The Four Killer Apps of the Electric Motorcycle

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Electric motorcycles: love them or hate them, our two-wheeled future is here my riding brethren. I can hear the collective groan of petrol-heads as this subject is broached though. Yes, it is hard to get excited about electric motorcycles in their current state, and why should you be excited about them? I may not blindly gush about electrics as much as the Kool-aid drinking EV crowd does, but I’m decisively on the pro-electric side of the debate. Yet, even I have a hard time looking at what is available on the market, and imagining a scenario where my hard-earned blogging dollars would grab an electric motorcycle over its internal combustion counterpart.

Part of the reason is that there is no real appealing reason to go electric at this point in time. Oh sure, you can do your part to save the environment, though the net-effect with our coal-dependent energy infrastructure will still play a tremendous detriment on the reality of one-less petrol-burning motorcycle on the road. That being said, electricity out of a home outlet is super-cheap, out of someone else’s outlet it is even cheaper, and the “where our power comes from” debate really should be looked at as separate from the green-vehicle debate. Of course, the break-even analysis on the total cost of owning a 250cc motorcycle compared to even the most robust electric motorcycle is still fairly dubious — and let’s be honest, grouping the current offering of electric motorcycles in with a 250cc commuter bike is probably a disservice to the Honda CBR250R and Kawasaki Ninja 250R’s of the world.

So with all the Negative Nancy about electrics, why am I still talking about them? Because there is tremendous potential with a fully digital powertrain, that’s why. Forget the CD vs. tape cassette analogy, this is a Pandora vs. LP shift in technology — but we just don’t have a killer app yet for electric motorcycles. Defined as “the concept that a singular feature is so prolific that its proves the core value of a larger technological system, often driving consumers to make a purchasing decision on the product or system that highlights the feature,” it is clear that electric motorcycles have yet to define the advantage they represent to motorcyclists — not because there is no value in the system, but because electric motorcycle manufacturers have failed to provide the killer app to their core technology.

As it stands now, electric motorcycles are basically conventional motorcycles with batteries and motors that replace fuel tanks and engines. It is the same basic offering that we have had since the turn of the century, except with three times the cost, forty times the refuel time, and a quarter of the range. While the big hold-up for electrics, battery technology, is still advancing rapidly, at the end of the day consumers are still be making apples-to-apples comparisons between internal combustion and electric motorcycles because only the most basic elements of this new technology is being offered by electric OEMs (i.e. getting you from Point A to Point B).

There is a tremendous amount at stake for electric motorcycle OEMs beyond just the basics of the market status quo, as the first electric motorcycle OEM that figures out how to deliver a killer app to the electric motorcycle space, is going to be the first electric motorcycle company to find real traction with the born-on-gasoline motorcycle riding masses. Progressing from immediate needs to long-term goals, I have compiled a roadmap of four killer apps that the electric motorcycle space needs to bring to market. Each killer app builds off the next, and the whole exercise concludes on what I believe is the most important idea in motorcycling. Now, who is going to be the first to make these ideas a reality?

1. Destination Awareness

Range anxiety is a huge issue for electric motorcycles. How far can you ride before you re pushing 300+ lbs of motorcycle, and forced to ask complete strangers about using their electrical outlet…for the next several hours? With the highway and city mileage on electrics being so vastly different, range anxiety not only includes how far a destination is from you, but also how you will get there, both in terms of route-planning and riding style.

While larger battery capacities and quicker recharge times are the ultimate answer to this pressing issue, one interim work-around for OEMs is to integrate destination awareness into their electric motorcycle platforms (note the use of this word).

My car has a GPS, my camera has a GPS, and even my phone has a GPS, so why is that not the case with electric motorcycles? Imagine this scenario: you have half a charge on your battery-powered motorcycle, and you need to go 30 miles down the road to your next destination. Not only should you be able to plot the route to where you are going right into your electric motorcycle’s dash (hello useable turn-by-turn directions), but the motorcycle should be able to plot the directions based on the energy still available from its battery pack — in real-time. This means that as you consume more energy, say at a rate higher than anticipated by the vehicle, the computer adapts your directions to include more energy efficient sections to your route.

Working hand-in-hand with this navigation system should be the ability to tailor the bike’s performance for the plotted destination and rate of energy consumption. For bonus points, the ability to plan out a whole day’s worth of usage should be a standard feature, thus allowing multiple trips to be rationed and accounted for in the consumption of a single or multiple charges. Current electric motorcycle owners already have to juggle this kind of mental math in their heads, with regular and proscribed riding regiments being the only real sure-fire method of ensuring an electric motorcycle isn’t stranded on the side of the road, with the rider crying like a little schoolboy with a skinned knee.

Giving electric motorcycles the ability to be on the same page as the rider, and managing the expectations of that rider, go towards a massively better interaction between motorcyclist and machine, which also conveniently lays the groundwork for the second killer app for electric motorcycles.

2. User-Feedback Systems

For some time now, certain MotoGP factory teams have been running haptic technology to convey information to riders. The most obvious application of this technology was during the 800cc-era of the sport, where teams were limited to 21 liters of fuel, a huge technical issue at the time. Managing fuel consumption became a huge part of MotoGP racing, and played a vital role in race bike development and race-day strategy. While the technical performance of the machines was ever increasing, some teams noticed that they could make gains on the other side of the equation: the rider.

Adding haptic feedback to the seat of the motorcycle, MotoGP teams were able to alert riders via vibration when they were riding in a manner that was consuming too much fuel. The system not only created a conditioned response over the long-term, but in the short-term it allowed riders to gain valuable information in a manner that allowed them to maintain their concentration on what was before them on the race track.

Haptic technology is nothing new, as it has found its way into video game controllers, cellphones, and substitute-husband devices. The technology does have some novelty in the motorcycle industry though, as very little work has been done in the user-experience interaction & design space — a budding industry in its own right. Building off the ideas set forth in the first step on this roadmap, there are some obvious applications for haptic technology on electrics, and motorcycles in general.

Taking a cue from MotoGP, electric motorcycles for instance could provide a feedback loop to riders when they were riding too aggressively for their proscribed route. Other obvious use-cases include notifying a rider when he or she is over a proscribed speed or RPM, just to name a few more. The takeaway from this idea is that motorcyclists are already distracted individuals, and as motorcycles become more connected to the rider, we need to reevaluate and improve how information is passed from machine to rider, so the inverse becomes a richer and easier action.

3. Motorcycle API

One of the real secret sauces of electric vehicles in general is this idea of a digital drivetrain. Controlled and operated by pieces of software, electric motorcycles offer a level of tuning potential that is unparalleled in the internal-combustion world. Virtually tunable to an infinite level, electric drivetrains can be made to do just about anything possible on two-wheels (or even just one wheel, as the case may be) — and the real kicker is that anyone with a programming background can manipulate these systems.

While it is a tall-order to expect consumers to sit down with their laptops, and hack into the code of electric vehicles, it is not a big leap of reason to believe that approachable and customizable interfaces can be engineered to make an electric motorcycle’s systems more approachable to a layman. It surprises me that there isn’t an electric motorcycle on the market right now that readily allows you the consumer to tune its power delivery, re-gen application, traction control, etc.

All these features and processes have been hard-coded by EV OEMs into the machines, so it stands to reason that it is only a small step in making those systems open enough to allow users to tune these variables further to their preferences. There has been a lot of talk in this space – it has been one of the big promises of electric motorcycles, but to-date, it is still vaporware.

Adding user-customization to a motorcycle’s drivetrain is just the first obvious step in the API process, however. For the first time on a digitally accessible level, motorcycles are coming to have an understanding of what each of the bike’s systems are doing in real-time. I look at a bike like the Ducati 1199 Panigale S as one of the biggest missed opportunities in this space.

Electronically controlled suspension (sadly, rebound and compression damping only) and Ducati Data-Acquisition+ with GPS: two very technologically advanced systems in their own right, but even more powerful if they could only talk to each other. Ducati built these features on the Panigale to exist in silos (actually, they’re silos because two different third-part suppliers built these systems for Ducati, but I digress), but if the suspension could break through the air gap between it and the DDA+, then it would only be a matter of some lines of code to have an active-suspension system on the world’s “most advanced” super bike.

Imagine being able to adjust your suspension to suit each corner of your favorite track, or have your bike immediately soften your suspension the second you get on a highway on-ramp. It could — all the basic mechanical systems needed for this operation are already in-place on the Ducati 1199 Panigale S, but sadly they are “dumb” in the munitions sense of the word, and are not connected to each other. Even worse, you as a motorcyclist or third-party developer, can do nothing to change this reality.

There is nothing stopping internal-combustion motorcycles from having this level of sophistication, but electric motorcycles in the way they operate already have these channels of communication open between the various components. The ability to interconnect each system on a motorcycle, and then make those systems available to end-users and third parties is a huge revolution for the motorcycle industry.

This idea of a motorcycle having an API takes the power of innovation out of the exclusive hands of the OEMs, and puts it in the hands of everyone involved on the motorcycle support chain: OEMs, dealers, owners, & aftermarket developers. This not only creates a new marketplace of ideas (and dollars), but draws on the experience and needs of each party – something that can only lead to a better all-around experience.

4. The Motorcycle as a Platform

What this is all leading up to is the idea that motorcycles need to become platforms. The company that realizes how to leverage this concept the most effectively, is the company that finds a foothold so strong in the motorcycle industry, that its position will be completely defensible. Not convinced? Consider a platform from a different industry, like Facebook.

Regardless of what you think about the social network’s IPO, Facebook as a company is one of the safest investments on the NASDAQ right now. While analysts mull over privacy concerns, an ever-changing newsfeed design, and whether Mark Zuckerberg will ever be able to channel his inner-Steve Jobs, the real issue comes down to the site’s users. The issue for Facebook isn’t whether you will stop using its service (presuming that you have already found usefulness in the site’s basic services), it is whether you will leave Facebook for a competitor’s social network.

Think about that for a second though, would you join a different social network if none of your friends were on it. By its very definition a social network cannot exist if you can’t socialize with your peers on it. In essence, services like Facebook reach a critical mass where the volume of users and interactions make it impossible for a user to switch to competitor on their own. In reality, if you want to leave Facebook for greener pastures, you are going to have to convince a hundred or more of your closest friends to do so as well.

Facebook isn’t alone in this space. Apple does it with its iPhones, iPads, and Mac hardware pieces, which all leverage some form of its iOS/OS X software systems (for further contemplation, think about what the Apple App Store does to mobile phone ownership). Google does it with its ad-based revenue model through its search engine, cloud-based apps, and Android mobile operating system. Your credit card company does this with its points-based rewards program, and so on. Now, imagine this idea taken forward into the motorcycle industry. Boom goes the dynamite.

We do have our own watered down version of this idea in motorcycling though, and it is often masqueraded around as the concept of brand value. Ducati and Harley-Davidson are perhaps two of the most potent examples of strong branding in the motorcycle space, though those exercises are often viewed upon as a way to sell a $30 t-shirt, not as a way to create a platform for the brand.

Think about it this way though. If you buy a Ducati or Harley-Davidson…who are you then likely to meet and ride with over the course of owning that particular brand of motorcycle? Why, other Ducati or Harley-Davidson owners, of course. So now as a motorcycle owner, you are creating a peer-group of fellow riders, a social network if you will, who have the same two-wheeled tastes are you do.

Now if that peer-circle is as brand-exclusive as stereotypes lead us to believe, let’s think for a moment about what sort of purchasing decision is likely to occur the next time around you want a motorcycle. Sure you could buy a metric cruiser or another premium European brand of motorcycle, but Yoda would bet lightsabers to Deathstars that once you have been indoctrinated into the brand, a lifetime owner you will become. This is the value of viewing motorcycles as a platform.

Branding is just the tip of the iceberg though. This concept extends to modular designs, aftermarket sales, market penetration, customer relationship management, etc.

With electric motorcycles, the possibilities in these realms are even more endless and infinitely variable than with internal-combustion engines. With fully digital machines at our disposal, there is a plethora of opportunities to improve and redefine how motorcycles interact with the rider, both on and off the bike. Additionally, for the first time there is a possibility to innovate on how motorcycles as machines interact with each other.

There is a brave new world of innovation here, and the company that capitalizes upon it, and realizes that once motorcyclists and dialed into their brand, the platform will retain them throughout their two-wheeled life. The added benefit of EV OEMs is that they are still on the outskirts of the industry enough not to be drawn into the pervasive and painful conservatism that exists in the motorcycling.

Get to work guys, the clock is now ticking.

Title Photo: Mission Motors