Batteries Included

Electric motorcycles are set to take off in 2010, and three West Coast startups are leading the pack. But will the macho motorcycle world accept bikes that run silently--and are sold and serviced at Best Buy?
Batteries Included
Image credit: Photography by Eva Kolenko
Street smart: Neal Saiki and the new Zero S.

The Brammo Enertia is green. Not just any shade, but one that is eye popping, verdant, almost alive. It's a sledgehammer of a color for a zero-emission motorcycle that walks the greenie talk even further with an outer shell made from recycled water bottles.

Think the Toyota Prius is eco? There's a new category of even more environmentally friendly vehicles, and they're balancing on two wheels. Three West Coast startups are leading the way, and they're all making e-motorcycles for the same reasons major automakers are racing to bring plug-ins to market: There's no spewing of greenhouse gases while they're running. They don't use gasoline. They plug into conventional wall outlets and cost just pennies per mile to run. At current gas prices, an average American commuter could save $1,200 per year on fuel alone.

But unlike electric cars--which will take years to work their way through the pipeline and into drivers' hands--electric motorcycles are being sold now, and sold for relatively cheap. Most current models cost less than $10,000, and there are models in the works expected to sell soon for about $6,000.

They aren't selling all that fast--yet--but that's poised to change. The industry's independent entrepreneurs are expanding into fast-growing foreign markets, and the major manufacturers, such as Honda and Yamaha, have announced that they'll follow the independents with their own releases of electric motorcycles this year.

There is still something of an image problem to overcome: In the hyper-macho motorcycle world, electric bikes draw more laughs than lust. Enthusiasts of the internal combustion product see e-bikes as slow, silly excuses for a motorcycle, tortoises rather than hares. It doesn't help that most e-motorcycles aren't even sold at dealerships. The Zero is shipped through UPS and a flatbed trucking service. The Brammo is sold, and serviced, through Best Buy--like the rest of the chain's electronics and appliances.

But the e-bike is about to get some hair on its chest. Electric motorcycle racing comes to the U.S. for the first time this month, when the European TTXGP moves to Sonoma, Calif. And more significantly, Mission Motor Co. in San Francisco will roll out its Mission One next year. With its sport bike styling and copper-and-black paint job, Mission One is the Tesla of motorcycles: It set the land-speed record for an electric motorcycle, blazing across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah at 150 miles per hour in September. And Mission claims the bike can go 150 miles on a single charge--more than double the range of the other bikes on the market.

Will all of that--plus the burgeoning eco movement--help e-motorcycles turn the corner into the mainstream, or will they always be a world apart from Harley-Davidson and Ducati? This year will start to tell the story.

Leading the Pack
The walls at Brammo's Ashland, Ore., headquarters are painted the same chlorophyll color as its motorcycle. As of January, Brammo, which has received $15 million in venture capital since setting up shop in 2002, had sold just 100 of its $7,995 bikes through the six West Coast Best Buys that so far are carrying it. But CEO Craig Bramscher sees "a hunger and interest" for its products globally and is making plans to meet that demand. He's in the process of raising an additional $30 million, which will be used for R&D and to increase production as Brammo rolls out new models at additional Best Buy stores and in overseas markets. In the U.S., a 10 percent federal tax credit for buyers of electric motorcycles will also help offset the sales price.

Brammo's headquarters are located just off the I-5 freeway next to a Holiday Inn Express and a Chevron gas station in a space once occupied by an electronics cable manufacturer. A black Harley-Davidson and racing-red Ducati are among the handful of traditional gas-guzzlers dotting the parking lot. The unassuming brick building is both office and production facility: On one side is the design team, whose pencil drawings and component prototypes line the walls and clutter the carpeted floor. Walk through the simple door separating the brains from the brawn of the operation, and there's an assembly line of builders transforming aluminum-frame carcasses into fully functioning vehicles, packing on batteries, electronics, brakes, shocks and bodywork, at a rate of about 10 bikes per day.

Bramscher says his 21,000-square-foot facility is capable of producing as many as 10,000 motorcycles a year. When operations expand to Europe and Asia later this year with additional final assembly plants, Bramscher places the company's annual production closer to 100,000--a number that puts Brammo on par with more established and better-known motorcycle manufacturers, such as BMW.

Initially funded with an $11.5-million investment, a portion of which came from Best Buy, Bramscher sees his product as "consumer electronics that you ride." That's why Brammo bikes aren't just sold at the electronics store, they're also serviced by its Geek Squad, a tech entity that usually fixes computers and installs home-theater systems.

Bramscher's techie take on the motorcycle comes naturally. The Harvard-educated designer ran several computer businesses over the past 15 years, beginning as a consultant and ending as the founder of the software developerDreamMedia, which Bramscher sold to US Web in 1997, during the dotcom heyday. The exit yielded a lot of cash--about $10 million--and helped fund what many consider to be the frontrunner in the e-motorcycle market race.

Bramscher moved to Oregon shortly thereafter, thinking it was a safer place to raise his four kids. But at that time, he was in California, which since has become the hub of electric motorcycle development--particularly around Silicon Valley.

Many e-bike entrepreneurs hail from top schools and adjacent industries. Forrest North, a Stanford University alum and former battery engineer for Tesla Motors, the electric luxury-car startup, is the founder of Mission Motor Co. in San Francisco. The speed-demon Mission One will cost $68,995 when it's released next year. Which means it will also set another record: most expensive production electric motorcycle.

Since the Mission One was announced in February 2009, with the startling claim that it would achieve a top speed of 150 mph and could travel 150 miles on a single charge, the bike has been the object of much speculation, buzz--and suspicion. If the Mission One could truly achieve what it claimed, it would be an industry game-changer--matching the performance of gas-powered bikes but doing so with less pollution. Within six months of Mission One's unveiling, the bike more than proved its first claim at Bonneville. At that time, North said, "We still haven't hit the limit of what we can do right now with today's technology." These days, Mission is keeping mum until the bike is introduced next year.

Neal Saiki, founder of Zero Motorcycles , was an aeronautical engineer for NASA; his CEO, Gene Banman, was an executive for Sun Microsystems.

"There's a big technology aspect to electric motorcycles and that's a great opportunity for American engineers," says Saiki, who applied his engineering talents to the aviation and mountain-bike industries before deciding that electric vehicles were the future of American transportation. "We have the best engineering schools in the world and the best engineers in the work force and worldwide dominance in microprocessor technology, so Americans can really lead this electric vehicle business."

So far, they appear to be. In addition to their passion, what all these startups share is a belief that e-bikes "will explode into a huge market," says Saiki, whose company rolled out its first electric motorcycle--a bone-white dirt bike called the X--in 2008. Zero since has wheeled two additional models on to the market; so far, 500 have been sold. For an investment of $24 million, that may not seem like much, but "the level of adoption and amount of sales we have now is microscopic compared to what the market will be in a few years," Saiki says. He estimates Zero will sell 2,500 bikes this year and will top $100 million in annual sales by 2013.

Like Brammo, Zero plans to expand to China, where an acceptance of two-wheeled transportation, rising pollution levels and an emerging middle class in the 1.3-billion population combine to form a perfect opportunity for a performance-oriented, reasonably priced, zero-emission vehicle. Zero and Brammo are also pursuing Europe, where motorcycles are popular commuter vehicles, and local economies haven't been as hard hit as the U.S.

"We're making plans to make a motorcycle that's right at the price point of current gas motorcycles because then it's a real compelling argument to buy these," Saiki says.

The Dork Factor
In the U.S., roughly 1 million motorcycles are sold each year. Most are purchased for recreation by weekend warriors who use their rides to shake off the stress of the workweek, hang out with friends and generally act the part of the badass. Fewer than 10 percent of those riders use their bikes for commuting--which is the purpose of an e-bike, since most models can travel 40 or 50 miles per charge at speeds of about 60 miles per hour.

Until now, the equation has been simple: Speed equals sex appeal. Most every motorcycle manufacturer creates bikes that not only top 150 mph, but also does so with an alphabet soup of makes and model numbers that exude power and elicit lust among a predominantly male buyership. Want to test the theory? Just approach any guy on a motorcycle and ask what he thinks of the butter-smooth Ducati 1098R or lightning-fast Honda VFR or lean-and-low Harley-Davidson V-Rod. His eyes will glaze as he silently runs the numbers in his brain. 150 horsepower? Check. 100 foot-pounds of torque? Sold.

So where does that leave electric motorcycles? Even more than cars, motorcycles are emblems of how the owner wants to be perceived. A sport bike is about youth and virility and living life without limits. A cruiser, freedom. Zero-emission utilitarianism is, well, pretty missionary.

Or at least, it has been. In these early days, electric motorcycles are appealing to a broad demographic, according to their makers: technophiles and greenies, motorcycle collectors and commuters. They've been slower to make converts of internal combustion enthusiasts who equate power with noise, style with subculture and brand names with performance.

As much as a hard-core biker might like the idea of a plug-in that doesn't pollute, he may also be turned off by a name that trumpets what it isn't more than what it is, like a Zero. As much as he may admire the torque-y, fast takeoff of an electric motor, he may not appreciate a direct-drive transmission that requires no shifting and, as a result, drives more like a scooter than a motorcycle.

As for style, it's unclear whether the exposed electric technology of today's e-bikes is a selling point or a detractor. As much as their designs resemble traditional gas-powered models, they aren't the same. Just look into the belly of the bike and there's a battery box instead of an engine. Brammo and Zero use as many traditional styling cues as they can, but supermoto-style motorcycles don't leave a lot of options for disguising their electric underpinnings.

Mission Motor's Mission One may stand a better chance on the visuals because its bodywork provides more cover for the electric technology under the hood.

And of course, the day the paparazzi shoot George Clooney riding the Hollywood Hills in silent celebrity, well, the missionary days will be gone forever.

Drawing Crowds
Still, the U.S. is considered a prime market for electric motorcycles, and interest is high, even if the numbers don't yet bear that out. At the Go Green Expo in Los Angeles in January, Harlan Flagg, co-founder of a new two-wheeled electric vehicle shop called Hollywood Electrics, was answering questions from a steady stream of visitors to his booth. Inside the cramped 10-by-10 space, a Colgate-white Zero S--the much expected commuter model--was parked next to a Ferrari-red Electric Motorsport GPR-S (made by an Oakland-based electric motorcycle parts supplier) whose power cord is tucked into a cubbyhole in what would usually be a bike's tank. The silver lid mimics a gas cap.

"What colors does this come in?" asked a gray-haired man with a "make fuel not war" pin on his buttoned-up plaid shirt.

"Fill me in," said the next man in line, before picking up a handful of brochures.

Meanwhile, a couple of fellow Go Green exhibitors from a solar installation firm snapped pictures of the four electric bikes on display.

"How far does it go? How fast does it go? How much does it cost? Those are pretty much the questions everyone asks," says Flagg, a Ducati owner who keeps his Italian sport bike parked and rides e-bikes to work at Hollywood Electrics, an L.A. shop whose logo is a silhouetted motorcycle with a plug instead of the usual tailpipe.

Electric motorcycles do not have tailpipes. They don't need them because they're battery powered, and that makes them quiet. Their only noise is a spinning chain that powers the rear wheel. And the one on the Mission One electric sport bike moves fast.

Unlike the rest of the electric motorcycle companies on the market, Mission won't be pursuing commuters when it introduces its Porsche-priced sport bike. It's going after "people who are willing to pay a premium for performance, design and green, and we think that value proposition matches up more closely with the Mission One than what they can get in a gasoline bike," Mission founder North has said.
With gasoline prices on the rise and peak oil in sight, North, along with his fellow e-bike startups, may be right.
 



Susan Carpenter is a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times who frequently covers motorcycles. She also runs the blog, GirlOnAMotorcycle.la .

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This article was originally published in the April 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Batteries Included.

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