Small Guys Storm the Field of Electric Motorcycle Development
Established motorcycle brands like BMW and Honda have much to learn from students and small EV companies.
But to get there, they’ll have to enjoy losing. A lot.
Thanks to a group of wizard MIT students, BMW had its first electric racing debut in last year’s Isle of Man TT Zero, the electric class of the British island’s century-old motorcycle street race. With just $25,000 -- and many thousands more worth of donated batteries and motors -- the MIT team averaged 79 mph in its converted BMW S1000RR along the Isle’s grueling, 37.7-mile time trial. (The team placed a respectable fourth, but because the students need time to graduate, they didn’t race in 2012 and won’t next year, so BMW is out of the running.) In June, Honda ran a factory team in the TT Zero race, but lost to Oregon-based MotoCzysz (pictured above), which has won the TT Zero for the last three of the four years the electric class has existed.
The next TT Zero race is more than eight months away. But unlike MotoGP and other established, multimillion-dollar race series, major manufacturers can’t simply burn enormous R&D budgets and bring a winning electric bike to production. Whether on two wheels or four, every engineer faces the same limitations: restricted power delivery, relatively low battery capacity, unproven reliability, questionable durability, and a potential mass market hindered by high prices and little to no public infrastructure. Among motorcycle manufacturers -- which require a miniscule fraction of the typical $1 billion required to develop a new car -- electric bikes are anyone’s game to win. And right now, BMW and Honda are getting whooped.
MIT's converted BMW S1000RR competes in the 2011 Isle of Man TT Zero race. (Susumu Sugitani for MIT)
MotoCzysz, for example, has built carbon-fiber racing bikes since 2006 and sells oil-cooled electric powertrain retrofit kits for the aftermarket (they also claim to have the most aerodynamic road-racing motorcycle in the world). Brammo, another electric motorcycle company in Oregon, sells street-legal, fully assembled bikes that can travel up to 100 miles on a single charge for $19,000 (try getting a Nissan Leaf for that price). Then there’s Koen Matthys, a professor at London’s Brunel University who has led his college racing team (and his new upstart Komatti, with plans to build a limited-edition race replica) for all four years of the TT Zero.
“To build a bike is one thing. To be very competitive on a short circuit track is another. Then to come to the TT and also do that time, that’s another ballgame,” Matthys said. “It also takes a different design approach, because you have to package all that energy somehow.”
For MIT’s Lennon Rodgers, a doctorate student who built his own electric motorcycle with just $3,000 worth of parts, gaining access to the big-name parts suppliers used by Tesla, Fisker, and other electric automakers is key.
“You were very limited where you could get components, which components you could get,” said Rodgers, who began assembling battery packs with cells from DeWalt drills. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily exploded, but it’s definitely growing, in terms of the availability and the higher quality.”
MIT's battery packs use stacks of flat cells supplied by A123 Systems.
Even so, the shift to electric motorcycle powertrains -- even for the established manufacturers -- is tough to swallow, at least on principle. Unlike cars, motorcycles aren’t designed for families, cargo or safety. They’re lightweight thrill rides that easily outgun some of the world’s most expensive sports cars. With batteries, a sport bike’s brutal acceleration and insane top speeds are effectively cut in half, to the point where decades of continuous racing improvements are lost. But while an electric bike’s compromised performance may take another decade or more to overcome, Matthys says he’s focused on retaining as much rider feedback as possible.
“Our design philosophy from the start has always been to try at least make the handling very much the same,” he said. “So from a vehicle dynamics perspective, our bike is very similar to its donor bike.”
In the next five years, it’s an easy prediction to say that batteries will get smaller, lighter, cheaper and more efficient. If BMW and Honda really want to own this market, they’ll have to do more than peddle concepts of electric scooters and fancy, one-off racing bikes. They’ll need to beat the small guys. Or hire them.
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