Matt Majendie talks to the men responsible for the Mission One, a record-breaking electric bike
Like flying on two wheels
A small garage in the historic Mission district of San Francisco could hold the key to travelling fast and being green on two wheels. The Mission district already has a celebrated motoring past with its starring role in Steve McQueen's car chase in the movie Bullitt as he careered through its streets in a Ford Mustang.
But for three friends, who began their friendship through a joint love of engineering and environmental issues, the name could mean so much more. Mission Motors was set up in 2007 in the garage of Mason Cabot, an electronics guru with a decade's experience at Intel, along with Forrest North, whose passion for motoring began with four wheels in a solar-powered car project, and Edward West, who met North while working on a solar car.
And in the space of just two years, the trio and their workforce have managed to build the fastest electric motorcycle in the world. At World of Speed at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in September, the company's prototype set a top speed of 161mph (259kph) and an average speed of 150mph (241kph), shattering the previous record for an electric bike in the process and leaving it just 20mph shy of the top speed of most road-legal, petrol-powered superbikes.
For West and his two co-founders, it is only the beginning of "something very special". "We founded the company with the aim of developing an electric bike to compete with gasoline models and we showed at Bonneville we can do that," he explained. The Mission One, as it has been named, is powered by a high energy lithium-ion battery, boasts a single-speed transmission and an official top speed of 150mph, although that has since been bettered in race conditions in Bonneville. In addition, it has a flat torque curve so, in essence, it is at peak torque at every speed.
In all, it can travel 150 miles (240km) without stopping - which could yet be more thanks to a regenerative braking system - and, when it runs out of power, it needs just two hours to recharge at a 240-volt outlet. On the company's website, it celebrates the fact that there is "no sound or shift, just silence" and claims Mission One is "the closest thing to flying on two wheels". It would appear the public - both in and outside the United States where the bike was built from scratch - have bought into the idea.
With one prototype currently in existence, Mission Motors are building 300 road-legal bikes for 2010. The first 50 are limited edition and can be pre-ordered now, while the following 250 will follow at the end of next year, all at a cost of $68,995 (Dh253,400). For West, the president of Mission Motors, it is the final point in proving the doubters wrong. He explained: "We said from the outset that we could get an electric road bike to compete with the gasoline versions while using existing technology. Most people didn't believe us and said it wasn't possible. But we knew it could be done - for us, the only surprise was that no one was doing it beforehand.
"We hope we can demonstrate to the world what's possible without any tailpipe emissions and without sacrificing either range or speed." Mission have clearly put their name on the map with some style following the Bonneville stunt, during which they beat 70 per cent of all the bikes competing at the salt flats that day, thus proving - in West's opinion - the firm's mission statement. "Bonneville couldn't really have worked better for us and we couldn't have been more up against it," said West. "The conditions were poor and there was a strong crosswind, but we did it and people in the motoring community started to take notice, particularly as they know what's required to do something like this. For us, it finally made things real."
Remarkably, all this has been achieved with a workforce of just 16 people, although there are plans to increase staffing numbers as demand increases. The majority of interest has come from America, but there has also been contact from Europe and the Middle East, an area that West is beginning to target, particularly with the ongoing Masdar City development in Abu Dhabi. "There's obviously a lot of interest in green technology in the Middle East," added West, "and people from the region have already been in contact having read about our bike in various places.
"It's an amazing thing that's happening at Masdar and we'd love to have our bike there. We're changing people's perceptions about motorbikes in the US and hopefully there as well. What we're showing is that we can be both green and potent." There are other electric motorbikes currently on the market but none that apparently come close to Mission One in terms of speed, performance or stamina, according to West.
"Prior to what we came up with, most electric motorbikes had top speeds of about 70mph and a range of about 40 to 70 miles, so when we started claiming that we we're targeting a top speed of 150mph and a range of 150 miles, no one really believed us," said West. "But we've done it and we've got to build from there. The current buyers of the Mission One vary widely, according to West. They range from people in their forties and fifties returning to motorcycles after years on four wheels to serial two-wheel purchasers who want the latest piece of kit in their already extensive garage, while a new breed of motorbike environmentalist is also being lured to two-wheel machinery.
"It's not easy to pigeonhole a Mission One rider," insisted West, who initially worked on the engineering and mechanical side of the early prototype but now predominantly focuses on funding. The bike that will hit the road in 2010 is still undergoing further tweaks from the one that averaged 150mph at Bonneville. The key difference is improvements in the drivetrain to give the bike even greater power, which West believes is achievable. As for an ultimate top speed, he is unsure, although he is already looking at widening Mission Motors' remit at the end of next year.
"We've got an amazing team of people, all of which have gone the extra mile to make this possible," said West. "We're bidding to build our market share but also expand our workforce and looking to a new bike in the future, but for now the focus is on the Mission One and 2010." The 2010 model in question will very much be customised to the individual, ranging from the navigation system to the type of regenerative braking a rider might want.
The only rider to date to have experienced the bike thoroughly is Jeremy Cleland, Mission's product manager and official test driver, who clocked the record times at Bonneville. Cleland said: "It's just an incredible ride, really. It pulls all the way from zero to top speed and I've never experienced anything like it on two wheels. Its versatility is incredible. It's smooth, fast - the perfect bike. It's torque all the way."
West, meanwhile, likens it to "being taken on a ride by a jet aeroplane". Mission's customers will find out for themselves within the next year. firstname.lastname@example.org