Alternative Vehicles – Evolution or Revolution, part 1

About the author:  Victor Pritzker is a well known motorcycle figure.  He has been around the industry for many years and has a deep understanding of the market and its needs.  In recent years he has been a leading figure in the electric bike field, helping to found Vectrix, the US EV company, across North America.

We seem to be surrounded by people who tell us we are living in the age of a personal transport revolution. Their main reference point for this bold statement is that motorcycles powered by electric propulsion systems have become available.  But while the use of batteries as the energy source to drive motorcycles is considered by many to be a revolution, it is in fact part of an evolutionary process.

There have been electric vehicles (EV) including motorcycles (E2W – Electric Two Wheel) for well over one hundred years – in fact before internal combustion engines (ICE) came into common use. However, wide use of the electric powered motorcycle in the contemporary western world is relatively new.  In China alone, there are reported to be more than 25 million E2Ws – mainly scooters – currently in use.  There are significant market reasons for this fact, in particular, very low speed limits that make even the slowest E2W competitive with ICE.  Also, their economic situation constrains most individuals from owning an auto or truck.

To some among the current E2W startups, there seems to be confusion about this issue of evolution within the motorcycle industry, leading to characterization of these machines as rolling computers or revolutionary transport appliances and even attempts at selling them in electronics/appliance stores. An E2W is not an electronic appliance, not a “computer on wheels.” It is, at the end of the day, quite simply a motorcycle.

Mistaking and merchandising an E2W for anything else is an error, will cause confusion and will slow down market acceptance and growth. If we wish to drive acceptance of these machines, we must make sure they conform to the actual uses that are true of conventional motorcycles and be accepted and sold in motorcycle dealerships. Essentially, we are talking about a function of the up-front design concept, branding, marketing, sales, and after sales processes. Success in bringing E2Ws to market in the western world relies on recognition of certain realities that exist in the marketplace.

One informative result of surveys by Frost & Sullivan, Deloitte, and others is that among market drivers, “green” or environmental issues are generally about half way down the list. The top five are all related to mission specificity and value. The same criteria is attached to conventional ICE machines. Fortunately, it is now possible for E2Ws to fulfill many of those criteria.

Making sure that the first – the beachhead products – are mission appropriate, price competitive, and targeted to those market areas that fit the current limitations of this drive system in terms of speed, range and price, is the role of the design firm/team.

An understanding of how surface design, mission specificity, and the other aspects noted above effects perspective dealers, retail end users and fleet users is crucial to this effort.

The two most telling cases that come to mind are the retooling of the KTM brand by Kiska of Austria, which led directly to the KTM break away market-entry success, and the design work by ROBRADY design that led to the very successful launch of the Vectrix Maxi VX1 electric scooter (and eventually to the now iconic ROBRADY/Vectrix Electric Super Bike). Because of the fact that the ROBRADY effort was aimed directly at an E2W startup, it is most salient to this discussion.

Although very distinctive, the ROBRADY design for the premier Vectrix machine, the VX1, does not radically deviate from the conventional in terms of visual design. Styling elements that are unique and can be replicated in the continuing product road map are certainly present, but the design is recognizable as a Maxi Scooter. This was a very thoughtful conceptualization in the case of Vectrix for the following reason. It is hard enough to convince a prospective buyer to accept a new brand and on top of that to accept an electric power train with it’s inherent limitations. Why ask the retailer, and the end user, to also accept something with unrecognizably radical visuals as well? Sometimes subtlety and restraint is strength in this respect.

The same precept was applied to the ROBRADY/Vectrix Super Bike, which was indeed radical in concept and unique in design, but remained recognizable as a motorcycle. It was important for the ROBRADY /Vectrix Super Bike design to maintain that restraint for the same reasons, as it was the first time that a concept of an actual all-electric “Super Bike” that could potentially compete on an equal footing with ICE Super Bikes was introduced at industry events.

That concept is most important for a start-up to realize, unless they are content to step aside when the trusted legacy companies finally launch their E2Ws, which they will do shortly within carefully chosen price ranges – starting with the small useful ones designed for a larger market.

Branding, which is a process that must be done in order to state clearly what the company represents, is an integral part of the effort, as is infrastructure, legal requirements, dealers and an all important end user interface. These are also integral parts of first stage planning and a part of the “total brand design” that should be done as part of the above process. That effort is essentially a design process that includes the design firm, the OEM, the sales and marketing team (perhaps ideally the same entity), and all those involved in compliance and finance.

This is perhaps even more serious for an E2W start up due to their need to compete with Legacy OEMs.

Most important to this complex effort is the “total design concept” that encompasses the entire brand story, including its interface with dealerships and end users. The most successful illustration of this concept is Apple.  This brand is well known for its design prowess but equally known for its total design concept, which reaches into every aspect of product design, packaging, marketing, sales, dealer and end user interface. What makes them successful is a concept that goes well beyond the design quality of the products themselves.

Confusing an E2W for an electronic gadget sincerely misses the point regarding the normal evolutionary progress that will be shown in good time by all of the existing, successful motorcycle brands. However, this is one of those rare times when a start-up can actually compete and bring a new brand into the marketplace. This is because of economic issues relating to the ponderous nature of new development in older, large motorcycle OEMs, product and brand confusion (selling ICE and E2W at the same time) and the lack, on the part of the legacy companies, of “overall brand design” that has been such an integral part of Apple’s ability to produce such prodigious sales of new products within their brand, and to overcome competition from other companies with like products.

That is where a “total design concept” process is critical. There are many computer companies, but only one Apple.

There are many motorcycle companies, but only one…

The Legacy OEMs are exploring electricity as a possible alternate drive system, for use in certain – currently limited situations – notably a few big brand e-scooters and e-ATVs are already in test release. However, they are not offering a serious product road map for future products and certainly are not offering the proven excitement of a Super Bike; leaving the door open to a well considered start-up (up start?), particularly one able to relate to its customers successfully through a “total design concept.”

Another problem lies in the propensity of some current startups to provide only over-developed, very expensive, first generation E2Ws that cost many times more than comparable existing ICE bikes without providing comparable performance. This only serves to showcase the limitations rather than the advantages of E2Ws, creating an elitist perception of these machines – the very opposite of what is creating such success in Asia. Some even ignore the very useful and innovative features that clearly create critical product differentiation between E2W and ICE, such as regenerative braking and reversing from the throttle.

Many in the industry believe that the Holy Grail of the emerging E2W industry is the 150+ mph super bike, and it surely is. We learned that from the excitement generated the very first time the ROBRADY/Vectrix Super Bike was shown to the industry. It is, because it suggests to the skeptics that an E2W can some day perform respectably along side of contemporary ICE bikes. In retrospect, the now iconic ROBRADY/Vectrix Super Bike led many to that conclusion.

The history of the motorcycle industry is evolutionary, not revolutionary. As in all evolutionary progress, the best is kept and preserved alongside the inevitable advances that will surely come. My suggestion is that this evolutionary process includes not only electric drive systems, but also a “total design concept” as the real “new paradigm.”

Only by studying the past, emulating the evolutionary norms of our industry and embracing the newly evolved “total brand design” concept, will any new E2W company be able to tell the compelling story necessary to grow its new brand in today’s crowded and highly competitive marketplace.