The Electric Acid Test  

Posted by Big Gav in

Technology Review has an article on "the beginnings of a marketable electric motorcycle" on The Isle Of Man, as electric motorbike manufacturers compete in the zero-emission version of the TT bike race - The Electric Acid Test.

The Isle of Man is a small British possession in the Irish Sea. Inland, a native breed of four-horned sheep graze in verdant fields. On the coasts, castles touch the sea. The Manx have their own (albeit dead) language, their own money, their own laws, and--tellingly for this story--no national speed limit. This quirk of governance makes the place a natural host to a bloody ritual that has taken place nearly every spring for a century: the Tourist Trophy. The TT is not a motorcycle race but the motorcycle race: the first, the most famous, and by far the deadliest.

It's also a party: 40,000 bikers invade the island determined to scare the wool off the sheep while screaming through the Snaefell Mountain Course, a winding circuit of public roads cordoned off for the event. The circuit climbs from sea level to 1,380 feet, snaking for almost 38 miles through 200-some turns on country roads that cut through village, hamlet, and farm. Much of the track is hemmed in by dry-stacked fieldstone walls topped by spectators drinking their pints. There is no safe place to crash. Racers die or are maimed every year.*

As in warfare, the carnage is accompanied by technological progress. Soichiro Honda came to the race in 1959 having declared five years earlier that it was time to challenge the West. Less than a decade later, his company won the world manufacturer's title in every class: 50cc, 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, and 500cc. Not long after that, the British motorcycle industry was itself conquered, wiped out by mismanagement and superior Japanese technology. Ironically, the technical advances that made racing bikes so fast led the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), the sport's governing body, to decertify the race in 1976, calling it too dangerous. Thus, pros no longer ride the TT. However, the race's bloody reputation makes the TT, if anything, even more prestigious than FIM-sanctioned events. To compete in it, in the words of the legendary FIM rider ­Valentino Rossi, "you need to have two great balls."

This year, the Manx government added a futuristic new event to the June race schedule. The TTXGP, for "Tourist Trophy eXtreme Grand Prix," was billed as the first zero-emissions motorcycle race. While any technology could enter, as a practical matter zero emissions means electric. Even the FIM got on board, making the TTXGP the first FIM-approved TT race in over 30 years and the first officially sanctioned electric-motorcycle race ever. "It is either going to be the most important day in the next hundred years of motorcycling or a complete debacle," said Aaron Frank, an editor for Motorcyclist magazine who traveled from Milwaukee to watch the race. "But either way, it's worth watching."

As the day arrives, everyone watching knows that the TTXGP will be slower than the "real" motorcycle race, the TT, because the TTXGP is an energy-limited race. In effect, the "gas tank" of an electric bike is minuscule, so to win the TTXGP the bikers must mind their energy consumption. In contrast, the gas bikers in the TT run with their throttles wide open. However, batteries' energy density has been improving at a rate of about 8 percent a year, which means that even without any other technological progress, electric bikes should run head to head with gas in about 20 years. The TTXGP is intended to make the future arrive sooner. The winner will not just be the fastest in an esoteric class but the front-runner in the greater challenge ahead: creating an electric bike that can compete in the $50 billion world motorcycle market. In that sense, the TTXGP is the proving ground for the next Honda.

Twenty-two electric bikes show up to compete. While many of the entries are experimental one-offs from technical universities or obsessive hobbyists, three entrants are so-called factory teams: Brammo, Mission Motors, and MotoCzysz. All of them hail from the West Coast of the United States. Brammo is in Ashland, OR, Mission Motors in San Francisco, and MotoCzysz in Portland. And all are entering the consumer market with an electric bike. Brammo is set to sell its motorcycle off the floor at Best Buy: it's a $12,000 runabout with a top speed of 55 miles per hour. For the TTXGP, Brammo has upgraded almost every component in its bike to create two 100-mile-per-hour crotch rockets, both entered in the race. The Brammo racers are fast, light, and nimble but under-spec'd compared with what Mission and MotoCzysz trailer in: full-size race bikes heavy with batteries, capable of reaching 150 miles per hour. The Mission bike will sell for $69,000; the MotoCzysz will probably sell for slightly less.

Mission and MotoCzysz are both targeting the high-end superbike market, and both promise to ship products in the next year or two, but that is where the similarities end. Mission's charismatic young CEO, Forrest North, is a computer geek who likes to speculate on the future of software design: he fantasizes about a wheelie- popping autobalancing "Segway app" for a bike's control computer. (Though he hastens to say that Mission itself is not working on such an app.) MotoCzysz founder Michael Czysz is a designer--and his bike is a looker. Exposed battery packs protrude from each side, a fresh take on the naked-sportbike style of the insanely popular Ducati Monster. The packs are modular and swappable, and the bike is "green," Czysz explains, "because it's upgradable." Even Infield Capital's David Moll, one of the investors behind Mission Motors, is impressed when he sees the battery- as-engine design. "I've got a dog in this fight, but if that doesn't excite you," he says of the MotoCzysz entry, "then there's something wrong with you."

Brammo, Mission, and MotoCzysz are directly competing for the capital that's needed, in enormous quantity, to introduce a new vehicle to the American market. Brammo has the early lead in the money race: a $10 million investment from Best Buy's venture fund and Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, as compared with Mission's $2 million in seed capital. Bringing up the rear is MotoCzysz, a company essentially funded out of Michael Czysz's back pocket. While both Mission and Brammo hope to win the TTXGP in order to generate publicity and thus orders, MotoCzysz needs to win, or at least place, in order to woo enough capital to enter the marketplace. It's anyone's race to win, of course, but in most motor sports, the factory teams with access to deep corporate pockets are the first to cross the finish line. Behind them come the privateers--scrappy dreamers and shade-tree mechanics who are short on resources but long on heart.

So it's all the more surprising that in the week before the race, a dark horse emerges, freaking out all the factory teams. The fastest bike in the TTXGP prelims--two qualifying runs around the island--turns out to be from Team Agni, a total unknown, a mere privateer. Millions of American research-and-development dollars find themselves chasing the tail of a no-money ratbike engineered in India. ...

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