Busting the (Motorcycle) Electric Drivetrain Myth

FEB 5 2015 BY TDILLARD 8

From the very start of high-performance electric motorcycles, we’ve seen virtually every player offer its own “electric drivetrain” package.  Brammo would have us believe there’s enough demand, and a viable business model there to spin off its main product line, the Brammo motorcycle, to Polaris and concentrate on its own EV power train solution.

Which begs the question.  Have we seen any examples of a company shopping out a drivetrain to an OEM?  Let’s look at the biggest small-EV drive players, and see what they’ve done.

Current "Digital Drive" module offered by Moto

Current “Digital Drive” module offered by MotoCzysz

The rendering above is from a Plugbike story back in 2010, when MotoCzysz started winning races with their 2009 ep1c bike, and they announced the “suitcase” drive package dubbed the “MotoCzysz Electric D1g1tal Dr1ve” system, or EDD.  Soon the bike morphed into something that wasn’t using anything resembling this package, and today the company shows the “D1g1tal Dr1ve D1”  looking like more of a suitcase than their “suitcase”, and boasting some specs that are now eclipsed by the rest of the electric superbike field, at 60kw continuous power output and, strangely, no energy capacity specifications.  We should also note, the graphics appear to be of around a 2010 vintage as well.

Are we aware of any application for this package?  No, we are not.  One would assume it would be fairly identifiable, visually, and we haven’t seen it.  One would also assume that it would be identifiable by specifications, and we haven’t seen anything that matches up there, either.  We’re forced to guess the package may never have made it out of the rendering phase, though, by appearances, it may be the heart of this bike – the 2012 IOM TT contender:

2012 E1pc

2012 E1pc IOM TT bike

Unfortunately, there’s very little information posted on the site about any developments past this bike, or this power train.  (For details on the 2013 matchup between the E1pc and the Mugen bike, see this story on Autoblog.)

Moving on to the next motorcycle powertrain contender, let’s look at Mission Electric.  Though the company has been through all sorts of corporate drama in recent months, (which we tried to report on here), one of their first moves after fielding their bike was offering their drivetrain work to other manufacturers.  Via a 2010 story in Greentech Media:

“The company has formally unveiled a program …to sell electric drive technology to established manufacturers, according to CEO Jit Bhattacharya. Under the program, Mission will sell battery packs, motors, controllers and management software, along with other components, to other companies. The company will sell both complete drivetrain blocks as well as modular components.

Mission MC 600E controller rendering

Mission MC 600E controller rendering

But not all of the customers are motorcycle makers.

“It is a much more diverse vehicle set,” he said. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, trucks and buses could all end up with Mission’s technology. Two large customers have already agreed to insert Mission’s technology into prototype vehicles. Bhattacharya wouldn’t identify the manufacturers, but he said back in February that China could become an initial test market for lithium-ion battery powered motorcycles. Japanese manufacturers, although wielding hefty name brands, were less interested.

The next-generation Mission R and RS bikes show a pretty unique motor/reduction gearing enclosure, and our reports are that they offer their own branded controller system, the MC600 Motor Control Unit.  Understand, however, having a manufacturer design and build a system and package it to your specs is as widespread a practice in this industry as in virtually every industry on earth.  Though the box says Mission, it could very likely be built by, say, Rinehart to Mission specs.  Here’s where the question of who owns the design becomes important, and are we convinced that the Mission design is something an OEM couldn’t just spec for themselves, if they were, say, Honda?

Naked (NSFW) Mission R

Naked (NSFW) Mission R

Let’s move to one of the more interesting, and long-lasting players in the game: Zero Motorcycles.

Zero has been forging along with what has appeared to be a laser focus on building, selling, and supporting motorcycles.  Even their racing has been completely non-company efforts by employees and volunteers, yet, again in 2010, we got reports of them offering a drivetrain and getting funding for it.

Zero Z-Force motor

Zero Z-Force motor

Today, that looks like this: the Z-Force motor, the PowerPack, the add-on PowerTank, the app, all with the integrated BMS and modular design.

The motor has evolved over the last few model years from an off-the-shelf PMDC, to a PMAC unit made to Zero’s specs by a US manufacturer, to the current design that is nearly 100% Zero’s own work, and manufactured in China.  If that’s not a proprietary drivetrain, we don’t know what is.

Have they sold it to anyone else?  Not to our knowledge, and we’re pretty sure we’d recognize that motor’s anodized fins, and, again, its specs.  Just to be clear, we have tried to buy everything from the bits and pieces to the complete, plug and play system, and they’re available.  Even to li’l ol’ us in our garage.  We’ve got to assume the only company running the Zero drivetrain, as awesome as it is, is Zero.

BrammoPower battery exploded view

BrammoPower battery exploded view

Finally that brings us to Brammo.  With the Polaris buyout, Brammo is pitching their drivetrain through the BrammoPower site, and we get a pair of battery packs.  On the site, we’re seeing listed partners in the rest of the segments, notably Parker, Sevcon, Team and Polaris, but we’re not seeing specs on motors, controllers, housings or anything else.  We’re forced to wonder if Polaris is their only customer, or they have a bunch in the funnel that they simply can’t talk about right now.  Keep in mind, Brammo has farmed out much, if not all of their battery pack design and manufacture for a couple of years now.

Here’s the issue.  A lot of this hinges on the battery technology, and that’s a very fast-moving target.  The Zero battery packs are probably the highest performing packs to-date, and would be our choice if we were to look at a motorcycle-type application – that is, one where power-to weight, and energy-to-volume are the key considerations.  Still, we’ve got to assume that next year, the Zero packs will have evolved, simply due to evolving battery chemistry, making any powertrain work that’s battery-specific pretty much moot.  Hanging your hat on building a cutting-edge battery pack, especially if you’re not a battery manufacturer?  Not the best business plan.

Keep another thing in mind, too.  Virtually every company manufacturing li-ion cells of virtually every description also offers them packaged as modules, and with their own BMS.  You’re going to compete with that?  Not likely, what’s more likely is you’re going to spec that, buy it from them, and brand it as your own.

Our humble conclusions?

One of the things we’ve learned over the years mostly from building our own electric-powered contraptions is that the so-called powertrain, or, in simpler terms, battery, controller and motor is, by nature, easy to package as a unit.  Your controller and motor are married parts and your battery pack is another module in that puzzle.  It’s a natural to build a bike with your basic bike components, and be able to look at the drivetrain as one, interchangeable and upgradeable chunk.  With a few bike builds to our resume, we’ve run 6 different battery systems, and 4 different motor systems. Could we package a killer, cutting edge “drivetrain”?  Without breaking a sweat.  Could we sell it?  That’s another story.  Has anyone actually sold it?  Not that we know of.  Ever.

We’ve got to conclude that, after all the work these companies have done, and the successful bikes and other products they’ve produced, shopping around an EV drivetrain “solution” is simply opportunistic, no-risk marketing.  They’ve got it, why not float it out there and see if anyone wants to buy it?  We do have confirmations that Harley’s Livewire team went to Mission for help designing their drivetrain, though there’s no way to really determine the extent of that help, and certainly, a lot of talent and brainpower has been hired out on occasion, from several talent pools, to help design specific products, but that hardly qualifies as selling drivetrain technology.

Building a business on solely an electric drivetrain?  We’re going to have to conclude, “myth busted.”

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8 Comments on "Busting the (Motorcycle) Electric Drivetrain Myth"

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At least one owner rides a trike with a ‘Zero drivetrain.’ Of course, that could mean anything from “I built everything else” to “I bought a bike and put another wheel on.” Let’s see if he’s reading this.

They should look to do replacement, high performance batteries for Hybrids, like the Prius and the Insight. Seems those battery designs Froze 5 years ago.

You could easily double the battery capacity for those cars.

I always wondered how well Mission Motors and some of the other EV motorcycle companies were doing in selling their electric drivetrains. How disappointing to learn they’re not. I had hoped that at least some were selling to at least a few customers who were building their own custom racing bikes!

But I’m not sure that hopeful advertising deserves to be labeled “myth”.

Brammo Power – (?)

…….Our track record and culture of innovation define Brammo Power as an ideal “hit & run” powertrain partner. You can take that to the bank!!!

As your powertrain partner, Brammo Power will leverage our experience and our proven technology to your advantage……

…..just ask “out-in-the-cold” current Brammo EV motorcycle owners and dealers about an “ideal powertrain partner”. Here today, gone tomorrow. Guaranteed fastest bailout in the business.

Ted, thank you for the Great article. I’ve been following eBikes for just as long as I’ve been riding ICE bikes (a very long time). I had heard whispering that TMC was in contact with Mission. I’m still surprised that they went with a longitudinal drive rather than a lateral. But then TMC said (claimed) that they spent a lot of time on getting the “sound right”. As a Harley Davidson owner, I understand the importance of The Sound. But I don’t expect an eBike to sound anything like an ICE bike. Not an engineer, but I know this much, that right angle drive takes up space and weight that could have been better used by more batteries. Come on now, 53 mile range? I know I expect too much, but a little standardization would be a good thing, a universal ESC used by all the brands could bring down the price of that component, especially if most of the manufacturers are using 3-phase A.C. motors. The same goes with chargers. And batteries, 18650’s can be packed into pretty much whatever shape container you want. All this still leaves plenty of flexibility for the overall style of the eBike, without… Read more »

“The motors I’d choose, however, are more of the “pancake” style, since they give you a higher power-to-weight.”
I agree, in fact I’d like to try something like the Protean in-wheel motor on a bike. I know the unsprung weight is an issue, especially on a bike, but it would have so many other advantages.
I’m sure with further engineering, the weight of the motor could be reduced.
How about a trials bike with one on each wheel!