Tradition Is Not A Business Model: Mission Motors

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When is a motorcycle more than a bike? When does the electric motorcycle become more than a powertrain? One of the largest hurdles that electric motorcycles face (along with electric vehicles as a whole) is the public notion that these vehicles are like their internal combustion counterparts, and therefore fit into the same preconceived anatomy of what a motorcycle should look and behave like.

However, with electric motorcycles comes the opportunity to start with a fresh slate on how we move about on two-wheels. If form follows function, then with this new function should come a new form. Yet, I still find it amusing when I see electric motorcycles with fabricated fairing fuel tanks. Granted there is a lot to be said about industrial design and its relation to psychology, but I think this fact illustrates the unfluctuating desire of motorcyclists to make every square bike fit through a round-hole.

Despite this allegory, the motorcycle industry sees electric motorcycle startups challenging a lot of norms that we still cling to desperately in the motorcycle industry. Our final stop in the “Tradition Is Not A Business Model” tour of motorcycle startups, takes us to San Francisco, California and the offices of Mission Motors. Fresh on the heels of Mission’s announcement of the Neimen Marcus Limited Edition Mission One, I got a chance to sit down with company CEO/Founder Forrest North and Product Manager Jeremy Cleland, to talk about how technology changes the way we understand and use motorcycles; and perhaps more important, how manufacturers can design and build better motorcycles better in the future.

With offices residing on the top/street level, I got a glimpse into the inner-workings of Mission Motors’ basement level engineering bay. There I got to meet the team of engineers responsible for the design and production of the Mission One. Before heading back upstairs for our formal interview, I had a brief discussion with software engineer Seth LaForge on the traction control program he wrote while on the salt flats of Bonneville for Mission’s recent land speed record run.

Imagine that scenario for a moment. You’re racing at 150+ mph, 1000’s of miles away from your workshop, and your bike is spinning up the rear-wheel on the loose salt lake bed. For teams running a conventional motorcycle, especially in a production-based class, your options of tuning to fix the problem are quite limited, but on an electric motorcycle that’s hardly the case. A former Google employee, LaForge was able to program a quick traction control application into the Mission One’s computer. No added hardware, no swapping of ECU’s, just an infinitely tunable hardware and software package and a caffeinated motivated dot-com’er.

It’s a simple story, but it has a powerful implication. With the ushering of electric motors and drive systems, we are essentially digitizing an analog system. Instead of gears and levers actuating machinery, we have computer controllers and software applications giving rise to a motorcycle’s actions and user experience. This gives rise to new features, refinements, and amenities previously unseen in the two-wheeled world, as North explains:

“The electric motorcycle provides for some new experiences. There are some that are focused on the track, like traction control, launch control, and really the feel of the motorcycle. I think that there is some technology that we’ve developed around the battery, the motor, and the controller, that is really the elegance of the whole system that is important to the end user. There are some bells and whistles that you can have above and beyond what the rider is used to, but just to start off with the electric motorcycle is so much easier to use. When you get on it, you are directly connected to the road, and you can control how you accelerate/de-accelerate almost infinitely.”

We’ve already seen this sort of product innovation come to fruition with the rumor that Brammo is working on some sort of use for an iPhone on its motorcycles (sorry, can’t give you more details on that one yet), and photos of MotoCzysz using an iPhone as a dashboard piece.

Nay-sayers of electric motorcycles strike these features off as gimmicks that distract from the core riding experience. Perhaps a function of “different strokes for different folks” there certainly will be those riders who are attracted to the idea of a real-time map being updated via GPS, while others will find more use for a smoother launch from a stoplight and shiftless acceleration.

While novel and an enhancement to the user experience, the increased “gadget factor is only one aspect of this equation. The increased use of electronics also means a refinement in the motorcycle experience as a whole, which while subtle and perhaps not as flashy as the aforementioned gadgets, creates a better connection with rider and machine.

“The people that we’ve had on the bike so far, the things that they end up noticing are probably not things that you think of as being really high-tech. For instance, my wife rides on the back and she says, ‘Wow, my helmet doesn’t knock into your helmet.’ It’s not that the technology has really changed that, its the switch-over from the gas to electric…those little aspects that don’t really sound that impressive or high-tech, are actually quite difficult and require a lot of technological savvy”

However the real groundbreaking element here is less apparent, and quietly the Mission Motors team is working on a very powerful notion: motorcycles as platforms.

“The focus for us right now is in the elegance of the whole platform to enable all these different applications…you can make a system work, or you can make a system a platform for different configurations, which are either user-generated or user-tunable. So by making an elegant platform, you allow for those future possibilities”

Motorcycles as platforms is an important concept for two very different reasons. First is the obvious, building a product that can be updated in the future, and will gain further value as the consumer interacts with it, means a product that will evolve to meet the tastes of the consumers who use it. It allows for more customization and personalization than could ever come from an assembly-line. In a market like the motorcycle industry, where motorcycle purchasers typically spend an additional 10% of their bikes value putting aftermarket parts onto their bike, this concept becomes even more important.

I call this the skin-deep platform, because that’s essentially what it is, another layer to the end-user experience. Try not to draw a negative inference from that word choice, as I don’t mean it to detract from how important an updatable platofrm is to a company and its consumers. We see great product platforms with this design structure, the iPhone being a shining example of such a platform, as Forrest pointed-out in our discussion.

“I think the iPhone is a good example. Where some folks have made a platform, and it works as a phone, it works as a calendar, it probably works to do your email as well. But the iPhone really made an elegant form that they’ve opened up to people to make applications, and now there’s 70,000 apps. They didn’t achieve that because they planned out those 70,000 apps, they achieved that because they made an elegant platform.”

One of the mantras an entrepreneur should exhibit is the premise that one should work smarter, not harder. And this is exactly what motorcycle platforms achieve, and why it has such a large benefit to a motorcycle company. Instead of thinking about motorcycles as a software or product platforms, I’ve been waiting for the day when a motorcycle company realizes that they can build a platform that can develop different types of motorcycles from a single nugget, and I’ll go ahead and say it right here…the company that gets this concept right, will be the company that can compete with any currently entrenched motorcycle manufacturer (Honda, Ducati, Harley-Davidson, you name it).

As I’ve talked about in the articles earlier in this series, there is going to be a point in time where the Japanese 4, along with the Europeans, enter into this space with their huge R&D budgets, dealer networks, and marketing teams. For the past we’ve already seen reports coming out of the Toyko Auto Show that reveal electric and hybrid scooter lines coming from the Japanese 4. It’s only a matter of time before these giants can maneuver themselves to enter larger, more important markets. As North explained to me, the global recession has provided a buffer to the Japanese 4’s entry into the electric space, but as the economy thaws, that won’t be the case for much longer.

“It’s been a pretty difficult time for the economy to take a nose-dive, on the flip-side though, it has enabled a lot of stuff. It’s an interesting time, eventually the big players will move into this space, but it’s a tricky time for them to do it right now because all of their budgets have been slashed.
So do they put all their eggs into this basket/industry that hasn’t been mapped out yet? Unlikely. So they’re going to wait until it gets defined. In the meantime its made vendor relationships much better. So all the people that make the components outside of the powertrain, they’re working on slim margins, and watching their numbers go down, so they would love to jump into a new category that is emerging, and be a big player in that category.”

“It’s been a pretty difficult time for the economy to take a nose-dive, on the flip-side though, it has enabled a lot of stuff. It’s an interesting time, eventually the big players will move into this space, but it’s a tricky time for them to do it right now because all of their budgets have been slashed.

So do they put all their eggs into this basket/industry that hasn’t been mapped out yet? Unlikely. So they’re going to wait until it gets defined. In the meantime its made vendor relationships much better. So all the people that make the components outside of the powertrain, they’re working on slim margins, and watching their numbers go down, so they would love to jump into a new category that is emerging, and be a big player in that category.”

Expanding on the idea further, Cleland states that the absense of the major manufacturers in creating new products and designs, coupled with decreasing sales and factory output, has made part suppliers and vendors more willing to work with small startups like Mission Motors.

“We see interest from major vendors, like Brembo, who would be interested in making some new innovations in products that they wouldn’t have been interested in before today. There are no new models coming-out for 2010, everyone has stopped there research and development dollars, as far as new model releases, so its a time in the industry where we can explore new avenues and gain a little bit of time and traction, whereas everybody else has to do the status quo right now.”

Speaking about maintaining the status quo, one of the things motorcycle companies as a whole do a poor job of is product differentiation. That’s to say, for a company like Honda, which has a product offering for virtually every market segment, they must expend a tremendous amount of energy replicating basic components and systems. Leaving everything out of the motorcycle equation sans the motor, look at how many different powerplants Honda must not only engineer, but also build, service, and supply parts for in order to bring its bevy of motorcycles to market. Sure, there is some overlap in the common parts bin; for instance you’ll find a de-tuned CBR motor in Honda’s new CB1000R, and in this respect you could call the CBR motor a platform…but it is a completely unleveraged platform.

Perhaps the closest example we have of this concept in the motorcycle industry is from Ducati. With four motors basically powering their entire line-up and a handful of chassis designs, Ducati is able to not only reduce their overhead costs, but also employ leaner supply-chains, and delay product differentiation in assembly and manufacturing. Even as the shining example of the motorcycle industry’s use of platforms, Ducati cannot overcome the drawbacks of the internal combustion engine (ICE) when it comes to fully embracing this concept. Take their soon to arrive Multistrada 1200/Stradaperta as an example.

The new adventure bike from Bologna will use a Superbike derived 1098cc/1198cc motor (depending on which rumor you listen to), which was made to function in a very different application than the Multistrada is expected to be used by its customers. This fact virtually assures the need for Ducati to re-tune and reprogram its motor to its different application. They will have to change injectors, lower-compression, adjust fuel maps, and do a host of other modifications to make the Superbike motor behave more like an enduro.

Walking hand-in-hand with motorcycles as platforms is the concept of modular design. When I sat down a year ago to write what a motorcycle startup should look like, this concept was the corner-stone of our business plan. A single chassis, a single motor, and infinite variations.

Modular designs allow not only for a motorcycle to be built to a customer’s unique tastes, but its interchangeable modules allow for the point of product differentiation to be delayed as far down the production process as possible. For a supply-chain buyer, this modular production is an achievement of Nirvana, and for a company like Dell, it was the single largest driving factor that rocketed them to the front of the US computer industry. Customers want choice, companies want low overhead, and modular designs assuage both of these desires.

Looking back now, I realize my concept was flawed. The internal combustion engine is not a modular powerplant, and while my theory would have been a step closer in the right direction, it wasn’t the elegant design that Forrest North described to me a couple weeks ago. If my theoretical company was to expand beyond the sportbike market, it would have to source a new motor, develop a new “nugget” as we had called our chassis/motor combination. But that wouldn’t be the case for Mission Motors.

Electric motorcycles turned my business plan on its head, and also provided a true solution. From a purely logistical point-of-view, the ability for electric motorcycle designs to truly incorporate modular components, both in hardware and software, is the single greatest competitive advantage the electric motorcycle industry has over motorcycle companies who base their designs around the internal combustion engine. A company that views its motorcycles as a platform, and builds them as such, sets itself up in a position where it truly can compete with a larger company that sticks to traditional design theories because platforms are force multiplier. These companies are working smarter, not harder…and the difference between those two ideas is substantial enough to level the playing field.

“The platform that comes from the drivetrain is really more software based than in the gasoline market. When you’re talking about a platform for a variety of vehicles, yes it’s a powertrain…we consider the powertrain to be everything from the batteries to the final drive. And that powertrain could be a platform in-of-itself, but it is also running on a platform that allows it to work in the most efficient way as it can. It’s this software platform allows for you to do for all sorts of creative things.”

For a company like Mission Motors, once you have the basis for a refined sportbike, the labor to translate that effort into a refined enduro is reduced to how long it will take you to get your 19″ wheel installed, and change a couple lines of code. Add in a modular platform design, and you can build an enduro off of a sportbike, while having the two bikes retain maybe 90% of the same parts without extending your manufacturing line or overhead costs. A modular platform let’s you build a motorcycle like Dell builds a computer, instead of how Ford built a Model T.

ICE cannot follow electrics down this path of greater market and logistic efficiency, and you can divide the motorcycle industry into two camps based off this fact, and these concepts. You either view electrics as a powertrain alternative, or you view it as a platform that’s beyond batteries and motors. There are too many amateurs that masquerade themselves in this industry as professionals, and I would draw the distinction between those two groups on this line.

It’s clear where Mission Motors, and people like Forrest North stand on this issue. This is more than about replacing gasoline, this is more than making a motorcycle except only better. This is an exercise on vision, and its about taking motorcycles into a new era.

This is a revolution, not an evolution.

Photos courtesy of Jason Yu.