Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Batteries Not Included

Batteries Not Included

Published: April 16, 2009
Shai Agassi stood in a warehouse on the outskirts of Tel Aviv one afternoon last month and watched his battery-swapping robot go to work. He was conducting a demonstration of the curious machine that is central to his two-year-old clean-energy company, which is called Better Place. Agassi’s grand plan is to kick-start the global adoption of electric cars by minimizing one of the biggest frustrations with the technology: the need for slow and frequent recharges. The robot is the key to his solution. Unlike most electric-car technologies, which generally require you to plug your car into a power source and recharge an onboard battery for hours, the Better Place robot is designed to reach under the chassis of an electric car, pluck its battery out and replace it with a new one, much the same way you’d put new batteries in a child’s toy.

Agassi told me previously that his goal was five minutes or less for the whole process. “If we can’t do this in less time than it takes to fill your gasoline tank,” he said, “we don’t have a company.”

On the day of the presentation, a group of investors and employees milled around, peering down with interest at the mechanism. The robot — a squat platform that moves on four dinner-plate-size white wheels — scuttled back and forth along a 20-foot-long set of metal rails. At one end of the rails, a huge blue battery, the size of a large suitcase, sat suspended in a frame. As we watched, the robot zipped up to the battery, made a nearly inaudible click, and pulled the battery downward. It ferried the battery over to the other end of the rails, dropped it off, picked up a new battery, hissed back over to the frame and, in one deft movement, snapped the new battery in the place of the old one. The total time: 45 seconds.

Agassi — a 41-year-old Israeli-American with a piercing stare — beamed. “Check this out,” he said, dragging me over and pointing at a set of thick two-inch metal hooks on the frame. The latches use the same technology as those used “to hold 500-pound bombs in place on bombers,” he explained. Designed to release bombs with millisecond precision, the technology is also perfectly suited to keeping batteries safely inside the cars, yet allowing them to be extracted in a blink. Agassi obviously enjoyed the swords-to-ploughshares imagery too.

Electric cars have long been a fetish object for environmentalists: electricity can be produced from wind, solar or nuclear sources with little or no CO2. But now even the auto industry seems to be taking the idea of the alt-car seriously. When the Big Three filed their restructuring plans earlier this year, all aggressively emphasized their intentions to begin producing electric vehicles and hybrids. General Motors has promised to begin selling its electric-powered Volt sedan next year. Toyota and other manufacturers have their own offerings as well.

Yet all these alternatives suffer from a common problem: refueling. The most advanced electric car currently for sale, the Tesla Roadster, runs for no more than 250 miles on a charge, and others can do only 50 miles or so; then they require two or more hours of plug-in time to recharge. The problem of refueling is so significant that fans of electric cars have a phrase for it: range anxiety, the nagging fear that you’ll run out of juice before you can find a charge spot and be stranded at the side of the road. It is the major reason that most Americans, even as they cheer on the development of low- or no-emissions vehicles, are leery of actually buying one. And if people won’t buy them, carmakers won’t make them.

Agassi aims to solve this problem. Going country by country, his start-up firm has begun to construct what it hopes will ultimately be a worldwide network of millions of small-scale “charging spots,” parking-meter-like posts scattered around downtown areas and along highways. But crucially, he is also building roadside robotized battery-swap stations that provide fresh, fully charged batteries without having to wait hours for a charge. It’s a dual system: on most days, his customers would charge their cars by plugging into a charge spot at home or at work; a long drive would entail pit stops every 100 miles or so for a battery swap. Agassi plans to make his money by buying electricity in bulk from solar arrays and wind farms and then reselling it to his customers.

The idea is a little odd, to say the least: a car with a replaceable battery? It is also extraordinarily bold, requiring carmakers to fundamentally rethink the way they build cars. But Agassi, a charismatic entrepreneur who walked away from one of the world’s top software jobs, is “amazingly persuasive,” Shimon Peres, the president of Israel and an admirer of Agassi’s, told me. In barely two years, Agassi has persuaded investors to contribute $400 million, and several countries and states — including Israel, Denmark and Hawaii — have offered him lucrative tax breaks. The French automaker Renault is spending $600 million over three years to develop a car with swappable batteries, to be released in 2011. In Israel, where Better Place has already installed hundreds of its signature blue car-charging stations, Agassi is credited with convincing the nation’s jaded political class that they have an opportunity to actually wean their country off oil. But the question is whether he can convince the most important group of all: customers.

“Some people say I’m missing the fear gene,” Agassi mused when we first met in Tel Aviv in February, and I couldn’t entirely tell if he was joking. Agassi has darkly brooding eyebrows and a square jaw, and carries himself with a granite self-confidence that is striking, even unsettling. When he came down from the hotel penthouse he was staying in — he lives in California with his wife but travels to Israel often for business — he greeted me in the lobby dressed in a sleek black suit with no tie. “He has very high self-esteem,” Idan Ofer, head of the Israel Corporation and Better Place’s first big investor, told me. “He sees himself as a world-recognized figure.”

At age 14, Agassi persuaded his father to buy him an Apple IIe by promising him 10 percent of his “lifetime profits” from writing software. It turned out to be an excellent deal: at age 21, the younger Agassi founded TopTier Software — which made portals to help companies organize their internal information — and sold it nine years later to the German software giant SAP for $400 million. SAP put him in charge of developing new software for Fortune 500 businesses.

“I’ve learned every industry in the world,” Agassi told me as we drank coffee in the hotel’s business lounge. “One day, it would be Apple and Sony. The other day it would be BP and Chevron.” By 2007, Agassi had built his division at SAP from zero sales to $2 billion annually, and he was being groomed to replace the C.E.O.

Agassi never regarded himself as a particularly ardent environmentalist. But in 2005, he attended a meeting of young global leaders at the World Economic Forum at Davos where they discussed the question “How would you make the world a better place?” After giving it some thought himself, he ultimately decided the answer was: By ending the world’s addiction to oil, which would mean finally getting people to drive electric cars. Hybrids, he argued, were a half-measure. Alternative fuels like hydrogen or natural gas or bio fuels weren’t going to be readily available anytime soon. Only electricity fit the bill. It is plentiful, already widely distributed and can be generated from extremely low- or zero-emissions sources like solar or wind farms.

The only way to get consumers to use electric cars, Agassi realized, was to solve the problem of refueling. That meant, to begin with, that some entrepreneur would have to build networks of recharging spots, going country by country. As he crunched the numbers, what really struck Agassi was how lucrative a business like this could be. Powering a car by electricity — even relatively expensive “clean” energy like wind or solar — costs far less than powering it by gasoline. The Tesla all-electric sedan, for example, uses about 1 cent of electricity per mile. A comparable gasoline car uses 16 cents of gasoline per mile. And with the United States market for automobile gas at roughly $275 billion, Agassi figured that a company controlling a world network of charging stations would become so profitable so quickly that it could subsidize its customers’ electric cars, much the way mobile companies give out free phones to people who sign two-year contracts. The electric-car business, in fact, could function like the mobile-phone industry: you could pay, say, $10 for 1,000 miles, $20 for 3,000 miles, or perhaps a few hundred a month for unlimited driving.

“If I can give you miles in a more convenient, cheaper way than gasoline, you will take them,” Agassi says. “If your neighbor is driving an electric car and paying me only $30 a week for the electricity, you’re going to buy an electric car, too. If I do it without killing your kids and the planet, then it won’t even matter if it’s cheaper or not; you will just do it.”

In 2006 Agassi delivered a speech about his idea at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and then went back to his job at SAP. A week later, the phone rang; it was the gravelly voice of Shimon Peres. The Israeli president had been in the audience, and he practically commanded Agassi to quit SAP. “You have to do this thing,” Agassi remembers Peres telling him. “If you don’t do this, why would anybody else do it?” Agassi also had another motive: SAP’s existing C.E.O. had announced he was staying on for another two years, pushing back Agassi’s possible ascension. He announced his resignation.

Within months, he had acquired crucial political and financial backing for Better Place. Peres’s support helped; the president wanted Israel to be the company’s first test market, and Peres began working as an icebreaker inside the government, getting skeptical politicians to begin designing tax incentives and cheap debt to finance the firm. “I convinced the ministers,” Peres said. “I helped him to break through.” Peres also brokered an introduction to Carlos Ghosn, the C.E.O. of Renault-Nissan, who agreed to make the first cars with compatible batteries.

Agassi received his first investment — $200 million from Israel Corporation, a firm that owns many oil refineries — after a single conversation with the C.E.O., Idan Ofer. “He didn’t have to sell the CO2 story,” Ofer told me. “Climate change is real. The CO2 equation has gone haywire. And coming from the oil business, I know that oil is becoming more and more difficult to find — I mean, this planet, how much oil can you have?”

But Agassi realized he needed one more breakthrough: some way to rapidly charge a vehicle. No drivers, he knew, will tolerate a two-hour wait to recharge when they’re on a 500-mile haul. Then one day, he and an automotive engineer were chewing over an impractical method for quickly replenishing batteries. The engineer wondered aloud: Wouldn’t the fastest way to charge an electric car be to simply replace the battery?

It was, Agassi says, his “aha” moment. The auto industry’s conceptual error, he says, is in regarding the battery as a built-in component of the car, like a gas tank. Instead, you could think of the battery as more analogous to gas itself — an entity that goes in and out of a car as needed, owned not by the driver but by the company that sells you the fuel. Think of the problem that way, Agassi realized, and the recharging company could refill its customers’ cars using battery technology and the existing electric grid without making any radical new technological innovations. The solution to electric cars lay not in re-engineering the battery but in re-engineering the car.

To get a sense of what it would be like to actually use the Better Place system, Tal Agassi — Shai’s 33-year-old brother, who works as his global manager for infrastructure — took me for a drive around Tel Aviv in a Renault M├ęgane, a luxury sedan that had been converted to run on electricity.

The car pulled into a parking lot that had been outfitted with Better Place’s electric charging posts — triangular columns that look a little like parking meters. Tal took a charging cord from the car’s trunk; it was an inch thick and one end was topped by a nozzle that had several round, nubbly electric-socket prongs. One end plugged into the charging post; I took the other end, went to the car, flipped open a little flap and inserted the nozzle with a satisfying click. A blue Better Place logo began gently glowing on the meter, indicating that electricity was now flowing.

“We want to make the cord smaller and thinner, so it’s more like a USB cord or a cord you use on your computer,” Tal said. “It’s all about making people comfortable with the idea of using electricity in your car.” Most customers, Agassi and Tal predict, will do the majority of their charging at home — Better Place will include a charging cord free for any customer who signs a contract — or while parked at work. They anticipate that their battery-swapping stations will be used for longer drives — or in an “emergency,” like when someone forgot to charge up at home or needed to leave suddenly but hadn’t finished charging. According to studies by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, almost 80 percent of American commuters travel less than 40 miles a day to work and back. Range anxiety is, in a sense, more about psychology than practical reality. Even today’s average electric cars, with a 50-mile range, can cover most daily driving easily.

Still, the anxiety can be hard to shake, as I discovered when we drove the Megone across Tel Aviv. When we started our journey, the battery stood at 90 percent; barely 15 minutes later, it was down to 75 percent. I found myself staring at the battery meter, realizing that if we kept up at this rate, we’d be risking a dead battery in another hour or so. That’s another problem with electric cars: even if there are tons of charging spots, you still have to plan ahead.

In an attempt to quell this anxiety, Better Place has designed software that effectively does the thinking on behalf of the customer — providing directions to the nearest recharge location whenever the need arises. I headed back to the Better Place offices, where I met Barak Hershkovitz, a former doctor who is designing the in-car software. Turning on a modified G.P.S. device, Hershkovitz picked a route that a driver might select — from, say, Tel Aviv to a town nearby. The device displayed the location of every charge spot and battery-swapping station along the way. With the G.P.S. mounted in your car, the computer would determine whether you could make your drive without charging; if you needed a swap, it would guide you to the most convenient swap station. When you parked to plug in, the system would tell you how full your battery will be depending on how long you charge. Hershkovitz showed me a virtual example. His on-screen car drove up a charging spot with a battery 49 percent full. The system told him that if he plugged in for one hour while shopping, it would rise to 66 percent. Another half-hour would get him to 79 percent.

“Now let’s go to Sderot,” he said, picking as his next destination the embattled Israeli city on the border of Gaza. “It’s a town which is under rocket attacks. Let’s say that I’m afraid to park there, so I’m not going to charge.” The system quickly identified two places where he could swap batteries along the highway leading to and from Sderot, so he could drive the entire 100-mile journey there and back without needing to park and charge.

“Electric vehicles are software-driven vehicles,” Alan Salzman, Agassi’s main American investor, told me. In his view, this makes Agassi — who spent years designing precisely this type of complex software for mobile-phone and courier firms — well suited for the job. “You need a software-industry guy,” Salzman added. “He’s the Steve Jobs of clean energy.”

It is an apt comparison, perhaps even more so than Salzman intended. The automobile is going through a transition quite similar to the computer industry of the early 1980s, when nobody knew which company was going to dominate — Microsoft or Apple? I.B.M. or Wang? — and a company needed a talented pitchman like Jobs to make a compelling case for its own model.

The race to produce alternative-fuel cars is certainly confusing to consumers, because automakers are pursuing five or six different options. Many are planning to produce hybrids like the Toyota Prius, which includes a regular gasoline engine and an electric motor. In hybrids, an electric motor starts the car moving from a standing stop, saving precious gasoline, and the batteries charge whenever the car brakes. But a hybrid typically can drive only a short distance on electric power alone, so it improves the gasoline fuel economy by perhaps only 30 percent. A more ambitious alternative is the plug-in hybrid, which contains an additional battery and can be plugged in to get the charge as high as possible. These cars can drive for longer on pure electricity — Toyota’s plug-in Prius, due out next winter, runs for at least 10 miles at highway speed, but eventually the gas engine needs to take over.

Electric cars, meanwhile, are coming in a variety of formats. Some are all-electric, like the Tesla Roadster. But other vehicles are not. The Chevrolet Volt, due out next year, runs for 40 miles on its batteries, and after the batteries die, a small gasoline engine under the hood turns on, powering a turbine that generates more electricity to drive the car. This “range extender,” as it is called, may become a common feature in the coming wave of electric cars, because it solves range anxiety in a way that is elegant, if not emission-free: if you can’t find a place to plug in, you can just gas up.

Perhaps the most ambitious cars are those that are powered by alternative-energy fuel-cells that take hydrogen and convert it to electricity to drive the car’s motor, producing only a trickle of water as a byproduct. But hydrogen is not widely available. Last summer, Honda began releasing its fuel-cell Clarity — but will do so only in small numbers (150 cars). And the only U.S. market for it is in California, where hydrogen can be bought in a handful of stations.

So where does Agassi’s Better Place fit into this electric universe? Because Agassi plans to buy only “clean” electricity, from wind and solar farms, Better Place customers will be, in theory, producing nearly zero emissions. But Agassi requires the cooperation of automakers. To use the charging spots, the electric ports on any car must be designed to work with the Better Place nozzle (or include an adapter); to reap the benefits of Agassi’s battery-swapping stations, the entire car must be built so the battery can be removed from beneath. This is a serious engineering challenge: the batteries in electric cars can weigh hundreds of pounds.

No carmakers other than Renault have announced plans to design cars to suit Agassi’s grid. Sue Cischke, Ford’s group vice president for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, told me that she found Better Place’s battery-swapping “an interesting concept.” She continued: “It solves this range-anxiety problem, and it’s also a way to solve this problem of battery cost.” But it requires carmakers to all agree to design cars around one standard-size battery bay. Cischke says she thinks it’s too early to settle upon a single battery standard, because battery technology is still advancing, producing new potential styles of battery each year. “It’s, in my mind, going to be a long time before we ever standardize the batteries,” she said. “The chemistry is still changing, and it’s still a developing technology rather than a mature technology.” Designing a car takes at least one year and often several; making the wrong call on a standardized battery could be economically fatal for a carmaker.

When I talked to John Hanson, Toyota’s manager of environmental communications, he was candid about the problems that automakers have shifting to new models and new fuel structures. That’s why his company is beginning with such a tiny run of plug-in hybrids.

“There is no market,” he said, for electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells or even plug-in hybrids. “People say, ‘If you build it they will buy it,’ but we don’t know. Can we sell these in significant volume? Significant volume is important so that the manufacturer can make a profit, and you need significant volume if you’re going to have a positive effect on the environment. What good does it do if we only sell 500 a year? We sell 175,000 Priuses alone in North America. Those are the kind of volumes you need to have to make an impact on the environment. You cannot expect manufacturers to do this at a loss; there has to be a response by the market. So not only are we being asked to invest in a technology and bring it to market; we’re being asked to create a market that doesn’t exist yet.”

Agassi regards the various gasoline-based “range extenders” in electric cars with undisguised contempt. Indeed, he regards cars that rely on any oil at all with a certain amount of derision — not merely because they cause greenhouse gases, but because from his perspective, oil simply isn’t a very efficient way to store energy. To Agassi, it is enormously wasteful both in terms of physics and of economics. Far better to simply trap the sun’s energy with solar arrays — or wind, which is generated by the uneven heating of the earth by the sun — and put it directly into a car’s batteries.

“You always have to start with the science,” Agassi says, riding shotgun in his sister’s hybrid. “There’s nothing better than taking a photon, converting it to an electron and converting that to motion. Physicswise, you can’t beat that. The rules of energy conservation say that the minute you turn energy into a molecule” — into oil — “you’ve lost.

“Everybody says we have an energy-dependency problem,” he continues. “It’s not true. We have an oil-dependency problem. We can’t make oil. But all the rest of the energy we know how to make. Seriously. We know how to make it.” He was working himself up into a intense, nerdy lecture. Agassi is an extremely charming guy; he has the born salesman’s ability read people and connect with them. But he also has the obdurate quality I’ve seen in so many people who are drawn to computer programming and logical thinking. Once Agassi has convinced himself of the optimal solution to a problem, he develops a nearly pathological monomania about it, disgorging encyclopedic data to buttress his points. As we drove, he delivered a passionate disquisition on the superior physics of solar energy.

How much total solar energy, I idly wondered, hits the earth every day?

To my amazement, he fired back instantly with a figure precise to the terawatt. “By the way,” he added, “that’s just the land surface.”

Agassi does not appear to be worried that the automakers aren’t lining up behind him. He argues that he doesn’t need them: Renault’s commitment alone, he expects, can produce enough cars for the 25 million potential customers of the grids he is laying out in Israel, Denmark and Hawaii, his first test markets. Renault has not announced how many cars it will produce, though Olivier Floc’hic, a spokesman, told me that the company “intends to arrive on the market massively in 2011. It’s going to be about global volumes. We’re not talking about niche.” By 2015, he added, the company plans for between 10 and 15 percent of its annual production to be electric.

The small size of Agassi’s test markets is also an advantage. Anders Eldrup, the C.E.O. of Dong Energy — the Danish firm that will sell its wind-farmed electricity to Better Place — suspects the country would need no more than 150 swapping stations nationwide. If all goes well, Agassi figures he and Renault will make enough money that competitor automakers will quickly follow. And there’s the potential of moving into China, where electric cars are expected to sell briskly to an emerging middle class that has never owned a car and thus is presumably less conditioned to feel range anxiety.

But the United States’s market will be much harder to crack. “Covering the United States with battery-swap is hard,” says Richard Lowenthal, the founder of Coulomb Technologies, a rival firm that is creating its own network of electric-car-charging stations, beginning with San Francisco and San Jose. In densely populated regions, Better Place’s model “could work really well,” he says. “But in the United States, we’ve got a lot of places where people don’t go very often. I’m thinking of Montana.”

The problem is ultimately political. Everyone agrees that the government will have to spend a lot to create enough demand for alternative-fuel cars. Automakers want subsidies to offset the cost of developing them; consumers want subsidies to buy them; and people who are building electric charging networks — like Lowenthal and Agassi — are straightforward about the fact that they, too, need government money. “I don’t need a government handout forever,” Agassi says. “But we do need something for, say, two years, until there are enough electric cars on the road to make a viable market.”

Agassi was pleased to learn that Obama’s stimulus package included $2.4 billion in development grants for electric cars and plug-in electric hybrids, as well as tax credits for customers and $300 million for state and local governments to buy electric vehicles. But even all that money would put only an estimated 600,000 electric vehicles on the road — close to 2 percent of the U.S.’s 251-million-vehicle fleet. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group argued that for 1.5 million electric cars to be on the road in the U.S., Europe and Japan by 2020, it would require $49 billion to develop the cars and batteries and $21 billion to build charging networks. It is possible that some of this money will come from Better Place’s profits. But Agassi cannot do it alone. He has figured out a way to get the electric car rolling. It just needs a little push.

Clive Thompson, a contributing writer for the magazine, writes frequently about technology.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A little off-topic

I know it's a little off-topic, but I couldn't help myself. I've loved dirt bikes since I was a kid and the time I've spent riding has been too short and too infrequent.

Here's my dream: And it's rapidly becoming reality. It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine...

Electric Motorcycle Impresses Motocross Crowd
By Chuck Squatriglia April 06, 2009 | 7:31:25 PMCategories: Electric Vehicles

SAN JOSE, California -- Dirt rider Brandon Savory had just cleared the last jump on the last turn of the last lap of the "24 Hours of Electricross" endurance race when it all went bad in grand fashion.

Savory was among 50 riders onhand to show the Zero X electric motorcycle is a real motorcross machines, and he showboated the last few laps. He got big air off the jumps and threw dirt rooster tails over teammates gathered at the last turn of the half-mile track. With excitement mounting as the end of the unprecedented 24-hour race drew near, Savory launched the bike high in the air and nailed the landing before going head over heels.

The rear suspension had collapsed faster than one of Bernie Madoff's investments after a nut securing the bolt holding it together apparently snapped came loose.
"All I can say is thank God for the helmet," Savory said moments after he and several other people carried the crumpled bike across the finish line Sunday. "That was a full head skid. I'll be feeling it tomorrow."
It was a spectacular end to an unprecedented race that otherwise went off without a hitch. Zero Motorcycles had invited 50 people to flog 10 of its Zero X electric motorcross bikes for 24 hours straight. The company wanted to prove that these new battery-powered bikes are every bit as competitive as those burning fossil fuel.
"We want to show the world we can do a 24-hour race with EVs," Neal Saiki, the company's founder and chief technology officer, said. "The technology is here, and it works."
The Santa Cruz startup leads a growing field of companies hoping to shake up the motorcycle industry by offering electric bikes to the masses. As electric motorcycles from Zero, Brammo and Vectrix catch on, big players like KTM and Honda are ramping up plans for green bikes of their own.
If last weekend's race was any indication, these rivals will have their work cut out if they want to catch Zero Motorcycles.

The Zero X is an EV you can buy right now for $7,450. It weighs in at a bantamweight 150 pounds, delivers as much as 40 miles on a charge from a lithium-ion battery, and with a 23-horsepower motor it'll hit 57 mph (and throw up a big spray of dirt getting there). Sakai says it offers the same power as a 250-cc gasoline powered bike, and with 50 foot-pounds of torque it'll smoke the tires on pavement.

Sakai, a longtime rider who previously designed mountain bikes for the likes of Santa Cruz and Haro, started developing the Zero X about five years ago. He was convinced electric drivetrains are the best way forward and motorcycles the logical place to develop them. They're smaller and less complex than cars, and the regulatory hurdles to getting them on the road aren't as high.

Off-road bikes also lend themselves to electric power because they're typically ridden short distances, so range isn't a huge issue. Electric motors also provide loads of torque, a big plus in motocross riding. The Zero X produces power instantaneously, which can catch you off guard because the bike is all but silent. Snap the throttle too hard and you'll lift the front wheel.
The company he founded has shipped 200 bikes in the past 14 months and expects to ship another 400 to 500 this year, says CEO Gene Banman. Eager to show the technology works, Sakai and Banman thought it would be cool to stage a 24-hour endurance race and set a Guinness record for longest electric vehicle race. Some 50 people on 10 teams came from as far away as England to participate.

"We're going back to spread the word about electric bikes," said Scott Snaith, who arrived in San Jose from Loughborough, England, the day before the race. He and his brother Tim sell electric bicycles at their shop 50 Cycles and have been looking to add a motorcycle to the mix.

"We've wanted something like this for five years, but it's only now been available," Tim Snaith said. "There's definitely a need for them. Gas is about a pound a liter (about $5.50 a gallon)."

Advocates of electric motorcycles believe the bikes could help preserve access to parks and public trails because they're silent, they don't pollute and they don't do as much damage to the landscape because they're smaller and lighter.
"I think the fact people are starting to lose access because of noise and pollution issues will really accelerate the development and acceptance of this (technology)," said Jay Friedland, Zero's VP of sustainability and legislative director for Plug In America, the EV advocacy group. "These bikes are quiet. We're staging a race in an urban area and we aren't pissing off the neighbors."
The race started at 11 a.m. Saturday in what had to have been the quietest start to a motorcycle race ever. Ten bikes streaked away from the starting gate with nothing more than the whir of their 8-inch, air-cooled electric motors and the chatter of their chains. Each team was allowed three batteries, and the first bikes headed for the pits about 20 minutes in. Zero says the 2 kilowatt-hour batteries are good for 40 minutes of hardcore riding, bbut the teams were pushing them hard all day and didn't want to risk running out of juice on the track.

Swapping the batteries proved remarkably easy: Loosen a thumbscrew, remove a bracket and slide it out. Installation is the reverse of removal. Even with a stripped thumbscrew, one team managed to get in and out of the pit in less than two minutes. The best of them were doing it in less than a minute.

By noon, the field had spaced out as bikes came and went to swap riders and batteries and quickly douse the motors with water to keep them cool. Riders did 15- to 30-minute stints to start - motorcross racing can be grueling - but as evening fell they starting getting tired.

"We were all starting to feel it about 7 (p.m.)," said Wired's own Ryan Meith, a member of Team Marin Zero-Wired. "We'd all been going flat-out until then."
Things really started getting tough in the wee hours, as riders tried to catch a little sleep between stints on the bike.

"I was trying to sleep, but every time I'd move, my legs would lock up," said Jason Matson, a materials manager at Zero who was participating in the race. "It was getting tougher and tougher to kick a leg over the bike."

They key to success was maintaining a consistent pace, managing battery use and keeping the bike in one piece. Teams were replacing brake pads with some regularity, a few shock absorbers blew out and one team managed to fry its motor. Still, several people were impressed by how well the bikes took the beating. The riders took almost as much abuse, and by morning many of them were stiff and limping.
"It's been a long event," Meith said.

But as the sun rose, so too did the adrenaline, and with every passing hour the teams got more excited as the end of the race drew near. Suddenly the bikes were a little faster, the jumps a little bigger. Savory was putting on a spectacular show before the back end of his bike broke; it looked like the swingarm mounting bolt snapped under the abuse incurred during 300-plus miles of hard riding.

Savory and his teammates carried the bike across the finish to take ninth place, having completed 858 laps. That was well short of first-place finishers Hotchalk, which racked up an impressive 1015 laps (507.5 miles) and clocked a top speed of 27.49 mph.

"We were behind several times," said rider Rex Halepesha. "We really had to work for it. Saving the battery and saving the bike was key. It was a whole lot of fun."
As for Team Marin Zero-Wired, it took fourth place, completing 927 laps after team captain Dave Wood literally crept across the finish line with a dead battery.
UPDATE: Tuesday, April 7: Gabriel DeVault, production manager for Zero Motorcycles, dropped us an email late Monday night to say the bolt didn't snap, a nut came loose. "It sounds bad when you say the bolt snapped," he notes. He also notes that all 10 bikes finished the race.

He's got the frame and offered to send pictures and more info; we'll post it once we've got it.

Photos: Jim Merithew /
Video: Andrew Lebov / Meatier Media. Courtesy Zero Motorcycles
See Also:
The Zero X: Two Wheels, Zero Emissions, Loads of Fun
KTM Promises a Race-Ready Electric Dirt Bike in 2010
Motorcycles Finally Go Green

Riders pushed the bikes hard on the half-mile course, racking up as many as 507 miles in 24 hours and averaging 25.86 mph. Many riders said the bikes took the abuse remarkably well, although brake pads wore with some regularity and a couple of shocks blew out.

The Zero X uses a 2 kilowatt-hour battery that weighs 40 pounds and is good for about 40 minutes of hard riding. Each team was allowed three batteries and two chargers - a standard 10 amp unit that did the job in 2 hours and a "quick charger" that cut that time in half.

Lloyd Clarkson of team 50 Cycles catches a few Zs after a two hour stint on the bike. Although most riders did no more than 15 to 30 minute stints, Clarkson spent two hours on the bike in the wee hours so his teammates - all of whom came over from England - could get some shut-eye.

Members of Team Hotchalk gather at the track's last turn to catch the last minutes of the race, which they won after completing 1015 laps.

Brandon Savory gets a hand carrying the remains of his bike across the finish line after the rear suspension collapsed following an especially hard landing. His team finished 858 laps.

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It's so weird to not hear the loud, buzzing, screeching, two-cycle engines!
Posted by: Kevin Cotham | Apr 6, 2009 6:53:33 PM

This is a great idea for motorcycle world :-)
Posted by: isma | Apr 6, 2009 8:55:15 PM

@ Rodax - an average speed of 27 mph over 24 hours and 507 miles on a tight and twisting dirt track is pretty damn quick. keep in mind they rode for 24 hours, so the average speed would come down as fatigue set in.
Posted by: EVs RULE! | Apr 6, 2009 8:59:56 PM

The article has a misprint. 27.49mph is probably the winner's average speed, not top speed.
Posted by: Jeremy | Apr 6, 2009 9:00:57 PM

Posted by: Sparcus | Apr 6, 2009 9:17:20 PM

I agree, averaging 27mph for 24 hours, replacing brake pads, batteries, etc. is a good pace. It's hard to say how good without gas cycles doing the same test on the same track. Either way, I can't wait for them to come down in price.
Posted by: Steve | Apr 6, 2009 9:35:30 PM

They claim 23 horsepower is the same as a 250cc gasoline-powered bike?
News flash: 250cc motocross bikes have been making 45-50 horsepower for 30 years.
I love electric technology, but it's not well served by dishonest hyperboly. Watching these machines make laps, I was more reminded of BMX bicycles than motorcycles.
Instead of a 24 hour challenge where "anyone" could ride, why not two 45 minute motos? In the first, use pro riders and their factory machines; in the second, the same riders on electric bikes.
Compare apples to apples: bike vs. bike, rider vs. himself.
Posted by: KBCraig | Apr 6, 2009 10:16:33 PM

There are a few technical mistakes in this article.
The top AVERAGE speed was 27 mph, this includes pit stops and slow corners, etc... That means they're spending a lot of time at 35-45 mph to hold that average.
The bike that failed on the last jump of the race simply had a nut come loose on the swingarm pivot. Nothing snapped. It should have been checked regularly, things tend to come loose during a 24 hour race.
All 10 of the bikes that started the race finished, even if the last one was pushed the final 50 yrds to the finish line.
The fastest riders could dump a battery in 15-20 minutes, but as they learned how to properly utilize the energy available they streched their stints to 30 minutes or so. I'm looking at the transponder data now and will post some further info on the Zero site soon.
Most of these riders had never even tried a Zero before jumping on and going at it for 24 hours. It was simnply amazing to see how fast they adapted and while there may have been a few complaints about battery life, not one person complained about the performance of these machines.
The bottom line? These bikes proved their mettle and it's beyond question that electric motorcycles have arrived in a big way! It's only a matter of time untill you see electric classes at every track, and you may very well see electric-only tracks in urban areas where gas bikes are simply too loud.
Posted by: Gabe | Apr 6, 2009 10:17:35 PM

comparing 23 hp electric to 50 hp ICE power is not that far off - especially when it comes to off-road and racing conditions.
The reason is that the electric drivetrain delivers the full torque at /any/ RPM, including standstill.
There are no interruptions, no shifting is necessary. This gives the driver full control over the power at any given time!
You cannot overstate the advantage this gives you in an offroad race.
Posted by: Tom | Apr 6, 2009 10:33:54 PM

Gas and gas-powered vehicles will become the new status symbol. Rich people are always looking for new symbols. There will be ultra-exclusive clubs where if you don't burn some amount of hydrocarbons regularly, you won't be considered proper breeding material. :)
Posted by: ray | Apr 6, 2009 11:26:21 PM

You lost me three paragraphs in with this horrendous metaphor: "The rear suspension had collapsed faster than one of Bernie Madoff's investments..."
That's not very fast. In fact, it took years for Madoff's (and Nadel's) Pomzi shemes to start unraveling. The Bush administration went in and out of office faster than Madoff's economic implosion.
That wasn't a misfired pop-culture reference, that was a reference to major news, actual bona-fide REAL NEWS. You might as well have misspelled "9/11."
I have no idea what the rest of this article was about. I stopped at the third paragraph, not wanting to read more from the clueless.
Do you guys have any editors? Do you want one? I'm available.
Posted by: John Patten | Apr 7, 2009 4:25:49 AM

god bless you
Posted by: wsty | Apr 7, 2009 5:31:37 AM

Not impressed. About the only one I would consider is the KTM, and even then no thanks. 40 miles per charge? 27hp?? That is less than a 250cc MX 4 stroke bike (just a whopping 7 more than a 150cc 4 stroke CRF150R), long way to go and the price needs to come down, 7k for a bike that could only compete against 85cc 2 strokes and 150cc 4 strokes? please.
2 Stroke DI for me (KTM needs to bring this on over), MX bike prices have gotten stupid crazy and now with these they'll be even worse and environazis will STILL ban them because of (enter one of a million reasons here).
Posted by: Rickey | Apr 7, 2009 5:32:32 AM

Too bad all you horsepower haters don't understand electric motors and torque. Have you seen the Hp and torque curves for a 250cc engine? VERY peaky. This electric motor probably makes more overall power.
Posted by: 50pascals | Apr 7, 2009 6:13:16 AM

I too choked at "The rear suspension had collapsed faster than one of Bernie Madoff's investments..." John Pattern nails why this is a poor metaphor. Besides the factual issues, it reads as pathetic knee-jerk cuteness. Analogies should heighten consciousness, this one was instead numbing. I hope the author doesn't cook the way he writes.
Posted by: Dave | Apr 7, 2009 6:56:35 AM

Unfortunately, after market products to increase the sound of the bike will become commonplace because the loudness of motocross is what makes it so fun to watch, and you could also say, ride, negating one of the main reasons environmentalists and the such would adore it. But other than that, this is a pretty impressive concept.
Posted by: Aaron | Apr 7, 2009 7:00:48 AM

John Patten is a douchebag. Stay on topic dummy.
Posted by: batman | Apr 7, 2009 7:30:21 AM

and apparently Dave is too...dummy
Posted by: batman | Apr 7, 2009 7:32:36 AM

This will make an awesome trail bike.
I know that there are many off-roaders who really like the destruction of the environment, giant horsepower, noise and general rudeness in the back-country, but, alas, I am not one of them, I think this would be perfect for my old days riding back-country in the Colorado mountains at 12000 feet, and no power loss from altitude, no jetting problems, no scarring animals away.
And, no, for me or any other man who is confident in themselves, this not a threat to our manhood.
Posted by: bvocal | Apr 7, 2009 9:09:44 AM

"and quickly douse the motors with water to keep them cool."
Can you do that with an electric motor? Or am I missing something here?
Posted by: madmax | Apr 7, 2009 9:21:15 AM

If you waterproofed the circuit boards in this bike you could literally run it underwater. The motor and battery will happily churn along fuuly submersed.
Check out the river crossing in the video on this page...
Posted by: Gabe | Apr 7, 2009 10:03:22 AM

As a former 2-stroke enduro rider, I can't tell you how much fun I would have with one of these. I watched my youth unfold with one area after another close to off-road riding, due mostly to noise. Neighbors get on your case. But electric - wow - you could ride ten of these things past someone's backyard and not wake the baby. You could put motocross parks in any city or town with no complaints about pollution or noise. You could allow trail riding on tons of lost access areas by eliminating the noise and smoke. Bring it!
Oh, yeah, and by the way: I've done almost every conceivable sport and thrill ride from rapelling, rock climbing, catamaran sailing, river kayaking, scuba, mountain bikes, street motorcycles, ultralight aircraft; and I will say that off-road motorcycling is probably the most consistently fun. Find the right riding area and it's like an all-day roller coaster ride.
Posted by: ArtInvent | Apr 7, 2009 10:12:33 AM

Totally cool story and even cooler product. There was a show, I think on the discovery channel, that pitted an earlier prototype of this bike against a gas powered one and did well, even beating the gas bike in some tests. To the genius who questions horsepower at 23 for the electric bike against 45-50 for a 250 gas powered - did you even read the part about the ebike weighing 150 lb..? How much does the 250 weigh? Ever hear about power to weight ratios? I mean come on do you have a clue or are you just being negative to be annoying? To all the other nay sayers - what is it exactly about moving forward that terrifies you so much? Even the most dim witted of the herd should be able to see that there is little down side to this direction and it is approaching becoming inevitable when stacked against all the obstacles motor sports are/and will be experiencing (environment, noise, gas prices). Not a perfect solution yet, but then how many of us would like to drive around in a model T. Amazing for a first gen. attempt.
Posted by: Ledhead | Apr 7, 2009 10:18:05 AM

@ madmax-The motors would have to be sealed from dust anyway, so yes water is fine to spray on them, they'd probably have fins on the outer case for air cooling, water would just accelerate the cooling.
I've ridden an electric-converted honda 50. With two tractor batteries and a 12 volt automotive starter motor for power. the range wasn't great, but then again the parts were not new tech either. It ran fine and the speed off the line was very surprising for such a relatively heavy setup. having ridden many larger (than a honda 50) bikes, I'd say it was as good off the line as a 1978 Yamaha 175 dualsport I had in high school. Bring the tech up to date and it would have been much better. The one I rode weighed probably twice what was quoted in this article.
Electric doesn't need the horsepower that gas does due to nearly constant tourque across it's rpm range, that's a part of why hybrids are efficient. Imagine sitting at idle and slipping your hand off the clutch. A gas engine would die, the electric (if it had a clutch for some stupid reason)would just bog down, draw a lot of current and take off, probably spinning the back tire the whole way. These electrics probably won't compare to a gas on the track, but then again how long has the gasoline motorcycle engine been in development vs. the electric motorcycle motor? How close has it gotten in a short time?
Posted by: Hoax | Apr 7, 2009 10:21:16 AM

Give me my 2-stroke smoke and BRAAAAAAPP!
Posted by: ScottieBoy | Apr 7, 2009 11:11:07 AM

Just like one of the comments above, Once I see it on a real Supercross track with real riders keeping up with the current 250 and 450 Four-strokes I'll be excited.
Posted by: Ben | Apr 7, 2009 11:17:32 AM

@bvocal - this bike and others like it are going to be fun for the track, this test was an impressive performance. But you would have to be nuts to take it into the back-country of Colorado or anywhere else far from an electricity source with range this limited. Over time I'm sure that the range will improve as the technology continues to evolve but for now people need to be realistic.
Posted by: Rider | Apr 7, 2009 12:37:21 PM

Excellent idea, I would love to own one. I am going to research online right now where can I purchase mine.
Keep the great job!
Posted by: | Apr 7, 2009 12:40:57 PM

@John- "plenty of speed and power without the noise and pollution."
Ah-- yeah, those Lion batteries won't cause any pollution when you are done with them (or in their manufacture). And I'm sure the power you use to charge them isn't coming from Coal or Gas fired plants either... Oh-- dreams of fuzzy bunnies playing in the meadows.
Remember the burning laptops? Now your car or bike can too!
Posted by: libtard | Apr 7, 2009 1:28:57 PM

Wow, we have some petro-fascists, well Rome was not built in a day, I am sure you would have laughed an Noah too, hope you can tread water well, LOL. Yah lets trash the planet for a few extra horsepower, nice.
These bikes are just plain cool and, maybe they don't have the specs of the petro bikes, but again, the last I checked petro is not a renewable resource at this point, meaning we are finding resources stored a long time ago, we are not creating the resources today via a renewable method like solar, wind, water movement... yes today's economy and grid still runs on petro products, but I think it should not take too much vision for where we need to go, and renewable sources must be sought..
Batteries will be recycled, why will that generate pollution? I do not follow. Burning batteries is a design and manufacturing problem, ever see a petro spill? you know how much water can be contaminated by an improper oil change?, ever see a fire caused by a petro tank? again I think those are specious arguments focusing on a relatively young technology. I on the other hand see tremendous breakthroughs in practicality and I really believe more will follow, this is just the beginning not the end.
Electric motors actually have tremendous potential for rapid torque, its the power plant/ battery that needs research and Development, but it will come, I have no doubt.
Actually alcohol is renewable, there could be bikes made for running ethanol, this is the best of both worlds, but I think battery breakthroughs will be needed because the larger passenger car demands will not be satisfied with ethanol, unless we find a way to make ethanol with electricity, hello garage innovators .... :-)
Posted by: David | Apr 7, 2009 2:34:36 PM

My only whine as an avid hiker (I support multiple activities on FS lands, etc; i'm not anti-ATV), is that the silence could actually cause some issues if the drivers aren't paying attention. I'm used to being able to hear these bikes before they come whining down the trail and around a corner so I can step out of their way. If they're practically silent, it could be dangerous.
Posted by: BWS | Apr 7, 2009 4:29:14 PM

I took part in this event and we did cool the motors by pouring water on them at the pit stops. 24 hours of motocross racing and the bike kept running.
How many high strung modern 4-strokes could survive 24hrs of racing with out mechanical failure?
As far as riding in the back country, if you are trail riding at a moderate pace you could get about 1.5 hours of ride time. We changed batteries after 30 min. to keep the batteries from discharging to far down that would increase charging time and to keep the riders from getting too tired. Besides we were accelerating hard out of corners and braking hard into them. This style of riding burns more juice.
They are now working on a purpose built MXer. I can’t wait!
Posted by: rob | Apr 7, 2009 4:34:55 PM

Why use electric on already efficient motorcycles? 'cause you get a big bang for the buck.
@ Steve, who said:
"It's hard to say how good without gas cycles doing the same test on the same track."
Gas motorcycles actually can't do the same test on the same track. That's why they used electrics.
@ KBCraig, who said:
"Instead of a 24 hour challenge where "anyone" could ride, why not two 45 minute motos?"
For this first event, because 1) electrics can do a 24 hour off road motocross challenge in the middle of a large city, which gassers cannot, and 2) a 24 hour endurance test truly stress tests both riders and equipment, which a 45 minute ride does not to the same degree. The first step was apparently to demonstrate off road durability and overall track long term range - mission accomplished, I'd say.
In the case of this event, electrics did what gassers cannot, so a comparison isn't possible.
Nonetheless, you might eventually see both electric and gassers at some of the same events.
Keep in mind that all existing tracks are set up with gasser performance in mind which has basic characteristic differences from electrics (as displayed by some of the poster confusion trying to understand why electrics can do better in some situations with less horsepower). Wait until you see both gassers and electrics (and hybrids, eventually) on courses that are specifically set up for the relative strengths of electrics. For a fairly unrelated example, consider Formula One automobile racing, where the electric KERS system doesn't win you a race automatically (there are too many other factors than just power train type), but it makes those that use it harder to pass on straight sections.
Just a guess, I suspect for pure no shift electrics vs pure gassers it'll be a low end torque no shifting electrics at the very start of acceleration areas vs. faster top end speed gassers at the end of long straight aways see-saw to some extent.
Stay tuned - the racing world is just starting to get interesting.
In the real world, how often do you get to go at your maximum top gasser speed on your way to work before you hit a red lightm stop sign or traffic, the police stop you for speeding or some soccer mom in a big SUV cuts you off without warning?
Posted by: Nice job in that 24 hour electric enduro, rob. | Apr 8, 2009 4:01:12 PM

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Good news in the news,22049,25307759-5001028,00.html

Electric car given green light in Australia
Article from: AAPFont size:DecreaseIncreaseEmail article:EmailPrint article:Print
April 08, 2009 12:00pm
THE Federal Government has given an electric car the green light to drive on Australian roads.

The Mitsubishi i MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) was designed and produced in Japan, and can be driven 160km at speeds of up to 130km/h when fully charged.

Unlike hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, which run on a combination of fuel and battery power, the MiEV is an all-electric car which can be charged from a household electricity supply.

The MiEV is the first such car to receive federal registration approval after passing 83 safety requirements.

Subaru and Toyota are also eyeing the Australian market, Toyota with its all-electric FT-EV, which is not expected to be on sale here for at least another three years.

The Subaru Stella is a better chance to reach these shores earlier, but it is likely to carry a prohibitive $100,000 price tag.

While Mitsubishi have so far refused to put a price on the MiEV, it is expected to be around the $30,000 mark.

Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said the MiEV's all-electric design brought Australia a step closer to emissions-free driving and the design was a win for the challenges of climate change.

"If powered by 100 per cent green energy (the car) would result in no emissions,'' Mr Albanese said.

He admitted there was no infrastructure for electric car drivers at service stations to recharge.

Because of longer distances, the current model is unsuitable for country dwellers, and would be targeted towards city commuters.

"Given that 85 per cent of Australians drive less than 100km a day, this vehicle would suit the lifestyles of most in our community,'' Mr Albanese said.

"Australia is the most urbanised country on earth - most of our citizens live in our cities around the coast.

"In terms of dealing with issues of reducing carbon pollution ... but also the effect of smog in our cities, the effect of noise pollution, all of those are advantaged by this vehicle.''

While the initial cost of the car might seem high, long-term savings could be made without petrol bills.

"The Government has not been asked to provide incentives - this is a commercial operation by Mitsubishi,'' he said.

Mitsubishi in Japan will enter large-scale production in June for the domestic market, but approval to sell the car in Australia has yet to be granted.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

In the news

Good news for all as mass production leads to economies of scale leading to lower prices.

The Last Oil Shock

You really need to read this book. If you don't want to buy it, you can probably borrow it from your local library (like I did).

It's easy to read, doesn't have too many formulas and figures (just enough to back up the point being made) and flows very well. The conclusions are pretty impressive.

Covers such topics as:
- Why the oil supply can run out long before the oil in the ground is gone
- Specific research into reserves, and why the oil peak has already happened and supplies are in decline
- Economic consequences of high oil prices
- Debunking the Hydrogen-car myth. Hydrogen needs so much electricity to produce, there isn't enough energy in the world to allow us to swap to H2 and still drive the same amount of miles
- The vulnerability of our economies to high oil prices, particularly food. Much of our food travels a LONG way to our supermarket shelves, and if the oil price doubles, most of it will be un-affordable

If you don't start your own electric-conversion after you read this book, you should!