Electric vehicles usually have a reputation for efficiency rather than performance, but Alta Motors, a maker of high-end electric motorcycles, is seeking to change that misconception. The startup’s Redshift bikes zoom from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds and are the first electric bikes to win a national-series race against gasoline-driven vehicles. We spoke with Marc Fenigstein, Alta’s CEO and Co-Founder, about the challenges of creating an electric motorcycle, what it’s like being a hardware startup in software-dominated Silicon Valley, and the future of transportation.
What inspired Alta Motors to create an electric engine, something that is usually associated with fuel efficiency, not power?
Alta’s three co-founders all come from product design backgrounds, and one of the things embedded in our thinking is that good intentions don’t move markets — better products do — and ‘better’ is always defined by the customer. The exciting moment of inspiration that led us to start Alta six years ago took place when we realized that electric drivetrains could deliver a higher-performance motorcycle that was faster, easier and more fun than the best that a combustion engine could offer.
Derek Dorrestyen, Alta Motors Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder, had recently invested a few thousand dollars into his combustion race bike to make it more powerful. Unfortunately, he was actually slower around the track. He and Alta’s Chief Design Officer and Co-Founder Jeff Sand came to realize that what makes a bike faster is control. The internal combustion engine is a wonder of engineering, but it can be hard to control, especially when built to get the most power out of the least weight. The torque (what accelerates a vehicle) only works within a narrow range of engine speeds, and within that range it rises and falls sharply. All of that adds to the rider’s challenge of making the bike do what he or she wants it to do.
Electric motors, on the other hand, offer consistent torque across their range. If we could squeeze enough power and energy into a small enough package, electric engines could take on the best combustion engines in the metric that matters most — control. In Alta’s early days, electric technology – especially battery technology – was simply too big and heavy to match what combustion could do, so we started with a clean sheet and redesigned every component of the electric drivetrain to be not just better than previous electrics, but to hit the power and weight standards set by combustion motorcycles.
How has the transportation landscape changed since Alta first started?
Our thinking was novel, probably even contrarian, when we started in 2010, and that has been true for most of the period since. We definitely benefitted from Tesla’s success in introducing the idea that an electric vehicle could be desirable, at least in the automotive space. It’s only in the last year that we’ve started to show, and the market has started to believe, that electric can deliver something better in the motorcycle and lightweight vehicle space. This space has seen a lot of scorched earth and broken promises, so the market has been really skeptical of numbers on paper. Consumers need to see electric vehicles performing in real-life conditions under real riders. That’s happening right now with our Redshift motorcycle, and it’s pretty incredible to watch the conventional wisdom of the market shift in real time.
Silicon Valley is filled with software startups but has fewer hardware startups such as Alta. How does that affect your market-entry strategy? What differences are there between hardware and software startups?
Hardware and software innovation are very different operationally. Here in Silicon Valley, recent waves of innovation have been software-led and the model is to move quickly and sell fast, constantly iterate and be responsive to the market. A constantly evolving approach is very successful in software, but hardware iteration is much more expensive and takes longer. To launch early, then iterate quickly and cheaply doesn’t work as well for hardware companies, where commercialization costs many times more than design and development.
I think this is where design-driven approach and consumer insight are critical. If you are able to define the right product from the beginning and get it right from the first iteration, then the speed and cost of developing hardware can be quite low.
Early on, we had designed and built our first electric motorcycle — the most advanced electric motorcycle ever built at the time — but it was still not directly competitive with top combustion options. If we had followed conventional wisdom, we would have launched the product anyway to get feedback. Instead, we revisited the design and the technology, pushing both another leap forward before making the investment in commercialization. I think our current results show that we got it right, but without the close understanding of the customer and market, we would have gone to market early, and that would have been a very expensive mistake.
Electric vehicles are gaining more acceptance by mainstream consumers. How do you see the market changing over the next five years?
The transportation market is shifting away from heavyweight highway vehicles to lightweight vehicles, a trend that is being shaped by two elements: urbanization and the rise in on-demand transportation services such as Uber and Lyft.
Almost all population growth worldwide is urban. In 2012, 50 percent of the world’s population was living in urban settings. By 2030, that figure will likely be 70 percent or more. Traditional car ownership isn’t practical anymore because of urban density. Secondly, with the increasing use of transportation services, vehicles can be sized for shorter trips such as grocery store runs rather than unusual ones, like an annual family road trip.
What’s exciting for Alta is that the powertrain that works for traditional highway vehicles doesn’t necessarily work well for lightweight vehicles such as motorcycles. Automotive tech is generally too complex, expensive and massive. The demands of lightweight vehicles — simple, compact and in the right power range — have been largely overlooked until now.
The technology that we’ve developed is optimized for those applications. Motorcycles are always going to be a core part of our DNA, but the opportunity is too big and broad for us to stay narrow. So, we are developing products based on our technology for other segments of transportation beyond motorcycling. As the market continues to evolve, we plan to keep our fingers on the pulse of what consumers want and will continue to innovate.
The information in this article is presented as-is.
© First Republic Bank 2018