Mud on the Leg(work)… ?

It’s Dec. 30.  BRD, an electric-motorcycle manufacturer, once claimed they’d have their RedShift bikes to sell in 2013.  On the way to being an actual electric-motorcycle seller, they’ve been quiet.  But recently they sent an update on their past ten (!!!) months:

By the end of 2012, our development prototypes had journalists saying things like “could be the best Lites-class MX bike on the market”… “a clear superiority” …Not a bad start, but not yet up to our standards.

Let’s see, how do we take this coffee?cat

1) At face value- beating all gasser MXers is hard
2) Not quite face value- the company is biding their time
3) Not at all- there’s an issue we don’t know about
4) Worse than not at all- BRD won’t make their own targets

1)  ‘Beating all gasser MXers is hard’

By BRD’s admission (and my own experience), the real world is not the lab bench, nor the shop floor, nor even the test track.  Nor even the residential streets of my town in my spare time.  A highway vehicle is difficult, and all BRD’s motorcycles will be highway vehicles.  Dirt-only bikes don’t displace road miles, and thus road fuel consumption.

And that’s a highway vehicle- a dual-sport, per BRD’s admission, not only experiences abuse but invites it.  The real-world highways are not the sum of all North American trails (including ones not blazed yet).

…prototypes that are followed around by a team of engineers have a long way to go before they can live in a real world filled with highsides, cased landings, 365 days of weather, pressure-washers (you know who you are…), and riders that never, ever wash or maintain their bikes (not you… of course, not YOU).  So while the RedShift was designed for manufacture from the beginning, every single part down to each bolt, connector, and seal must be refined and revised to meet our requirements for performance, durability, serviceability, and overall ownership experience.  This work isn’t sexy, but it’s what makes things (actual, physical things) real.

Thus, a BRD motorcycle has to be idiot proof.  This includes the supermoto model, which though slick-tired, invites abuse through its light weight, tall suspension, and torquey powerband.  BRD’s own publicity has actively invited abuse:

This is a true off-road chassis, designed to handle being dumped, dropped, slid, tipped, and just plain crashed… If revving your bike outside the local latte dispensary is your thing, this probably isn’t your bike.

Game on, BRD.  Game on.

Don’t forget that BRD is entering a contested space- the Japanese 4 (let alone European makes) have already made this competitive ground.  In the early days of cars, anyone could take a stab, with the excuse that no one else in the business had figured it out either.  Not so today, which is why Tesla is the first new US car company to stay solvent since… oh, I wasn’t even born then.  The last US car company to start and grow successfully was arguably DeSoto, in 1928, and less arguably Plymouth that same (distant) year.

Essentially, BRD has set incredible goals, and set them for Serial Number 00001.  Note that Tesla’s cars are not up to the fit and finish standards of its competitors BMW, and certainly not Mercedes.  Those companies have had decades to work with suppliers (or on them if necessary) to establish a streamlined and profitable logistics chain, assembly process, and final delivery.  Tesla is a startup, swimming upstream.  BRD, in comparison, looks like a bunch of friends in a loft space.

Beating all gasser Lites-class MXers in their first year would, in fact, be hard.  Incredibly hard.  Agility knows this in road vehicles, and is only releasing units of their new Saietta slowly, as a kind of field trial.  Releasing a new dirt bike calls for even more caution.

2)  ‘The company is biding their time’

One possibility is that, for better or for worse, BRD is deliberately pushing their schedule out for their own benefit.  Moore’s Law means one can wait six months, and get a better computer, even at the same price.  Is there an “EV law” that says one can wait twelve months, and get a better clean vehicle at the same price?

The biggest change of the last year is that BRD’s battery technology.  You already know that every component of BRD’s drivetrain is a clean sheet design.  In 2012, BRD decided to obsolete our state-of-the-art Li-ion pack (the bright orange block seen in our development prototypes) and develop a new one.  There was nothing wrong, necessarily, with the old pack- it was and still is at the forefront of pouch-cell-based packs like those in other high-performance electrics- but we saw an opportunity to create something significantly smaller, lighter, more robust, and safer.

Or simply cheaper.  Toyota was called upon to sell the Prius Plug-In sooner, but waited until cell supplies looked favorable.  GM and other electric-cage makers have publicly stated that battery prices have come down noticeably in the past year.  By waiting that past year, BRD may simply be catching the tailwind like other EV groups.  That’s assuming the new, cheaper Li-ion cells are a drop-in replacement for their 2012 cells.  If not…

3)  ‘There’s an issue we don’t know about’

BRD’s “state-of-the-art Li-ion pack” sounds heavily optimized… for 2012.  In 2013, let alone 2014, the previous system (“TSL (total system level, i.e. the whole package: everything you need for safe power delivery and charging, including enclosures)”) may be why “BRD decided to obsolete” their TSL.

BRD may be making the “TSL,” but they don’t make the Li-ion cells themselves.  Neither do Tesla, or Nissan or GM or Toyota or anyone else.  Cells are bought from suppliers in a competitive industry.  Biding their time for new, cheaper cells may mean jumping to a different supplier, or simply shifting to a more-competitive line item in the same supplier’s part catalog.  In either case, the new cells may not be a drop-in replacement for the 2012 cells, and BRD now has to redo the “TSL”… which implies redoing their idiot-proof refinement and testing.  All this info may be proprietary knowledge between that one supplier and BRD, and neither side is obligated to share that with us.

This is sort of what happened to Toyota.  In upgrading the Prius from nickel-metal hydride cells to lithium-ion, they first kept a small NiMH pack in their development vehicles as a holdover- sort of a “hybrid of a hybrid.”  But by the time the Prius Plug-In design was finalized, Toyota had already concluded that they should jump to all-lithium, and ditch the split-chemistry system for one big pack.  However, not going with that design in the first place meant they lost time, effort, and money.  Their ‘one big pack’ implementation then needed to go through development and testing that had been partially wasted on the prior, NiMH/Li efforts.  The only reason we, the driving public, are sure of this is that some NiMH/Li developmental vehicles had already been shown by Toyota, by choice.  I’d guess that Toyota would rather not reveal they had made a misstep, and lost their time and money chasing a battery system that turned out to be a dead end.

Yet another possibility is that whoever was the 2012 supplier simply failed.  Either they changed the price or other specs on the line item BRD had been betting on, or they simply stopped offering that item at all.  This would force BRD to turn to another supplier, and maybe an incompatible EV component.  Again, BRD now has to redo some or all of the TSL, and most if not all their testing.  Again, neither BRD nor the supplier is obligated or may feel like sharing this information in a competitive battery market, let alone a competitive motorcycle market.

4) ‘BRD won’t make their own targets’

Yet another another possibility is that BRD or some supplier has failed- in some sense.  The RedShift, as prototyped in 2012, may have been unusable for any of a thousand reasons, simply unmarketable for today’s rider, or simply not up to BRD’s incredible targets.  Of course, one of those reasons could be that the design was perfectly rideable by you and me, but BRD was bragging so much that anything less than awesome would get bad reviews.  This would not be a failure of engineering so much as a failure of expectation management.  (Marketing, advertizing, public relations and investor relations, the whole deal.)

Do I buy this?  I’m clearly speculating here (I’ve been speculating since #2, above), but that’s the nature of the game- both my blogging game, and BRD’s tech-startup game.  I’ll toss out Brammo as a cautionary example here.  While the Brammo Empulse turned out to be a perfectly rideable product, they had strung along their preorder base for years, and finally put out a different bike than they had originally boasted.  KTM, by comparison, was careful not to promise the world, and fail; they’re apparently waiting to see what Moore’s Law will bring before committing.  In the cage business, Audi is doing the KTM thing, and not promising vehicle specs at all.

Meanwhile, Agility was careful not to boast too much about their Saietta, and is trickling out units at a slow rate.  This allows them to dodge issue #2 above.  Lightning is even slower; they’ve apparently (total speculation!) sold a couple of units to a few lucky millionaires as one-off proto-rides.  These millionaires will either baby their bikes, or not cry too much when the quasi-custom units need serious care.  Mission will strike somewhere down the middle.  The first 70 of their Mission RS models will be around $50,000 or more this summer, and sold to millionaires or near-millionaires.  Only then, with build experience and some field work under their belts, will Mission sell the “cheaper” (~$30,000) Mission R, with higher usability expectations and hopefully better reliability and durability.  And only then will Mission release their hinted “cheap” bike.

Game on, e-moto industry.  Game on.

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3 thoughts on “Mud on the Leg(work)… ?

  1. Pingback: A Dolt of Lightning | cableflux

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