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June 30th, 2010


Alternative Vehicles – Evolution or Revolution, part 1


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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.

Vectrix VX1 Electric Maxi ScooterThere 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.

KTM Electric MotorcycleThe 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.

ROBRADY / Vectrix Electrix SuperbikeAlthough 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.

Brammo EnertiaConfusing 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.”

Derbi GPR ev Electric BikeAnother 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.”

Motoczysz TTXGPOnly 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.

  • Richard

    Very well put Victor.
    We are still at the early stage of development of the technology in the drivetrain and controller functions. The remaining rolling stock is not new but many of the players in this field are new and thereby attempting to create their own versions of the new E2W. In the process they miss the boat and create confusion in the market in regards to the direction. I will say that there is no singular global direction due to the market demands being different depending on the economic requirements currently in play on each continent. The emerging markets have vastly different requirements from lets say the G7. Europe and North America are very different as well with the first evidence being the price of fuel on those continents. Because the source is the same, the consumer price is based on taxes in each zone. This price deeply impacts the intended use and North America will have a more difficult time in acceptance of this new type of motorization. In USA I believe the electric motorcyle will be the domain of wealthy individuals and those wanting to make a statement until the technology surpasses the ICE performance. For success the vehicle MUST be equal to its ICE challenger. Those are the market rules.
    One area of concern to me is the abundance of start-ups that don't have a good understanding of vehicle dynamics. This is important on a “Superbike” or performance bike and one that few companies understand. ROBRADY does understand that design is extremely related to its function. One difficult goal to achieve is a front and rear weight bias to get a good handling bike. Batteries are not light and the shapes are not entirely adjustable when you need many of them in series to achieve the performance. You can't put them anywhere. Race teams sometimes use lead as ballast when they can to achive their optimal weight bias for good handling. The ROBRADY design is an effective use of design that melds with the function to create an attractive alternative to the ICE without making you look odd in the process. Motoczysz is also going in the right direction but yet don't have the production experience of the Vectrix and ROBRADY teams. Every day is different and we need to attract electronics people to the vehicle dynamics people. Designers are the matchmakers in this endeavour. Only then will great children be produced.

  • Victor Pritzker

    Richard,
    You have touched on several interesting subjects that go beyond what I have discussed, but to the same point I think. Not understanding differences in the various segments of the world market, not taking into account the different economic market drivers, and more to the specific point that the larger market demands performance and price parity with comparable ICE machines. Recognition of those issues along with those I have discussed in regard to market confusion, are necessary as part of the maturing of this segment.
    So, there are two challenges. The first is understand these issues as we have discussed them. The second is for the engineers to accept the challenge of meeting these standards. This will not be easy, but I know several of these individuals, and they are passionate and brilliant, and I believe they will do so in time.
    And perhaps the third is to accept that these machines are motorcycles (with some interesting product differentiation items like reverse and regen braking), and not some other life form that does not conform to evolving industry markets, and belong in conventional industry sales channels simply because they don't use gas.
    Your last few sentences echo my idea of how this will come about. As we are talking about the broad concept of “Total Brand Design” that takes all of this into account.
    I hope you will stay tuned to this site for the second part of this article, as there is further discussion to support that contention.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Z4ZK6PWWZYV3QFE3ZYN6Q4QCIM Addison Lewis

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Z4ZK6PWWZYV3QFE3ZYN6Q4QCIM Addison Lewis

    These are really amazing bike models.. The look is so cool and stylish.. I have gathered a huge knowledge about it from your post.. I was wondering to know what is the top most speed of such bike?