Electric Scooters and 3-Wheeled Fantasies


Back in 1987, on a cold January day, I found a Harley-Davidson ElectraGlide Classic advertised in the local newspaper.I had known from a relatively young age that the one thing separating me from true and everlasting happiness was owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And so, with that in mind, I embarked on the pursuit of making that bike mine. It had been repossessed and was owned by the local bank, and they only wanted to get the bad loan off their books, so they did little to properly advertise the bike. It was in a shop in an out-of-the way place and so I went over to take a look at it. It was in very good condition, only 3 years old and had the highly desirable 80 cu. inch Evolution V-twin engine which was new for the 1984 model year. It also had an accessory that was not on my ‘must have’ list, namely, a sidecar. I always felt a sidecar looked somewhat odd on a motorcycle, but I reasoned that if I could get the bike for a price that made the sidecar look virtually ‘free’, it would be a good deal because I could always sell the sidecar separately. New sidecars added about $3500 to the cost of a Harley at the time. So I put in a bid slightly below the motorcycle’s book value and in a relatively short time, the bike was in my garage.

The first thing I noticed about riding a bike with a sidecar was that it felt very strange going around corners. Previously, cornering was an exhilarating experience on a motorcycle, but with the sidecar, it became a chore because I felt like I was being thrown off the bike. When turning right, going a little too fast could actually bring the sidecar’s wheel off the ground. I decided that the sidecar, as novel as it looked, took much of the joy out of riding and I promptly removed it. For the next 8 years, the sidecar sat idle while I rode the bike without it. Finally, I sold the sidecar to someone who wanted it, content that I’d never use it again.

I eventually sold the Harley too, after 16 years of owning it, for approximately what I paid for it, around $7500. For those of you who think I’m a shrewd investor, if I used the $7500 and purchased Harley stock instead of that bike, the stock’s value over the same period would have been worth nearly $400,000, so the bike wasn’t really a great investment compared with owning a part of the Harley Davidson company. But “50-bagger” stocks are few and far between and Harley stock has now been flat for about the past 7 years. However, the same amount of money invested in the S&P index would have yielded about $40,000 over the same 16-year period, so again, the Harley would hardly qualify as an ‘investment’.

Here are the lessons I learned from it:

1. There is no one material thing that separates you from true happiness.

2. When you think there is, take the money and buy a stock market index fund instead.

3. Continue searching for the one and only thing that separates you from true happiness.

The reason I mention this experience is because I’ve been contemplating alternative modes of transportation and trying to imagine what a fuel-efficient futuristic vehicle might look like. I spend about 7 months of the year riding my BMW1150RT motorcycle, which was my mid-life crisis replacement for the Harley. I do really enjoy riding it. But for the other 5 months, I need something that can deal with cold weather and snow typical of Colorado winters. Many, if not most, of my cold weather trips are made solo, which means I could use a two-place vehicle like a motorcycle since I don’t need all the room afforded by an SUV. Ideally, it would have very little frontal area and would need to be fully enclosed. Most critically, it would need to be able to lean into turns. Oh, and I must look cool while riding/driving it. I almost forgot to mention that, but it’s probably more important than any other consideration for most people.

I thought I saw the future of transportation at Epcot nearly 20 years ago when I saw the ‘Lean Machine’ , a fully-enclosed 3-wheel vehicle that looked very much like what I just described and capable of leaning into corners. But the machine was designed by GM and they apparently opted not to pursue it, probably because the public was more interested in buying SUVs, trucks, and Hummers than single-seat quirky vehicles with excellent fuel economy.

Now that gas is heading toward $4/gallon with no end in sight, fuel economy is starting to appear on everyone’s radar screen again as a desirable attribute in a vehicle.

An electric motor scooter was profiled in the ‘First Ride’ section of the latest issue of Motorcyclist magazine and it got me to thinking about whether it may be just the right time for an electric motorcycle or possibly a futuristic 3-wheel leaning vehicle to come to the market. The electric motor scooter profiled is called the Vectrix Maxi-Scooter and it has an electric 20 KW (26.8 HP) motor, along with a 200lb., 3.7 kWh battery. Simple math will tell you that this battery would hold about 11 minutes of juice if you were able to run the vehicle at full power, although that probably wouldn’t be possible to do unless you were climbing up a hill at full speed. The company states that the scooter will get between 20 to 60 miles per charge depending on how it’s driven. A charge takes 2 hours to get to 80% battery capacity. The author in the Motorcyclist article got 40 miles from a charge. So it would stand to reason that average riding consumes about 95 Wh per mile. To put that in perspective, it’s the same as using 1 oz. of gasoline per mile assuming a 30% thermal conversion efficiency in an internal combustion engine. You don’t need a calculator to realize this is the equivalent of 128 mpg. The entire battery holds about the same amount of energy as 1/3 of a gallon of gasoline, again assuming a 30% thermal conversion efficiency. Since 1/3 of a gallon of gasoline weighs about 2 lbs., the energy density ratio of the NiMH battery to gasoline is 1:100. Herein lies the biggest problem with electric vehicle energy storage and that is energy density or lack thereof. The 200 lb battery accounts for 43% of the scooter’s 462 lb weight. That’s a nearly identical battery-to-vehicle weight ratio of the GM EV1 that I wrote about previously. With an MSRP of nearly $12K, this scooter costs about twice what an equivalent gas powered scooter would cost.

I have a confession to make. I like riding scooters. I didn’t think I would, but Terri and I rented one our honeymoon and we explored most of Grand Cayman on it. I know that I don’t look cool on a motor scooter — no guy does — but I had already landed the girl, and she didn’t seem to mind, so I figured, “What the heck? I might as well enjoy it.” We rented a scooter in Tuscany and loved it too, especially on the back country roads between Florence and Sienna. We did find ourselves forc
ed to use the autostrada while on a jaunt over to Pisa and the 125cc engine strained to keep up with the flow of traffic. So when no one is watching, I’ll ride a scooter, preferably with a full-faced helmet and dark face shield, so no one will recognize me.

But I’ve tasted what it’s like to ride Ducati and when you pull up at a stop light on a bike like that, everyone just stares, mouths agape, and it’s then that you know you’ve truly arrived. Women want you, men want to be you. You can’t overestimate the psychic value of looking cool on your ride.

So how can we solve the fuel economy/cool factor/all-weather transportation needs of the future? Well, the primary issue is the coolness factor. It has to look cool, not geeky, and be quick too, because the coolness factor will wear off quickly if you’re getting passed by bicycles. Secondly, It must lean into corners, because if it doesn’t, it will either need to be wide or unstable. Third, it must be enclosed for cold weather. That means it needs either three wheels or outrigger wheels that deploy when stopping to keep you from tipping over. I’ve seen a few examples of the latter, but for some odd reason they all cost upward of $100K. It could be an all-electric vehicle, but not if it requires gobs of weight in batteries. So I think that means that it may need to be a hybrid.

I’ve seen a few promising examples of what I’ve described and I’ll show some pictures and links here:

Venture is an American licensee of the leaning technology developed by the Dutch company Carver. Make sure to visit their website and watch the videos, most of which are of the Carver.

Carver seems like it’s ahead of the game here, with vehicles available for sale, although at a hair-raising price of €50,000 (about U.S. $75,000)

And the Carver can really lean over dramatically

BMW even seems to have at least a concept version of a 3-wheel vehicle called the ‘Clever’.

The vehicle of my dreams may be available today, but it’s priced beyond what I’m willing to pay. For now I guess I’ll have to be content to ride a 45-mpg BMW sport touring bike in warm weather and suffer sticker shock each time I fill up at the pump with my 14-mpg Dodge Durango in the winter months. I do love the Durango because it will comfortably haul 7 people around in the nastiest weather Colorado can dish out and it can even swallow whole sheets of 4’x 8’ plywood. It’s hard to put a price on that. But the weather’s warming up now and I’m itching to lean into some curvy canyon roads so it feels like it’s time to pull out the BMW.

And, if at some point if you see some dude cruising by on a geeky electric scooter with a full-faced helmet and dark face shield, it just may be me. 🙂

UPDATE: 2009-01-15 After re-reading my advice to ‘buy a stock market index fund instead’ I have to confess with perfect 20/20 hindsight that no longer looks like very sound advice 🙁

Motorcycle hazards


Silvio at the Splugen Pass near the Swiss border

I got an email from my friend Silvio in Monza to tell me that he crashed his motorcycle last week and hurt his knee. He thinks it will be a few weeks before he is able to walk on it again. I wrote about Silvio in the blog last summer when we visited Italy. We spent a day motorcycling in the Italian and Swiss Alps. He had loaned us his Honda VFR (the same one that was involved in the crash) and we had a great time riding it. I know this his lovely wife, Luisa, reads this blog and so please tell Silvio to get well soon and to be careful on that bike. He needs to stop scraping his footpegs around the turns because you never know when there will be gravel on the road.

Bill Dube with the Killacycle

Today I came across a story about the inventor of the Killacycle, Bill Dube, nearly getting killed while demonstrating it. The Killacycle is an electric drag racing bike with the equivalent of 400 HP. It goes from 0 to 60 mph in less than 1 second. This is going to be one of those videos that gets viewed millions of times, and his sponsor, A123 Systems, will get a lot of free publicity as a result. It appears that it’s already crashing the server at TGDaily.com. It may be time to put it on YouTube. It turns out that Bill got scraped up, but is otherwise OK. I found out he must live not far from me, because Killacycle is based in Denver. It appears that he’s also an experimental airplane enthusiast because he designed some LED position light kits that he sells on the same website that hosts the Killacycle information.

Terri’s Ducati is for sale

The last hazard I have related to motorcycles is that of swapping bikes with someone. A few weeks ago Terri and I were out riding and she swapped her Ducati Monster for my BMW R1150RT. Previously she had never ridden the BMW on the highway and she quickly became accustomed to the comfort of riding behind a streamlined fairing, especially when the weather turns cool and it begins raining. The end result is that the Ducati Monster is now for sale and she’ll be looking for something more like the Beemer for her next bike.

Airplanes, Motorcycles, and Ham Radio


I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday on the way to work, the Slashdot Review Podcast, and heard the host, Andy McCaskey, mention my name in conjunction with his Frappr page. Frappr is a sort of ‘mashup’ application that utilizes Google maps to allow you to put a virtual pin in a map so you others can see where listeners are located. Many podcasters are adding this feature to their websites. The nice thing about it is that you can add some text, a weblink, and even a picture. Andy’s comment was that I was pilot-in-command of ‘something’, because I had posted the picture you can see on my webpage sitting in the cockpit of the LongEZ on to his Frappr map. Andy also mentioned that it was time to get out the ultralight and the ‘geezer bike’. I guess he also has these two essential interests that a lot of technology enthusiasts tend to share… airplanes and motorcycles. The trifecta is when you are also a ham radio operator, particularly if you have a domain that is your ham (vanity) callsign.

It’s not the first time I’ve been mentioned on a Podcast. My name has come up on KenRadio several times and it’s always a thrill to hear one’s own name mentioned ‘on the air’, so to speak. It’s like having 15 milliseconds of fame. I usually take off my headphones if Terri is around, backup the program a few seconds, and let her listen to it as well. If that isn’t the definition of vanity, I don’t know what is.

I’ve been exchanging some emails with my friend, Dr. Curt Smith, who I usually park next to at Oshkosh each year. Curt is my ‘Minister of Information’ because he knows so much about so many things. Curt recently discovered this blog while searching on the Internet for the term ‘LongEZ‘. We get along great because we share similar interests in airplanes and motorcycles. Today he mentioned that he’s had a ham radio license since 1959! Another trifecta! I feel like the ink is still wet on mine since I’ve only had it for 30 years :-). We don’t agree on everything, since we both have different political affiliations and are alumni of rivals schools in the Big 10 conference. But I have to admire Curt’s commitment to his alma mater because of his recently acquired OSU tattoo which definitely trumps my closet full of Penn State regalia.

Rocky Mountain High


Lee's BMW R1150RT and Terri's Ducati MonsterTerri and I took a ride up to Rocky Mountain National Park on the motorcycles last weekend and were joined in the ride by our new friends Mike and Janet. The aspen trees were just starting to turn and the elk and big horn sheep were out in large numbers (but so were the people 😉

Long's Peak as Viewed from Bear Lake

It was a little chilly, but still good mountain riding weather. Maybe we’ll have more this weekend too. I’ll keep riding into November, weather permitting.

I hear about cool things on the Internet all the time. Usually, I wait until I hear about it 3 times in succession because otherwise, I’d be spending all my time on the Internet checking things out. Over the past month, I’ve been using Google Earth, which is a downloadable free application that lets you ‘fly over’ anywhere you like on Earth. It’s a truly stunning program. I use it to check out places where I’ve been and places I’m about to visit, or would like to visit. For example, I’ll be going to Taiwan soon. I can just type in “Taipei, Taiwan” into Google Earth, and it flies me there like I’m in a rocket in just a few seconds. You get to see the countries you’re flying over, the curvature of the earth and get a real sense of distance. Then, when you arrive, you can ‘get your bearings’ and see what the city looks like from the air. You can click the scroll wheel of your mouse and get a 3D view of mountains, buildings, roads (with names), rivers, landmarks, etc. and it’s almost like being there. You can pan and zoom effortlessly. I highly recommend you download it and try it. It requires a high speed Internet connection, because the maps are stored on Google’s servers but it retreives them very quickly.

Last time I blogged about my friend JD’s cornmaze. Well, he’s been profiled in the Fort Collins Coloradoan and they wrote up a nice article about him and other corn mazes in the Northern Colorado region. Terri and I have never been in a corn maze. Maybe we’ll have to check one out this year.