike the San Francisco start up was talking about. It is not an exaggeration when I tell you that professionals inside the big OEMs laughed, literally laughed, when the Mission marketing machine was out beating the drums. No one, not even NASA during the Kennedy years, could have made that happen within the time allowed.

Thank goodness, then, for Brammo, Zero and Agni motors and their ability to actually do what they said they would. The Enertia is out there, slowly making its way across the roads of America and slowly helping Brammo grow into (hopefully) a mature industrial enterprise. Ditto Zero and their erstwhile supplier Agni, who despite some issues that are typical to new products, have stuck through it and delivered good quality, finished goods to customers and grown their respective business. All these motorcycles may not set the world on fire, but at a time when the industry is in damage control mode, any new business growth is admirable.

So, to the racing. As Mr. Mallin points out, the key barrier is the lack of available racing motorcycles at reasonable cost. Mavizen has ramped down the marketing of the KTM-based TTX02; eCRP has yet to respond to requests for information regarding their lease program; and the winning motors behind Lightning, Motoczysz and Muench Racing bikes (winners of last year’s TTXGP and e-Power championships) all use proprietary, one-off technology that is unavailable to anyone else. TTXGP’s formula 75 class was, in my opinion, a very good idea, because it limits the biggest cost in electrification, namely, the battery. For those readers who don’t know, building even a cheap, lithium-iron phosphate pack with off the shelf Chinese cells like those from Thundersky costs about $1,000 per kWh, excluding BMS, making even basic conversions a costly business. Just look at Roehr’s E Superbike and its modest origins versus retail price and you get the idea. By splitting the classes, it allows those garagistes to hopefully get into the sport and not be directly compared to much larger, better funded operations. It may not have worked out just yet, but it takes a long time, particularly for a small, self financed operation like mine, to get a motorcycle sorted out. Don’t forget that the Formula 75 class is less than a year old.

Mr. Mallin, a self-declared Brammo enthusiast is correct in saying that the forthcoming Brammo Empulse is the closest thing to a production solution which could address the three critical elements of quality, availability and reliability at a reasonable cost, but they first have to make it a production reality. Until then, the solution, in my opinion, is to be patient and work at managing expectations, and wait for the small teams, enthusiasts and perhaps promises from outfits like eCRP to come out of the woodwork.

The general public doe not want excuses, nor do they want long technical explanations about why this $150,000 Motoczysz electric bike can “only” do 37 miles at 95 mph. All they want is mature, easy to digest products, be they electric motorcycle races or electric motorcycles themselves. We, the people tossing our hats into this ring, need to stop making silly, overly optimistic forward-looking statements and take a page out of Soichiro Honda’s playbook and just get on with making good motorcycles, focusing on quality, and making money in a responsible way. To all the bluster blowing, bravado spewing rest I say put-up or shut up. You are hurting us all with your false horizons.

In a few years, the heavy OEMs will weigh in and crush most of the small companies now trying to get out there, and possibly take electric motorcycle racing into the professional big leagues. An exciting prospect, but at the same time, it is the very fact that small teams made up of few people from the corners of the world like Oregon or Switzerland or Quebec can go out there and race on an international level, that makes TTXGP so tantillizing.

It is time to stop talking and keep working. The solution to electrification is putting in the time and making the few things we put out there as mature as possible and back them up with quality service. TTXGP will change radically over the next few years, possibly merge with the FIM, possibly into a spec class, it may disappear altogether. What will not change is the desire for innovation and new product ideas. I, for one, think Azhar Hussain deserves praise for getting us this far, and making electric motorcycle racing happen. The TTXGP organization may have stumbled, as has this new industry as a whole, but it is far from deserving of a post-mortem.

It is, rather, time to get to work.

Michael is developing a TTXGP racer called the Amarok P1.

  • jwinter

    I was really excited to see the electric bikes race at Laguna last summer and I’m excited for it this year. It’s not MotoGP yet but it’s pretty amazing to see something like this in its infancy. Granted, my support is not going to quite keep the series running but I’m optimistic about it all.

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

    I’ll be at the TTXGP race at Loudon in a few weeks, hopefully there’ll be more than 4 bikes on the grid. But if not, hey, I’ll enjoy the tie-fighter sounds and oogle the high-tech wizardry.

  • Thom

    Well unlike the two above , I’m still far too skeptical of an E/V Motorcycle and much of that skepticism comes from all the Hype and Hyperbole thats surrounded the Automotive E/V scene ( sorry but Im an all around gearhead )

    Between all the BS from TESLA what with their cars that can’t seem to complete a magazines road test without major breakdowns as well as their propensity to Self Ignite – To the abject lies and broken promises that have been accomplished by the likes of FISKER ( and these are E/V cars which are far easier to build than an E/V M/C) Im about full up on the amount of BS I’m willing to tolerate never mind get excited over .

    As far as racing , well shouldn’t the street version come out first and then prove itself in racing : rather than building some Pie in the Sky Race Bike , then hoping you can get it to production ?

    No I’m sorry , but the fact remains . Viable usable and realistic E/V’s of any sort are years if not decades away . The battery technology currently available alone has years before it will become useful .

    At this point in time I’d classify all E/V’s as Technology for Technologies Sake . Which if you have even a modicum of understanding on how the World , Business and Manufacturing functions is not only a very bad thing , but a pure and abject exercise in Self Indulgence on the part of the makers involved .

    • protomech

      Are you referring to the Tesla Roadster blowing the brake fuse on Top Gear and the recall over a chafing 12v wire? Those aren’t fundamental design issues, those are quality issues that are inevitable (but important to correct properly) in any production vehicle.

      EV motorcycles are much simpler to build than EV cars. No HVAC, no power brakes, much smaller batteries, smaller acceptable range limitations. Witness the aforementioned Zero, Quantya, Brammo trio of “volume” production motorcycles – developed in a few short years. How long have the big auto manufacturers been working to make EV automobiles? And we just now have the Leaf, the Volt, and the Tesla Roadster..

      Batteries do indeed have significant room to improve, and improvements in mass and cost will go a long ways to make EVs more palatable to the average consumer (and acceptable for more than short range commutes). The even more important thing is time and familiarization; but that will come.

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

      Thom

      You are of course, entitled to your skepticism, but you are not correct on many points.

      EV cars are not only more difficult to make than EV motorcycles, they require close to 20 times the investment. I won’t get into this here, but cars need to pass homologation and amazingly complex international safety regulations, which motorcycles do not, among other thing.

      And race bikes indeed should come first. It is easier to learn and gain valuable experience and marketing insight (not to mention far cheaper) than to commit to a commercial activity in the open marketplace, particularly when you have new technology and an uneducated audience.

      Thom, at risk of sounding harsh, I suggest you talk softly before making bold statements, lest you end up sounding like so many naysayers of technologies past. Bill Gates said he’d never build a 32 bit operating system; Einstein said we could never harness the atom; and for the rest, there are idiots like Jeremy Clarkson.

      M

    • jeremy

      Your mid-sentence capitalization of words isn’t having the effect you think it is, rather it’s making you appear to be a schizophrenic street person who logs in to the Internet from a public library.

      • Dumptruckfoxtrot

        Your lack of capitalization in your name and your vivid imagination makes you look like you jack off to e.e. cummings.
        Well, maybe not, but it’s as valid an assertion as yours.

        • Noah

          !!!!

    • Myles

      I can’t believe I live in a world where “Technology for Technologies Sake” is a bad thing.

      If (throughout history) everyone thought like you, Thom, you wouldn’t have any “gear” to be a “gearhead” about.

      • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate Ben Incarnate

        I don’t think “technology for technology’s sake” actually applies here. There’s a goal, a purpose, a problem that the traditional delivery system can’t solve. The E/Vs on the market already solve a problem that some have.

        When that term/concept does apply, it can be a bad thing, or at least it’s silly as crap. I can think of many examples in my workplace.

      • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

        Thom, Myles: * “Technology for technology’s sake.”

        • Myles

          ^of course

  • JRl

    I’d like to think that Michael took my comment from Harry’s post and just expanded on it a little bit. =P

  • protomech

    Thundersky LiFePO4 is pretty commonly available for $400-500/kwh. Their reliability is somewhat suspect based upon conversion builder reports, but the batteries are indeed inexpensive.

  • Dumptruckfoxtrot

    This was a well written non-psychotic op-ed. Thanks!

  • http://www.damiengaudet.blogspot.com damien

    Great article. Makes a lot of sense.

  • Gregory

    Shoichiro Honda is my hero. We all need to work as hard as he did. Who ever thought that mere piston rings would be so important? It’s a classic case of a nerd conquering the world.

    -gceaves
    Portland, OR
    2008 Kawasaki KLR 650

    • Dumptruckfoxtrot

      Soichiro Honda. 本田 宗一郎

  • http://www.faster-faster.com fasterfaster

    Very well said.

  • Ben

    Do you know how long it took the internal combustion motorcycle to become faster than the horse? A long time.

    Electric bikes will get there, eventually.

    • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

      Wait – My Enertia is already faster than a horse.

  • http://pinkyracer.com pinkyracer

    thank you!!!!! excellent input! I will try to be more patient. but with every gallon of gas I put in my R1 (at 20mpg!), I feel increasingly guilty.

    what’s funny is I had to pause “Charge” to read this. :-) I LOVE being part of this vanguard!!!

  • Chris

    Great article, Michael. I worked with Azhar last year – briefly – and I’d agree he deserves far more credit than he gets. Plenty of people (including me) were and are full of ideas about how he ought to be doing things. But as for financing / building a bike to put on the grid … not so much. Well done to you for doing so.

    Which is why it’s worth giving another shout-out to the smaller teams that turned up throughout 2010. In the UK they were there for each race, with competitive machines built on very restricted budgets. They may not have had fancy websites or venture capitalists following them around, but they did have a machine that started and completed the assigned laps. Often, not very far behind (and sometimes in front of) the more finished products from Mavizen and Agni.

    I think these smaller teams make another important contribution. They demonstrate that this is not an unworkable or unaffordable technology. In fact, amateur entries may go further to convince skeptics than a gleaming megabucks missile. Not only do the homebrews make onlookers (rightly) think they could have a go themselves, but they also prompt the thought: if someone can produce that in their spare time – what the hell are the established manufacturers doing? (Or failing to do?)

  • http://plugbike.com/ skadamo

    Yeah, it kinda sucks to not see all the hype materialize. Brammo is guilty as Mission. Where’s our apps, wifi, etc? But you know, it was never promised. With a new horizon like electric drive I think Joe Public will accept a bit of dreaming and high bar setting.

    It’s not much different than the concept bikes Honda and the rest dangle in front of us and we rarely see happen. At least the cool ones. It is a way to gauge interest and demand.

    Mission realized they could not quickly build what theoretically was possible. So they switched directions to a more lucrative and feasible goal. Building drivetrains for other EV co’s. Whether or not the superbike is eye candy or the real thing we will find out soon enough.

    But yeah, I agree the time for talking is passing quickly. Good luck to everyone making it happen and thank you for giving us something new to dream about! Great post.

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

      There is a BIG difference between what Honda presents in the form of a concept bike versus production motorcycles, and a mock-up of an electric motorcycle presented by an unknown company.

      Honda is a proven commodity. Their mature, incredibly excellent motorcycles make money, and so any fantasy concept has instant credibility. Not so a $50,000 rapid-prototyped static model (or worse, CAD illustration) by a company no one has ever heard of, has never sold a thing, and is staffed by people with no OEM industry experience.

      Let’s be clear: I applaud the efforts of Mission and the rest, and would be over the moon if I had those capabilities and feathers in my cap, but that doesn’t excuse them from talking and promising too much. Each failure to deliver pokes another hole into the EV motorcycle space, what will be a lucrative, profitable future business, at a time when no one can afford to take on water.

      Say what you will about Tesla, but they have produced and DELIVERED over 1000 of their cars to mostly happy customers. Are they perfect? No. But have they earned revenue, and secured real deals with credible OEMs? Yes.

  • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

    Great stuff, Michael. The thing about “Three years!” and your entreaty to, if I can paraphrase, “be patient, innovation takes time,” is that time is a luxury for the companies and for TTXGP. With the VC money being doled out sparingly and the looming apocalypse represented by the OEMs getting into the game, there is no time to stay in the proverbial H-D shed. The problem with using the shed and Daimler’s greenhouse as metaphors for the nascent stage of electric motorcycles is that it’s a different world today. The big OEMs might have been fine with producing only I.C.E. bikes for years to come, but once Brammo and Zero popped up on the radar, they took notice and the clock started ticking.
    Other than that, (and perhaps your definition of “solvent”), I think we’re basically in agreement. Now, how about an Amarok P1 spec class?

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

      >Now, how about an Amarok P1 spec class?

      Easy Harry. Let’s just get 2011 done first. It’s sounds like a nice dream though.

  • Tony

    The picture is awesome!! A work of genius :)

  • Kyle

    Great stuff here!! Dont tell us what you hope to do, just do it and blow us away. The technology is already here in my opinion it is just about fitting it all together. Well the cost thing too, but that really can’t be avoided at this point.

    Great article and I hope to make it up to NH to check out the TTXGP race, we’ll see!
    -Kyle

  • Paul

    A very insightful article. I was wondering, Mr. Uhlarik, since you are based out of Sherbrooke, have you ever considered an eventual collaboration with BRP? With the recent success of their Spyder, I would not be surprised to find them eager to exploit such a developing niche.