E to the Max
By Bill Moore
Real world electric motor scooters have arrived. We're not talking "toy" machines anymore, but serious personal transporters with performance and pricing to match or exceed their fossilized-fuel, 49 cc counterparts.
At the invitation of Texas eRider owner, Larry Maltz, I flew down to Austin, Texas to be on hand for the arrival of the first two 48 volt, 2000 watt eMax electric scooters into North America. Also invited to test drive these exciting new two-wheel EVs was Electric Scooter World publisher, Jerome Byrd, all six feet, four inches of him. Believe me, when Jerome tests a machine, he pushes it to the limit. If it passes his charge-hard fitness test, you can bank on it. And after putting both eMax machines through their paces, he gave them his thumbs up endorsement. But that's getting ahead of the story.
On hand for the uncrating was eMax founder and owner Thomas Gruebel, who at a youthful thirty-six already has had a successful career in professional sports, sporting goods sales and is now looking to extend it into electric motor scooter manufacturing. Raised in Munich, Germany, he's played professional squash in Canada and the United States. His sporting goods business introduced him to China, where he now spends a good share of his time over-seeing his promising new business venture.
Before taking his two machines out onto the sizzling summer streets of Austin, the capital of Texas, Gruebel briefed us on eMax's history and the technology at the heart of his scooters. We sat around Larry Maltz's West Sixth Street showroom, surrounded by two dozen Italian-made Oxygen scooters, mainly Cargo models, which we also got to drive. As Gruebel explained how he and some friends started their business by building a small skateboard -type scooter that sold fairly well in Germany, Maltz hovered around the circle, video taping the conversation, much like a grandfather recording the hesitant steps of his first grandchild.
Gruebel and his associates in Munich began developing the eMax in 2001. Taking advantage of Munich's engineering resources -- it's the home of world-renown BMW -- they created their first prototype, a crude tubular framed mule that defined the basic propulsion technology the machine would use: a 1500 watt, brushless DC hub motor, compact controller and a newly developed silicone-based battery from China. It will be this battery, based on still secret chemistry held by an 80-year old retired professor from Beijing University, that helped elevate an expensive toy into a practical commuter vehicle with a top speed of 35 mph, excellent torque, 400+ battery cycle life and a real-world range of up to 70 km (43 miles) per charge. The battery pack consists of eight, 20 amp batteries.
Based on his earlier experiences in China and the fact that most of the world's motor scooters are built in Asia -- Taiwan and China, principally -- Gruebel had decided from the outset that he would manufacturer his scooter there, but unlike several of his competitors, he would not partner with a large manufacturer. Instead, he would build his own small plant, working in conjunction with a small steel manufacturer who was hungry to expand.
The young German entrepreneur has spent most of the last eighteen months in China, setting up his factory, lining up parts suppliers -- there are something like 200 individual suppliers -- developing the tooling, refining the design and hiring and training workers.
In an interesting example of corporate social responsibility, Gruebel not only provides his hundred or so workers with adult education classes to improve their literacy, but he also provides them with dormitory housing, basic medical care and daily meals. Families with more than one young child live off-site. While relaxing at the Maltz's hilltop Austin home, he showed us pictures of the plant and dormitory building. The green-painted factory floor is clean enough to eat off of.
"I insist it be this way, " he told me with obvious pride, explaining that many Chinese plants are dirty places to work.
The plant is capable of turning out about 160 scooters a day on two assembly lines. Gruebel is in the process of getting ISO 9002 certification. His machines are both U.S. DOT and EU-Mark certified.
With the briefing over, Gruebel offered to show us how to improve the performance of his scooters by 5 mph, while reducing low-end torque that helps acceleration and hill climbing. With Larry Maltz video taping and me holding the control box, Gruebel opened the pre-production model controller, having to drill out several of the more stubborn screws (the production model will have improved access to the electronics). He carefully reached into the microprocessor studded circuit board and pointed to a tiny black resistor straddling two of three copper prongs. He explained that removing the resistor would eliminate the 30 mph restriction on the machine, giving it a top speed of 35-36 mph.
With the resistor removed, the controller resealed and reinstalled on the scooter, we strapped on helmets for an extended tour of downtown Austin. I opted to ride the silver-colored eMax, which had not been modified to run at a higher speed. True to form, Jerome Byrd wanted to run the yellow eMax with the modified controller. Larry Maltz rode the Red Oxygen scooter and Thomas Gruebel took the Oxygen Cargo model, on the back of which was mounted a heavy, insulated box designed to carry pizzas.
We made our way around the back of the store and along side a building that faces Fifth Street, which is a one-way street running east back into the center of town, with Larry Maltz in the lead and me just behind him. As instructed, we rode in staggered formation in a single lane. Traffic was light on Sunday, so I didn't feel uncomfortable zipping along at a steady 30 mph (the top speed of the standard eMax 2000).
We crossed Lamar and then turned left on Congress and headed towards the state capitol building at the top of the street. Maltz tells us that the capitol building in Austin is actually larger than the federal capitol in Washington, D.C. Leave it to Texans to do it bigger, if not better.
We parked along the west side of the capitol grounds, which are surrounded by a high wrought iron fence and Texas Ranger patrol cars blocking the entrances, locked our helmets in the carriers on the back of the scooters and did a quick tour through the capitol building's central rotunda. It was here I discovered the wonderful acoustic properties built into the structure. In the very center of the rotunda is an inlaid marble star for the "Lone Star State". If you stand precisely over the center of the star you can hear yourself talking in stereo. Step just a few inches out of the center and the effect disappears. It is the neatest thing, and reminds me of a similar effect in a structure in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing where it is said you if you stand along the outside of the circle and whisper, someone on the other side will be able to hear you, but no one else.
Back on our scooters, we headed to the campus of the University of Texas which boasts some 50,000 students.
The University of Texas occupies a special place in Larry Maltz's heart not just because his children attended -- and graduated -- here but also because it is his first commercial customer for his Oxygen Cargo scooter. He relishes telling the story of how University's security department challenged him to prove the Cargo could climb a particularly daunting hill without stopping, carrying a particularly large officer. Apparently no other electric scooters had managed to make it all the way to the top without stopping. I'll relate that story in my write-up of the Oxygen scooters.
Unlike the Oxygen scooters that have an economy and sprint mode that lets you choose with the click of a button whether to ride for performance or range, the eMax utilizes a single "boost" mode button that lets you temporarily draw more current from the battery for a brief two-and-a-half minutes. In effect, it lets you give the scooter an extra kick, especially when climbing a hill like those I found on the U of Texas campus. Thomas cautioned me to not hold the boost button down; all I needed to do was just click it once.
One of the features found on the Oxygen scooters, but not on the eMax is regenerative braking, largely due to Gruebel's dislike of the system and not because it couldn't be integrated into the electronics. He told me that he prefers to be able to coast when he lets off the hand throttle. Riding the Oxygen Cargo, which does have regen, reaffirmed his opinion, at least to him. While I too enjoyed the ability to coast up to a stop light, there were times when doing down steep hills where regen would have a nice addition. Later rides on both Oxygen models left me ambivalent; I liked to be able to do both, perhaps by clicking a switch on the handlebar or by moving a resistor pin in the controller. I think it's a option that should be made available to the buyer.
The only other complaint I have with the eMax 2000 is the seat. The model's we tested both came with a seat designed to hold two small Asian riders. The front half of the seat is too close to the handlebar and the rear portion too far away. Gruebel assured me that a single seat will be available as a dealer option on the production model. In this respect, the Oxygen consumer model had the most comfortable of the four machines we tested.
We finished our first afternoon of riding with lunch at a local Tex-Mex watering hole not far from the Texas eRider store. The food was good and there was lots of it!
Larry Maltz suggested that before going over to his home to meet his wife we should follow him over on the scooters to the Hyatt Hotel overlooking the Colorado River that flows through Austin. We thought we could park the scooters -- locked, of course -- outside the hotel overnight, hopefully charging them from an outside outlet. Not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this move, Jerome Byrd and I followed him in his SUV -- he drives a Civic Hybrid most of the time. We parked the scooters outside the entrance and dropped our bags in the lobby, asking the young bellman if there were any 110 outlets in front of the building. He wasn't sure and a search for one proved fruitless.
Undaunted, Maltz suggested we park them inside the lobby; a decision which would require the hotel manager, who studied the four of us and the two scooters with justified skepticism. We explained that the scooters were completely clean. They use no oil or gasoline and generate no pollution.
It turns out that the manager wasn't all that concerned about something dripping on his tile. He was more concerned about setting a precedence. If he allowed electric scooters in his lobby, gasoline motorcycle owners might make the same request. The last thing he wanted was a convention of Harley riders showing up expecting to be extended a similar courtesy.
So, we compromised.
He offered to let us take them up to our rooms.
Yes, you read that right. If we could get them in the elevator and into the rooms without doing an damage, he would let us charge them in the hotel.
So, with me holding the hotel door, Larry rolled the first scooter into the lobby and over to the elevator entrance. The hotel staff watched bemused as we stuffed the yellow eMax into the elevator -- it fit just fine, followed by our luggage. The silver scooter came up next.
Now the Hyatt in Austin is one of those triangular affairs with a twenty story atrium and glass elevators. So, imagine what the housekeepers and other quests must have been thinking as four guys roll two motor scooters along the open, eleventh floor walkway, and then try to shoehorn two machine into our rooms.
Despite the dogleg jog at the entrance, we managed to squeeze both machines into our rooms. Larry opened the curtains revealing a beautiful panorama overlooking the river and downtown Austin. He pointed out the Congress Street bridge from under which thousands of bats emerge each night at dusk to feed on insects.
Someone suggested we move the couch and park the yellow eMax in front of the window with the city skyline in the background. So, like a bunch of frat brats, we heaved the sofa aside and positioned the scooter for its impromptu photo session.
My scooter we simply parked in the middle of the room and headed off to Maltz's home and barbeque at the County Line.
The next day, with the scooters recharged, courtesy of Hyatt Hotels, we set off just after 8 AM o see Barton Springs, a crystal clear creek that was dammed up early in the last century to provide a natural swimming pool for local residents seeking to escape the summer heat. At an invigorating 70 degrees, the water is a definite wake-up call for several dozen early morning lap swimmers, including one older lady who had to be in her 80s.
This time I rode the yellow machine with the modified controller. It definitely makes a difference. I easily kept up with early morning commuter traffic, while Jerome, riding the silver eMax lagged far behind. If you're six-four, you'll definitely want to sacrifice some torque for the higher speed. After checking out the local swimming "hole", we headed into town, where I planned to trade the eMax for the Oxygen scooters, spending my time on the consumer model and Cargo model, roaming the gentrified neighborhoods above Sixth Street.
Jerome Byrd took over the yellow eMax and disappeared into the hinterlands of Austin. I had an appointment for lunch with Austin Energy's Roger Duncan to talk about electric (plug-in) hybrids.
The silver eMax got rolled into Texas eRiders service bay where Maltz's service technician and Thomas Gruebel set about pulling its controller cover and removing the speed control resistor.
So, what do I think of the eMax?
I like it. I found it easily lived up to my expectations and then some. But since I have so little on which to compare it, I'll defer to Jerome Byrd, who eventually returned mid-afternoon with the yellow model -- we started to wonder if he had decided ride back to Philadelphia on it.
He pulled the machine into the shade of the strip mall portico, his long legs balancing the machine, and pronounced it the best scooter he'd ever tested -- and he's reviewed 40 by his count, though not all in the motor scooter class. He explained how he'd driven it all over the city, up hills, out to the old Austin airport, and found that with the exception of some of the higher speed thoroughfares, he kept pace with traffic. I think he estimated he might have driven 30 miles or more. That secret silicone battery looks like it might just be the dark horse in the race with NiMH, nickel zinc and lithium ion.
I asked Gruebel to tell me what the battery is made of and he just showed me the picture of a cathode -- or maybe it was the anode. It was relatively thick and revealed little to my untrained eye. Gruebel explained that even he doesn't know what it's made of. It's a secret that the aging inventor will pass down to his son. Whatever the magic is, it sure seems to work. The Munich entrepreneur added that -- unlike lead-acid batteries -- it is also environmentally benign since its electrolyte is based on silica salts.
Larry Maltz -- who has an exclusive import agreement with both Oyxgen and eMax -- is working on lining up local dealers with the stipulation that they must have a storefront and offer full repair services. He and Gruebel agree that they are not interested in letting Internet marketers set up drop-ship arrangements that don't offer full service support, though this machine may require little service. I think that's a wise strategy, since it will insure that the quality of support will match the quality of the product.
The first container load of 56 machines will arrive at Texas eRider sometime in late July, but according to Maltz they are already spoken for. Having ridden the machine, I feel comfortable in saying the folks who have placed orders for the machine without riding it, will not be disappointed.
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