one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying labor-saving machinery as a protest; broadly: one who is opposed to especially technological change.
– Merriam-Webster online
Face it – compared to most consumers, motorcyclists are Luddites. The obvious example are our Harley-riding compatriots, who have been buying variations on the same basic products since before World War II. But sportbikers were slow to adopt innovation, too. ABS, traction control and even fuel-injection aren’t standard features on many models, years or even decades after they’ve been basic equipment on high- (and low-) performance cars. Most of what equips our rides has been in use for many years with only evolutionary changes, and let’s face it: we like it that way. If somebody offered you a product that was going to change motorcycling forever, you may not even want that, thanks very much. But San Francisco’s Lit Motors is betting everything on the chance there’s a huge market of people – non-motorcyclists and motorcyclists alike – that do.
Meet Lit’s C-1. It looks like a huge kidney bean on wheels, and you’ve probably seen similar prototype or limited-production vehicles on the Interwebs and various automotive and science publications for years, maybe decades (if you’re old). But the C-1 is different. Not only is it a zero-emissions plug-in electric its inventors claim is capable of over 100 mph and a 200-mile range, it’s also a self-balancing, computer-controlled robotic vehicle that combines technologies in a way never seen before.
Like you, I was skeptical, as I’ve seen the claims about the C-1 crop up on various tech blogs since 2010. As a lifetime San Francisco Bay Area resident, I’m used to being in a region plagued by start-up companies. Most of these are vaporware, sucking up V.C. money to furnish lavish loft offices as they make elaborate claims of what their future goods and services will do. A year later, there’s an empty loft space and no sign of that product. A self-balancing robot motorcycle with a 200-mile electric range sounded like it fit in that category, especially since there was no evidence the vehicle could reach a speed greater than a running pace, much less swerve or even steer. I wanted to know more – would this ever be more than a prototype? – but Lit motors didn’t respond to my calls and emails.
(Top) Lit’s Gyros are a proprietary technology and are surprisingly compact. (Below) Interior of the non-running C-1 mockup show what the finished vehicle might look like inside.
And then, in response to a final plea, Lit Motors invited me over to its three-story Lit HQ on Folsom street, where Chief Marketing Officer Ryan James showed me the self-balancing wündercar* inside a white-painted set in the first-floor garage. It was parked next to a $100,000, full-sized, non-operating replica made by the same Hollywood outfit that’s made similar props for movies like Tron and the Tom Cruise flick, Oblivion. The prop was used to “recreate a showroom experience” for focus groups – and 16% of those folks said they’d buy a C-1 if it was available now.
The C-1 is an enclosed, 800-pound, 9.3-foot long electric motorcycle with room for a driver and a passenger, seated tandem. Not only does it have class-leading EV performance (bested only by a $66,000 Tesla model S), Lit says it will be as safe as a small car, and it will balance itself with unique computer-controlled gyroscopes. Production will begin by the end of 2014 and price will be about $24,000. You may have noticed that BMW has also used and may use again the C-1 name, but Lit notes the moniker is temporary – as the production date nears it will get a new name.
Seeing a SOMA startup with 10 or 11 people in jeans and T-shirts and a far-from-production prototype made me even more skeptical, so I asked some pointed questions. Ryan and Lit founder, Daniel Kim, graciously and honestly answered.
First, battery and range. The C-1 will use a 10 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery pack, smaller than the Zero S I tested, but the C-1 is twice the weight and somehow claims almost twice the range. Lit does say regenerative braking will add another kWh, but still, how does that happen? Aerodynamics, says Kim, pointing out the truck-like aerodynamics of a motorcycle and rider at freeway speeds. He brought up the experimental EVs that have gone much further on less battery – and indeed, in 2011 the University of Applied Sciences in Offenberg, Germany demonstrated a 705-pound car that went over 1000 miles (at under 30 mph) on a single charge of the vehicle’s 23 kWh battery. Other examples are out there, as well, so Lit’s claims aren’t improbable (though I wonder if it’s reasonable for a production vehicle to have performance similar to an experimental one).
To any motorcyclist, the concept of a “safe” motorcycle seems like fantasy, but James wants to build a vehicle he’d feel good about putting his mom behind the wheel. But as safe as a car? Yes – Lit will create a new safety standard similar to existing motor vehicle standards but tailored to the specifics of the C-1. The target is to have it stay upright and under control after getting T-boned by a Ford F-150 pickup truck at 35 mph. Airbags, seatbelt and steel reinforcing beams would protect the occupant and the gyros, which are spinning all the time, and will keep the C-1 upright, even when the vehicle is struck violently.
I also had doubts about the promised production date. Twelve months isn’t a lot of time to set up a factory, order tooling, train workers, work out the supply chain and a thousand other details. Founder Daniel Kim told me Lit has a battery supplier, but there isn’t a delivery date for the Lithium-Iron cells. James didn’t know if the monocoque body would be made of steel or some other material, so Lit hasn’t ordered the necessary tooling. There are other hurdles: the powerful gyros, which make the C-1 as stable as a four-wheeled vehicle, exert enough torque on the chassis to cause twisting, requiring a redesign to make it stiffer (James told me that issue is already worked out with CAD software and a new prototype will be built “very soon”).
Additionally, there’s no room in the small three-story loft space to manufacture vehicles in any kind of volume. Lit has located a new building elsewhere in San Francisco, with sufficient assembly space, but doesn’t expect to move in for 3-6 months. Again, not a problem, Kim and James say. They don’t expect the first production run to be very large – or profitable. They expect to make 1000 per year to start out, and if the bodies have to be hand-formed, like the prototype, then so be it. Lit isn’t “focused on making a profit the first 1000 units,” said Ryan. “We’re focused on building a product and a brand that’s eventually aimed at mass production. Our goal is to get the C-1 worldwide.”
Several times in our conversation, Kim called the C-1 a ‘robot’ rather than a scooter or motorcycle. That’s because Lit sees the C-1 as an entirely new type of vehicle, a kind of personal-transportation robot. With its ARM processor, powerful, complex software, proprietary gyros and numerous other components that Kim and his team have had to invent from scratch (Lit has filed for 14 patents and been granted 3), the C-1 practically drives itself. “This is the solution for personal transportation for anyone who rides or is afraid to ride.”
Are they hucksters? If they are, they’re not getting rich doing it. Crazy? Maybe a bit. Or could they actually pull this off? If you could buy stock in Lit Motors, that would be an arguably risky investment, but I can’t write the C-1 off as vaporware, either. After all, the Wright Brothers had less to work with and similar obstacles – Lit is building not just an improved motorcycle, it’s combining and developing technology in such a way as to create a whole new “paradigm,” as have other important inventions in the past.
What’s a Kubo?
The Kubo offers a huge storage compartment that can hold four loaded banker’s boxes according to Lit.
Honestly, the C-1 doesn’t interest me as much as the Kubo. It’s what rekindled my interest in Lit, a weird-looking scooter that popped up on the technology blogs in late November. Originally designed by noted industrial designer Elliott Ortiz while he was a student, the Kubo took three years to become reality. It’s peppy for an electric scooter, using a 3 kilowatt in-hub electric motor to propel it to a top speed of 45 mph. Range is up to 50 miles, and it can carry 300 pounds including the rider.
That 100-200 pounds of cargo mostly (there’s also a small compartment under the height-adjustable tractor-style seat) goes in that giant space in front of the rider, which means the weight of this scooter is low for easy handling. Pricing hasn’t been set, but Lit expects it’ll be around $6000, and a Kickstarter campaign has already raised $45,000.
Interesting touches abound. Steering is through a linkage, and the bars go forward and back on bicycle cranks. The front end is a Vespa unit – expect some other component on the finished product and the LED lighting looks good. There’s a digital display on the long “hood” in front of the rider, and the 22-inch-square cargo area is equipped with a non-skid rubber mat and plenty of bungee hooks. A locking cargo box or big wire basket are optional accessories.
I actually had a chance to ride the scooter up and down a SOMA alley near the Lit HQ. The pleasant surprise is that it felt like a relatively finished product. We did find it a little challenging to get used to – the bars are weird, if effective, and the 11-foot turning radius makes U-turns a challenge. But it’s fairly light (unladen!) and accelerates nicely. It didn’t feel like a good choice for a new rider, but I didn’t ride it much, so it’s not fair to make any kind of definitive judgment.
I hope the Kubo comes to fruition, and if Lit can really start delivering these in April as claimed on the Kickstarter page, it will have a unique and attention-grabbing product to leverage the C-1. The Kickstarter campaign raised $57,000, and though it didn’t reach the goal, you can pre-order your Kubo if you want to be an early adopter. I’ve been invited to ride (drive?) both vehicles as they are developed, so stay tuned.
*Yes, I know wündercar isn’t actually German and if it were German, it wouldn’t have ümlauts over the u. But wündercar sounds funnier than the actual German word (wunderauto, which may not be a word either) and ümlauts are funny, unless you’re German, in which case nothing is funny.