Lightning on Two Wheels
By Bill Moore
Just a few blocks away from the headquarters of Tesla Motors in San Carlos, California, is a nondescript industrial building on American Street. Parked in front is a large blue and gold trailer, the kind you see in the pit areas of many racing venues. Down a hallway, past a pair of cluttered offices is a warren of shops dedicated to building the fastest racing motorcycles on the circuit. One room is a veritable museum of national and international champions, custom-built cycles that garnered fame for their drivers and the little family-run business who built them.
Back in one of shops stands a Ducati motorcycle, stripped to its frame. It too has lofty aspirations. Come this June it hopes to be the first electric motorcycle to win the TTXGP on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. A demanding 38-mile course that rises from sea level to 400 meters and twists and turns its way along the coast, it has long tested the skill and mettle of the best gas-bike racers in the world.
If the highly modified Ducati wins or even places well, it will be the catalyst its owner, Richard Hatfield and his investors are looking for to launch his new venture, a trio of high-performance electric two-wheelers: a super-cycle clone of skeleton bike standing on the frame here in San Carlos. There will be a bit tamer, more consumer-tailored cycle that's a step down from the superbike, and an electric scooter Hatfield dubs the "45-45-45"
"It'll do 45 mph for 45 miles and cost $4500," he explained as he led Russell Frost -- a fellow journalist -- and me on a tour of the racing cycle center.
I met Hatfield a couple years ago after he'd built his first blisteringly-fast bike, the original lithium-powered Lightning. We arranged to have dinner at Bucks, a famous Silicon Valley haunt where multi-million dollar ideas are said to have been hatched on its napkins. He arrived on the Lightning and after dinner demonstrated its rocket sled-like acceleration in Buck's nearly deserted parking lot.
During the course our dinner table conversation, I shared with him my view that the first mass-accepted electric vehicles aren't going to be cars like the Tesla. They will be small, efficient scooters. Someday, they will provide millions of Americans with a fast, efficient, affordable and fun alternative to the ubiquitous automobile; maybe not year-round, but depending on the climate, a significant fraction of the year. That comment apparently struck a chord with him and he began looking for a way to augment his electric motorcycle production plans with a consumer friendly scooter. His prototype, based a model the Chinese build in their millions, sat strapped onto the back of his Chevrolet pickup truck, and once he unloaded it, it immediately drew envious onlookers like fruit flies to sweet wine.
The heart of every electric vehicle is its motor and in the case of the Manx racer, it is a 150 hp General Motors-built-but-disgarded EV1 e-machine stripped down, like the bike, to its barest essentials. Hatfield, who has built his own low-cost AC drive motor that will power the consumer bike -- and other light-duty applications -- marvels at the engineering and workmanship that went into the motor that once powered the fastest electric car on the planet, clocking in at 184 mph in the mid-1990s.
How'd he come by it, you ask, especially since GM crushed virtually all of the 1,500 of the EV1s it built in the late 1990s?
"I got the proverbial late night call," Hatfield explained with a smile. That motor and the A123 lithium nanophosphate batteries that will power it will make the ghost of the Ducati a serious competitor in the zero-carbon race around Man.
As you might expect, Bill Dube -- the owner of the record-busting Killacycle -- is an active participant in the Ducati project, as is A123 Systems, whose batteries power the Killacycle. Where Dube's machine is about acceleration, Hatfield's is about endurance. Both also are very much about speed. You won't trek out to Sturges for the annual Harley convention on them, but the average, off-the-shelf Milwaukee thrashing machine that will give Hatfield's Lightning any serious competition will be few and far between... That's the plan, at least.
As Hatfield's machine gradually morphs from Ducati to Manx with the skilled guidance of A&A Racing’s Ray Abrams and Bill Dube, his little Chinese scooter demonstrates the potential of a Lightning heart and lung transplant, though it should be noted that both the batteries, the 250 amp hub motor and the custom designed controller all are made in China. Hatfield and his Mandarin-speaking fiancee have spent months scouring the country vetting manufacturers.
Over lunch at a local Afghan bistro, he explained that since the economic turndown, he has found many plants that until lately employed thousands and hummed with activity, virtually shuttered with production lines silent, manned only by skeleton staffs.
"We visited ten cities in China last November," he told me, "and found many plants where the lights were off. The managers had to turn them on to show us their production lines. Scooter, motorcycle and ATV vehicles have been the hardest hit."
Which raises the question of where Lightning will build its machines. Hungry Chinese manufacturers would clearly be keen on getting Hatfield's business. For now, he wants to do most of his production here in the US and is in discussions to use a local firm's robotic welding technology, which he says will neutralize any labor costadvantage he might find in China. Final assembly is likely to happen on the West Coast, but his plans are still evolving, as is the scooter.
At the moment, it resembles the tens of millions of similar scooters built in China; only the decals distinguish who's who. You have to look closely to see the difference between the former gasoline model and Hatfield's electic version, but they are distinct. Gone is the exhaust pipe and muffler the once belched blue smoke from the noisy little two-stroke (which have been banned in many Chinese cities). Instead you see the hint of a black box that houses the Thundersky lithium ferrous phosphate batteries. These feed current through a custom designed controller mounted low near the rear hub motor.
When I asked Hatfield how powerful the motor was, I thought he said 250 watts, which would make it a sluggard performance-wise. A sluggard it is not. With the ability to handle up to 250 amps of power, the blue prototype is a kick-ass performer, even with two big adults astride. Scuff marks on the plastic fairings bear witness to the fact that the mild mannered-looking machine has caught more than one person unawares. Hatfield cautions everyone to wear a helmet and keep your wrist low on the throttle.
I got to take the first run up the street between rows of blue collar businesses: repair shops, car customizers, glass fitters. Acceleration is everything a sane person could want and more. The speedometer on the scooter goes to 60 km/hr. You can easily peg it well beyond that. Hatfield claims it'll do 50 mph and I believe him; and it doesn't take all that long to get there, either.
Steadily a crowd started to form, drawn by the speedy, but strangely quiet, smokeless machine. In short order, a professional motorcycle racer took his turn and returned with the now-famous EV-grin. He was amazed. If this is a foretaste of what the Manx machine can do, he wants on the list for the commercial version. Another onlooker was prepared to buy five of them right then and there after riding it.
Okay, it does great on the flat, but what about San Francisco's notorious hills? Hatfield reports it'll handle them easily. After two adults rode the machine around the block, I reached down to check the temperature of the motor and controller. They were barely warm.
Hatfield hopes to begin production by this summer sometime. Assuming we begin to see a return to $3 gasoline and people again start looking for more efficient, less costly ways to commute, his 12-cents-a-day scooter will make a tantalizing choice, especially with this kind of performance.
LIGHTNING PROTOTYPE ELECTRIC SCOOTER PHOTOS
Richard Hatfield's prototype Lightning electric scooter.
Battery box houses Thundersky lithium batteries that give prototype electric scooter 45 miles range at 45 mph.
Photo journalist Russell Front found the ride so exhilerating, he wants to buy one as soon as they are available.
Racing motorcycle legend Ray Abrams with Lightning electric cycle builder Richard Hatfield.
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