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.