Inside Wavecrest Labs
By Bill Moore
|A black-clad figure moves through the night across a cold desert plateau. The terrain ahead of him is illuminated in a eerie green light. Despite being weighed down with a 140 pound load, he moves at a steady, silent 20 miles per hour. Behind him are a dozen others, each moving with surprising stealth and speed.||
A startled desert scorpion scurries out of the way at the very last moment as the phalanx of mountain bike tires roll by. Cautiously the scorpion retreats, its pincers alert, its poison tipped tail quivering above its head..
As quietly and suddenly as the black masses appear, they disappear into the still night, leaving behind a few faint pherenomes of human sweat and ribbons of narrow tracks in the sand.
Meet the army of today... at least a few select units of it. That's the vision of the folks at Wavecrest Labs of Dulles, Virginia, where the three-year-old firm has mated their new, totally silent electric hub motor to the Montaque folding mountain bike. They hope to provide the US military with hundreds of their new electric bicycles for use in just the type of operation described above, giving US forces unmatched speed, maneuverability and stealth.
On April 30, 2003, EV World got to briefly try out just such a bike during a private briefing and tour of the company's development labs and headquarters west of Washington, D.C. (See our interview with the company's new chairman, retired Army general Wesley Clark.. )
Tom McMahon, Wavecrest Lab's director of communications and government relations, picked me up at the Washington Hilton in the company's new Honda Civic Hybrid. Having been a legislative assistant to both a Congressman and a Senator, as well as working in public relations in Washington for the last 16 years, McMahon knows his way around the back streets of DC. As we drove down quiet side streets, lined with noble Georgian colonials and federal period homes on the hill above Du Point Circle, he explained that this is where some of the Capitol's most influential people have lived.
Unfortunately, Tom's intimate knowledge of the area didn't prevent us from getting stuck in traffic as we wound our way west along the old C-and-O canal towpath that parallels the north side of the Potomac. We passed the time talking about the company, the history of Washington and EV World.
Eventually, we reached Wavecrest's headquarters, which is located a few miles from Dulles International Airport. There Tom ushered me upstairs into their conference room, barely giving me a chance to look at the bike on display in the lobby. He assured me that I'd get my chance to take a closer look at their technology.
Within a couple minutes, several executives filed into the room and introduced themselves. Chris Washburn and Mike Fritz were formerly with EV Global, Lee Iacocca's ebike firm. Rick Eagle was on the initial Ford Escape Hybrid team.
Those introductions alone reveal a lot about Wavecrest and Joe Perry, the rotund but energetic company president. Having made his mark in the computer industry, Perry believes in hiring the best talent and he's not at all embarrassed to raid other companies to get them, including virtually all the big names in the automotive manufacturing and supply business.
One of the PowerPoint slides in their corporate overview presentation is festooned with Fortune 500 logos. Each logo represents one or more of the companies Wavecrest employees have worked at.
There are currently about 90 full-time, part-time and temporary employees in the firm with others about to come on board including a couple senior executives from two of the Big Three.
The deep pockets behind the Wavecrest Labs is Allen Andersson, a multimillionaire who also made his fortune in computers. So far Andersson has invested about $17 million in the company's electric motor technology.
What Wavecrest has is a hub motor in which the stator is fixed in the center of the motor. Like the old rotary airplane engines of World War One, it is the outside of the motor that rotates instead of a central shaft. Each individual stator is computer controlled, enabling the motor to generate amazing torque at extremely low RPM without the need for gearing.
The Russian-invented design -- and both inventors are also part of the Wavecrest management team -- is surprisingly simple and scalable. In the bicycle hub motor, which is essentially the same width as a standard bicycle rim, they are lined up in tandem pairs around the center of the motor. In future automotive versions, the pair will be rotated ninety degrees and then stacked together in multiple rings. The more rings the more powerful the motor.
These powerful, compact and incredibly silent electric drive motors will fit into automobile, pickup and SUV hubs. The company envisions their devices driving fuel cell, hybrid and battery electric vehicles of all shapes and sizes. They think it will be their motor that ends up powering vehicles like GM's HyWire concept car. And based on what EV World saw and experienced, they could well be right.
According to Perry, the company initially plans to use the motor on electric bikes, the first of which should begin to reach the market later this fall.
For now the company is tweaking their technology and talking to the US government. The Pentagon is apparently interested in equipping certain military units with these super-stealthy electric bikes. Perry isn't permitted to say which units, but the flat black paint scheme on the bike and its utility trailer strongly suggest special operations of some type.
Perry did say that earlier in the day, two big Marines from the White House detachment had visited and tested the bikes, which may not have impressed a neophyte ebike rider, but certainly impressed this writer.
When Wavecrest advertises their motor as being powerful, gearlesss and silent, believe it! There is no annoying electric motor hum or gear whine (unlike my Currie folding bike). The only possible source of noise is from a maladjusted gear set on the 21-speed Montague.
After a quick tour of the bicycle research and development lab on the first floor, we rolled four of the bikes outside and went for a test ride.
While the quasi-military prototypes we tested had a rear wheel rack for additional batteries, the bike's primary power supply comes from it's NiMH batteries mounted in the front wheels. No that is not a second hub motor. The batteries are mounted in a carosel arrangement around the center hub. Unlike the motor, the batteries do not spin, but remain stationary as the front wheel spins around it.
Mike Fritz, who was formerly EV Globals marketing director, explained that the bike should do about 30 miles on a charge at a steady 24 mph... without peddling. Of course, your range may vary depending on the terrain, temperature and how fast you need to bogey out of the combat zone.
But seriously, from the second you get on the bike and hit the thumb throttle, you realize you're on a new generation of electric bike. I weigh a "bit" over 200 pounds -- I am trying to lose weight -- and this bike doesn't hesitate a moment. It quickly accelerates and delivers torque as long as you need it. Fritz led the way up the road away from the headquarters building. It had only a slight incline to it and I was sorely tempted to take it off the road and up a nearby embankment, but I'd have to cross a muddy ditch and without fenders, Mike cautioned I'd probably end up splattered with mud, something I didn't particularly want to have happen. So, a real workout on the bike will have to wait until this fall when Wavecrest has promised to loan me a production version of the bike.
Of course, electric bikes is only the beginning of Wavecrest's vision. They showed me a small gasoline-powered dune buggy they have equipped with four hub motors. They have set it up in a hybrid configuration that runs off a small four-stroke gasoline engine. They are using it as a testbed to study unsprung mass dynamics of vehicles, which has been the bane of most hub motor EV programs.
Rick Eagle, who was on the Ford Escape team, explained that being able to so precisely control all four motors presents an entirely new set of dynamics and potential performance enhancements. He and Perry seem very confident that they can build and control a successful electric hub motor.
As Wesley Clark noted in our earlier interview, Wavecrest also thinks there's potential in using their motor technology in wind turbines, both large and small.
Wavecrest has a promising technology on its hands and it can be expected to be a player in the electric drive motor market, but it does have competition and like any emerging company it needs money and sales to keep growing. It's looking for an additional $30 million in funding to add to the $10 million it already has commitments on.
The addition of Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, as chairman is bound to help the company continue its development and eventual marketing efforts. According to the people with whom I spoke at Wavecrest, Clark is a very hands-on chairman who is committed to seeing the company succeed.
Perry hopes to begin selling a consumer version of its military stealth bike this fall at about $1500 a copy. From what I saw and experienced, they could have a real winner on their hands.
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