Lightning pushes development through racing and has competed in the TTXGP, on the Isle of Man and the salt of Bonneville.
The “Great White Dyno” spread out before the Lightning Motorcycles team, the sheet of salt remnants of a lakebed which serves as the proverbial “field of dreams” for those looking to push the boundaries of propulsion. As Race Tech’s Paul Thede unleashes the potential of the Remy HVH250 electric motor, the “Flying Banana MK II” builds up speed as its motor spools up and begins to wail like a jet turbine. The black and orange quarter-mile markers begin to pass by in a blur as the digital speedo climbs past 100, 150, 200 mph. Before the day is over, Thede, Richard Hatfield, and the team at Lightning Motorcycles become the first to break the 200 mph barrier on an electric motorcycle. They go on to set a mark of 215.960 mph, with a best speed of 218.637 mph, during 2011 SpeedWeek at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Lightning Motorcycles has been at the forefront of electric superbike development since the inception of electric motorcycle racing. Rider Michael Barnes captured the inaugural American TTXGP title in 2010. Lightning has also competed at the Isle of Man in addition to running flat out on the Salt on their way to establishing themselves as the “World’s Fastest Electric Motorcycle.” Better yet, the Lightning Motorcycle team claims it used “only 18 cents of electricity on their record-breaking run and were getting the equivalent of over 50 mpg at over 200 mph.” Welcome to the future.
Lightning offers the public a production version of the land speed record-breaking SuperBike, primed for racing straight out of the factory. Lightning adopts some of the same philosophies as major OEMs with its “Innovation through Competition” mantra, using racing to push technological development and sell bikes. The company also offers another version set up for the street, running an Ener1 battery pack said to be good for over 100 miles of freeway riding and a combined city/highway range of 150 miles. We met Lightning Motorcycle CEO Richard Hatfield at the Love Ride in LA and recently got an opportunity to discuss the Lightning SuperBike and to talk about the company’s future.
MotoUSA: What inspired you to create an electric motorcycle?
Richard Hatfield: I first got involved with an electric Porsche race car about 15 years ago. A group of friends had built a car to compete with and at the time I was competing in open-wheeled road-racing. They asked me to get involved with the project and at the time we didn’t have really good batteries, but still the car worked pretty well. It was pretty interesting but I thought we needed better batteries. So about six years ago I found a source for some of the early lithium batteries and a friend of mine had a Yamaha R1 race bike without an engine in it. In playing around with the Porsche, we learned lighter was better when dealing with a battery-powered vehicle. So I talked my friend into selling me the R1 race chassis and I bought the batteries and with a motor and controller for it, as far as we know, it was the first high-performance lithium-powered sportbike. It ran pretty close to a 100 mph top speed with 70-80 miles on a charge and acceleration pretty close to a 600 SV-type. It was interesting enough that I started doing “what ifs?” What if we had these batteries and what if we had this motor? That’s almost 20 bikes ago.
What did you do prior to forming Lightning?
Lightning Motorcycles gets ready to take on the Isle of Man. Hatfield said he wants to return to the Isle next year to be the first electric motorcycle to break the 100 mph lap average.
For about 20 years, I ran a company that did revolving lines of credit to emerging companies.
How’d you make such a drastic transition between careers?
I’ve always been into motorcycles and into machines. I had a series of Ducatis when I was growing up, a Norton Dunstall in my early teens, a Kawasaki H2 750. I grew up in the Midwest and every year I did agricultural jobs during the summer and saved my money for a bigger, better bike. I actually still have the H2 which I got when I was 17. I wish I had the Norton.
What are some of the biggest challenges for you producing electric powered vehicles, since there’s really no template to go by and all the technology is revolutionary?
Well, I think that is the big challenge is that there aren’t any templates. There’s quite a bit of testing and trying, and batteries are still a limitation. Getting the kind of power from the motors and controllers that we need for liter-bike type of performance is still a challenge. But you know, we’re getting there.
The biggest questions we keep encountering deal with cutting weight, cutting down re-charge time, and increasing range. Are these the primary challenges you’re dealing with?
Batteries are still close to half the weight of the bike. That’s always a challenge. We’re testing new, better batteries. Because we were able to set a land speed record last year, we had some battery companies bring us some new technology to test, which is pretty exciting. Weems and Wade are the big ones, but I think we’re going to see some pretty interesting things over the next few years.
How’d it feel to be the first electric motorcycle to break the 200 mph barrier?
We were working on that for three years, so it was probably one of the happiest times of my life. The bike, ultimately during that week every time we ran it, it went faster. We went 218.6 and we’re pretty certain that with just a little more tuning, it was picking up speed quite a bit yet, so I don’t think that 230 is unreasonable for that bike.
What are the primary differences between the bike you set the land speed record on and the one used to compete in the TTXGP?
Only two things. We changed the gearing and we put a different fairing on it. The LSR bike had partial streamliner bodywork on it.
Let’s talk about the Lightning SuperBike.
We buy the rotor and stator from Remy. From what I understand it’s the same one that’s in the General Motors’ hybrid SUVs. We buy the rotor and stator there and build everything else around it. We use the electric motor and then we have a motor controller which is based on some very large transistors which switch 415V up to about 600 amps. It’s the kind of power you’d find in a junction box for a large industrial building (laughs).
The bike makes enough power that it doesn’t need a transmission. It’s direct drive right from the motor to the rear wheel. It has one single gear. It makes enough torque it still lifts the wheel going down the front straight. If you’re running 415V, you still have that torque at 200 mph. I don’t know if you’ve watched the video of the bike running at Bonneville, but at 110 mph Paul was able to get the throttle all the way open and I think it’s something like 12 or 13 seconds later he’s at 200.
Let’s get ready to rumble! The Lightning SuperBike sits at the ready at Laguna Seca.
Lightning’s Richard Hatfield prepares to lead the group out of Glendale during Love Ride 28.
We can charge it from full to empty in about 20 minutes, if we have a large enough supply. So the batteries will really absorb power very rapidly. The real limitation is how much power can you pull out of the wall. At Bonneville, after a run we pretty much had it charged up in 15 minutes or so after we got back and plugged it in.
We’re working on some street fairings right now with headlights, stop lights, turn signals and mirrors and I think it’s a good step closer to improving the aesthetics of the street bike. The race fairings are race fairings but I think the requirement of doing a street bike aesthetics are even that much higher.
Range for the production bike is estimated at 100 miles. When we did the ride with you (Love Ride 28) from Glendale to Castaic Lake, we used about 30% of the battery pack. I was told that the route we took was somewhere around 40 miles.
What’s the potential of the Lightning SuperBike?
We think without a whole lot of change it will run 230 mph. Virtually every run we went out we were bumping the speed by a few miles-per-hour and we still didn’t have the gearing optimized, there’s still more power in it because we didn’t have it turned up all the way yet. It definitely has more speed in it.
At Bonneville, I’d estimate they had about 15-20% more performance they hadn’t tapped into yet. The motor on a stationary dyno with a large 800V power supply was actually able to make just under 400 hp!
Do you think we’ll see the day when electric motorcycles will be competing against their gas-powered counterparts?
We’re going to have some races this spring against 600s. We have some races tentatively scheduled right now in Phoenix at Firebird and potentially at Chuckwalla.
What’s behind the name of the “Flying Banana MK II?”
It’s from the first electric motorcycle race at Infineon almost three years ago. There was a bike that Higgins was racing which was blue and ours was yellow. The yellow really stood out from all the other colors and at that point we were having some handling issues. We didn’t have the bike dialed in so they would pass us going into the corner, then Michael Barnes would roll on the throttle and catch them and pass them before the next corner. It was pretty good racing considering it was really early stages and both of the bikes needed more development. It was a classic handling vs. horsepower kind of race.
How’s development of the production bike coming along?
We doing dual tracking of it right now. We’re going to make a street and track version available of the SuperBike, basically the same bike we raced at Laguna Seca, the Isle of Man and Bonneville, either with race fairings or street fairings. And then we have a more affordable bike (a sportbike) in the $8000 – $12,000 range depending on the battery pack size that we’re planning on coming out end of the first quarter, beginning of the second quarter next year.
What else has Lightning got in development?
We’ll be starting with the sportbike, but we also have designs for a dual-sport based on the same chassis, something along the lines of a Multistrada. We did two electric dirt track bikes, one we raced at Pike’s Peak and then we did another one Sammy Halbert raced at the Santa Clara indoor race. He’s a great racer. When we asked him about riding the electric bike, he said he had a good time.
What’s next for Lightning? Another run at the TTXGP? Bonneville?
Yes. The racing is really a chance to prove the technology and to improve the technology and get everybody really motivated to a deadline, so I think racing’s a really important part of building these bikes and bringing product to market. Next year we’re going to return to the Isle of Man to try and break the 100 mph average for an electric motorcycle. There’s only one chance for a bike to do that the first time, so it’d be nice to be that bike. We also love racing, so I think the best of all worlds is where we can build good bikes that people want to buy and they’ll help fund us to go racing and build better bikes.
With the green movement, does the government subsidize or fund your research in any way?
We haven’t yet. We’ve been really focused on what we’ve been doing and that’s a whole separate job itself. We’d certainly welcome the help.
What are the biggest challenges you see for e-technology?
As you pointed out, it’s really the batteries. As the batteries get better and better, the performance of the bikes gets better. The motors can make a lot of power. The rest of the bike can be made to handle as good as a gas-powered bike. The bottleneck is the batteries. We’re testing batteries that have twice the energy per-pound than the batteries we’re racing with right now have. So if we can cut the weight of the battery pack in half, that’s going to be huge.