Alternative Vehicles – Evolution or Revolution, part 2

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.

Is an Electric Super Bike important?

My team and I started to prepare the booth at the ’08 INDY Motorcycle Industry Expo very early in the morning. We had spent the last two days setting up. The show didn’t start until 10:00 am, but we were there at 8:00 am because we were anxious to get everything ready. The truth is we were very nervous. This was the very first motorcycle industry event that Vectrix Corporation had ever attended in North America, and we wanted to make a good showing. This was also the first time that any company had attempted to enter the conventional North American motorcycle market with an E2W machine of this quality, and at this price or performance level. Only recently, Vectrix had attended EICMA, the major European motorcycle industry event in Milan. The ROBRADY/Vectrix Super Bike (rMoto) was “unveiled” with terrific fanfare and attracted tremendous attention from the press and the industry. The momentum had begun.

We only had a little booth at INDY, barely big enough for three or four demo models of the Maxi Scooter sized Vx1 Electric Scooter. The booth was so small, that most of the sales team had to stand in the isles. Even so, I had decided to devote a lot of valuable space to something we wanted the US industry to see, even though it was not something we could sell to prospective dealers.

I had decided that the beautiful, life sized model of the Super Bike was so exciting as a concept, that it should take the front and center spot in the booth as a symbol of what our new brand represented. I was acutely aware of the interest that the showing at EICMA had generated in Europe, and wanted to continue the momentum here in the US.

This was, after all, to be an all-inclusive E2W brand, not just a “scooter” brand.

All of us were a bit worried. We had promised our company that the conventional motorcycle industry was where our machines belonged, not in electronics/appliance retailers, EV stores, stand-alone flag ship stores, or automobile dealerships, as many in the company still believed, although the success at the EICMA show was beginning to change minds. Their concept was that these electric machines were “revolutionary personal transport”, “rolling computers” - anything but motorcycles. That sales tactic had been tried for several years, at great expense, and with no success. One argument held that the lack of success was due to the machines being too advanced and ahead of their time for people to understand. I contended that they were motorcycles, motorcycles with electric drive systems, but motorcycles none-the-less. And that they belonged in stores that had clientele who were or had made the “life choice” necessary to embrace two wheeled vehicles. I believed we needed dealership partners that were trusted by long time clients, so that a new brand, and a new propulsion system, would be trusted by extension, and had all of the expertise, service and accessories necessary to satisfy that prospective end user, or fleet user.

As the morning wore on we took the dust cover off the Super Bike model and did other preparations to make the booth ready for the show to open. No fanfare as at EICMA, we just took off the cover. It was about 9:00 am. A funny thing started to happen. Suddenly, people from the other booths started to wander over to our booth. Before long we noted people taking pictures and making calls on their cell phones. Within half an hour we had a large crowd of industry insiders surrounding our booth, actually surrounding the Super Bike model. The cell phone calls and the transmitted cell pictures continued to bring more and more people to the booth. When 10:00 am arrived and the show opened, the crowd changed character from other OEMs to dealers and dealership staff. All weekend long we had national press, industry association and newsletter reporters, other OEMs and former visitors bringing others with them, back to the booth for another look. We soon became worried that we had not brought enough literature. Everyone wanted pictures and specs. Before the first day was over we had made about 40 appointments to take demo units to dealerships in aid of their adopting our brand, and hundreds of other inquiries. Staff had done dozens of press interviews and made appointments for press visits to the Vectrix corporate facilities.

It was absolutely clear to all of us that the Super Bike model was what caused the excitement. Once the dealers understood that it was the Vx1 that was currently available, and once they had experienced the scooter going in reverse, learned about the regen throttle (being electric we could run them indoors even if only for a few feet), and heard that it could go 62 mph… they were sold. Because we were able to show a convincing road map of planned future products and had the promise (dream?) of having a fantastic electric Super Bike in the foreseeable future, they were interested and anxious to become dealers. The US team went on to open over 100 US dealerships in the remaining 8 months of its current fiscal year and placed over 2200 Vx1s on dealership floors during that time period.

After that show, Company enthusiasm increased dramatically and an all out effort, anchored with the Super Bike model, was launched - continuing the introduction of Vectrix and the Super Bike to the motorcycle world and the world press.

Up until that time, only sporadic forays into E2Ws had been made by any large brand. A few low-speed, limited distance units had been tried here and there in the western world. Meanwhile, a very large number of similar but low performing low-tech machines had begun appearing in the Asian markets and met with wonderful success. Unfortunately, most of these were of relatively low quality and had inadequate performance levels for US or European use. Literally no one had even remotely considered such a thing as an electric super bike. So, when the ROBRADY/Vectrix Super Bike was presented to the world it had an amazing impact.

As recently as last year, Mission Motors produced a prototype electric motorcycle (super bike) that has now set a two way record at Bonneville of over 150 mph. It is said to have a nominal street range per charge of 100 miles to 150 miles. This is reported to be a production prototype.

Shortly after that, Lightning Electric Motorcycle Company set a one way measured mile record at Bonneville of over 166 mph. The same machine placed second at the first sanctioned all electric motorcycle race in the US. It is also reported to be a production prototype.

The Agni bike (a one off proof of concept for the Agni electric motor company) won the Isle of Man GPXTT zero emissions race and went on to win the first race of that type in the US.

Lightning, Moto Czysz, Mavizen, Roehr, Agni and a few others are offering to build race only electric bikes for teams interested in entering these races.

Last year, an electric motorcycle dragster, the KillaCycle, began to do quarter mile races in the sub 8 second times, rivaling all but the fastest Super charged and multi engine ICE drag bikes.

Only a few weeks ago, 13 electric super bikes competed in the first officially sanctioned all electric bike race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, CA, and in so doing achieved speeds that were very close to those of ICE super bikes, doing laps only 15 to 18 seconds slower than ICE super bikes.

Yamaha, Honda, Peugeot, KTM, BMW, Polaris, and other Legacy 2W OEMs have announced the introduction of E2W machines into their product lines in the next few years.

Recently, Quantya, Zero, Brammo, EVS, and as many as 10 other small specialty E2W and EATV OEMs have entered the market place.

Four years ago, within the motorcycle industry at large, there was no evidence of such a thing as an electric super bike; or for that matter, serious consideration of electric bikes at all. I now know of a few people and some industry insiders that had been privately working on electric motorcycles and scooters in their garages and workshops for many years - but in the industry at large, this was not a seriously considered concept.

So what was the vision for the rMoto? ROBRADY design by that time had extensive experience in the motorcycle industry and had recently begun working with Vectrix on electric scooters. They understood where electric vehicle technology could go. The design for the Vx1 was completed and the beginnings of a product road map - a smaller scooter called the Vx2, fleet specific bodywork for patrol and delivery service, and even a prototype three-wheeled version of the Vx1 were in the works. What they were looking for though was something that could aid in building Vectrix into an iconic brand. The answer to that was the Super Bike, even though the technology necessary to drive such a thing at ICE like speed for any distance was not available or even understood.

When one considers what would drive anyone to go out on this sort of limb, what impetus would drive such a conceptualization, one can only think it was passion. The idea of a commercial industrial design studio being an incubator for this sort of work seems attractive and appropriate, but it’s not at all common. The driver here seems to be genuine passion on the part of all concerned. The nature of a design studio is collegial and only a shared passion could drive such a leap forward in concept… and, why not? This concept combines a lot of elements that are extremely attractive to the creative mind. Once the team was exposed to the Vx1, they were aware of the awesome capabilities of electric drive systems, the positive effect on the environment such machines could provide, the amazing power delivery concept of 100% torque from 0 mph, and the utter silence of these machines in motion. Additionally, I think, there was the passionate impetus to convince this client company, Vectrix, that driving prospective dealerships and end users to their brand, and to continued interest in the brand for the long run, required a brand awareness-“a total brand design”- that encompassed a long term product road map and a unified design of the company now and the future.

How far, given all of that, is it from the Vx1 to the rMoto? I think the distance in concept between the two is actually light years. Am I trying to make the case that this Super Bike was the only reason for the growth in interest in electric E2Ws, or that it was the single impetus for the sudden appearance, so soon after it was shown, of actual electric super bikes; perhaps not. However, I do believe that it was a prime mover, and one of the primary eye opening and imagination generators in the development of everything that has come since. Nothing else in the rapid progress of these developments has had this much influence or this much power to influence the current outcome.

During the ’08 INDY show, and for a long time after, the sales team reported dealer after dealer saying that they had decided to adopt the brand in large part because of the promise of a product line that eventually would included the Super Bike. One dealer agreed to adopt the brand only if he were promised that his would be the first dealership in his state to have the Super Bike.

Clearly, giving credit where it is due, the Vx1 is a good bike and deserved success in it’s own right. It is still the best E2W that has ever been offered to the general motorcycle marketplace in terms of design and performance. It offers acceptable speed (62 mph/100 kph), product differentiation from ICE bikes with regen braking and reverse throttle, excellent handling and decent distance per charge.

But I don’t think it would have achieved such rapid dealer acquisition, and reached the public consciousness so quickly, without the electric Super Bike model.  The Super Bike offered prospective dealers and end users a clear vision of what to expect in the future (a future which is coming about rapidly as noted above), and excited the imagination and efforts of an entire industry.

Bravo ROBRADY design.