Charging Forward with Mission Motor's Electric Superbike
November 5, 2009
A look at the technology, design, and people behind the Mission One motorcycleThe world's fastest production electric motorcycle was built in San Francisco's Dogpatch-an industrial neighborhood bordered by the city's waterfront. It is an amalgam of drydocks, former steel mills, and factories. Constructed in the 1860s and having largely survived the 1906 earthquake, the zone maintains a smoke-stacked atmosphere of sturdy stone and brick, the streets redolent of coal- and oil-powered commerce. It is appropriate then, that from this "earthquake proof" area of the old city, Mission Motors is leading the charge to shake things up in the world of electric vehicles.Mission draws talent from Tesla, Ford, Ducati, Stanford, Yale, MIT, and the Presidio School of Management. Mission's team is powered by a collection of really big brains and really small electric motors. Their goal is simple, if audacious: to create the world's best production electric motorcycle without compromising acceleration, speed, range, performance, or reliability. They endeavor to create a product where green doesn't come at the cost of power, and powerful doesn't mean inefficient. "If people are passionate about the environment, well then that's our core customer group, and if they are passionate about performance, well that's also our core customer group," says founder and President Edward West.The Mission One, their first production vehicle, has reportedly gone faster than 160 mph, and has been officially clocked at 150.059mph. It jumps from 0 to 60 in a time that compares favorably to a high-performance gas bike, but has an even more impressive 60 to 100 mph interval, because it doesn't shift gears, ever. Instead, the watermelon-sized motor delivers all torque, rocketing up in velocity without the shifting gears of a combustion motor.
So what's under the seat? Rather than the bulk and weight of an internal combustion engine, plus crankshaft, exhaust system, various cylinders, and a fuel tank, the Mission's powertrain is comprised of a high-energy lithium-ion battery pack with an integrated thermal management system, a controller, and a liquid-cooled motor. It goes 150 miles on a single charge and can recharge in two hours from a dedicated 240v (like what a dryer plugs into) outlet or in eight hours from any old wall socket. In fact, the Mission One travels 150 miles on the equivalent energy of only one third of one gallon of gasoline stored in its battery pack. An average gasoline motorcycle can only cruises for 15 to 20 miles with that little fuel.Mission's founders, Forrest North and Edward West bring a compass precision to their driving ambition. North studied at Stanford where he led the solar car team. He majored in mechanical engineering before switching to urban design and architecture. Edward was a mechanical engineer at Yale He raced against the limits of solar technology from his own solar car team, serving as Yale's hardware lead. Years later the two joined forces to create their own proprietary electric vehicle.So why build a motorcycle rather than a four-wheeled vehicle? To the engineers who designed the Mission One, the answer involves the attractiveness of constraints. "Motorcycles have a lot of constraints, and like good architecture, good design comes from these challenges forcing engineering creativity," said North. "Because the motorcycle is so highly constrained by things like thermal and electrical isolation, the powertrain that emerges from this engineering is extremely light-weight, powerful, and efficient. Motorcycles, for their size and weight and performance characteristics make them uniquely suited for electric drive better than four wheel vehicles, including instant torque at zero rpm," added West.
Their technology, however, doesn't only apply to street bikes. Mission Motors could potentially change a lot about the entire electric mobility market. West says, "Like a gasoline engine, our motor is extremely scalable-the technology, the software, the systems integration knowledge could go into all kinds of things like small automobiles, scooters, tuk tuks, jet skis, atvs, and snowmobiles.""This bike puts out more horsepower than most commuter cars," said Jeremy Cleland, who as the company's product manager, "test pilot," and amateur motorcycle racer would know. He deadpanned, "with this motorcycle we take that quantum leap to shhhhhhhhhh it's fast."So, is it a whispering two-wheeled Prius? North said, "With motorcycles the sound of the engine has always been associated with power. In our case the louder it is, the more energy is being wasted. By making it high performance and green, we are actually changing the sound of power." But it's not completely silent. Unlike a Prius it doesn't have its engine buried under the hood, so the motor hums at a low vibration. That said, most of the bike's noise is emitted from the spinning of the chain on the rear sprocket. Below 10 mph the bike ghosts along, idling silently at stoplights, it's silence concealing the kinetic power within.With the recent market attentiveness to clean technology, Mission Motors will not be the only vehicle at the electric charging station. It's a fact that West embraces: "Yes, I think that this is the future and in a short time you're going to see a lot of electric motorcycles on the road from a lot of manufactures." North concurred, saying "competition breeds innovation, its good for everyone. If one company succeeds it helps everyone. When electric car companies were not doing well, it was harder for us over at Tesla. Right now Tesla's success is our success-they can demonstrate that consumers are clearly excited about these vehicles.""We're all part of the same mission," West concluded with a smile.Guest blogger Adam Starr is a freelance writer. He lives in San Francisco. Photos courtesy of Mission Motorcycles.