And the other tire drops: Brammo, that electric motorcycle company that talked a big talk, now tanks big time. After not even three full years of Empulse motorcycle sales, Brammo, Inc. now ceases to exist as an independent entity, having been bought out by Polaris Industries (makers of ATVs, snowmobiles, the Victory and Indian gasser motorcycle brands, etc.). Whether they will exist at all is now Polaris’ play.
The first public clue was Brammo announcing an “end of season” clearance sale. An end of season sale last August. Personally, late August/early September is when my riding season is in its second wind, literally. Anyway, Brammo slashed prices by about half on some bikes. Then it was seen that dealers- such as they were- still had 2013 Brammo Empulses to get rid of. They still had clearance Empulses into 2015. The second public clue were the reports of little or no activity at Brammo headquarters/factory in Oregon.
My clue, however, came years ago, dealing with these Keystone Choppers. In my experience, Brammo was chasing a phantom: the fickle tastes of a small segment of motorcyclists, itself a small segment of vehicle buyers in general. Rather than start with a good technology base, then digging in with plans to grow out from there, Brammo tried to nail it with one shot. They thought they had to have a multispeed transmission/clutch to replicate the “real motorcycle” experience. Instead, contracting IET for trannys delayed production and sale, and made Empulses the worst of both worlds: the limited range of an electric, with the gear slop of a gasser. Meanwhile gear losses net you even less range.
From a financial point of view, it gets even worse. Brammo used Parker Hannifin’s electric motor to turn IET’s tranny, and as you’d expect, cells are contracted out to an Asian factory too. Contracted cells do make sense for some folks; you can’t win ’em all. But contracting your motor, transmission, _and_ your power controller (to Sevcon) _and_ the onboard charger means the contractors are making money. Not Brammo, apparently. Not when Brammo is moving too few bikes to negotiate hard bargains out of suppliers. IET can turn around and sell ten times more to Ducati, let alone Honda; you think they’ll give Brammo a great price? Parker Hannifin, too, sells millions of units to makers and factories around the world.
Basically, they got whipsawed. Brammo refused to call- or could not see- two or three hard options: either choose a promising but solid design, and stick it out (polish it skillfully even if the tech’s premature), or split their customers into base and sport models. (No, shocks and calipers don’t count.) The third possibility is to wait until batteries mature, or… build a better battery. Instead, they fumbled between contractors to kluge up something, while also burning up precious time and money. Time and money they, as a startup (arguably), did not have. Meanwhile, the customers on preorder get pissed. Customers like me, who were all set to buy in on a new company and new technology, and buy in with serious money at that.
But hey, let’s be empathetic and look at it from Brammo’s point of view. Founder Craig Bramscher billed the company as “the Tesla of motorcycles,” so let’s run with that metaphor and mindset. Tesla built a limited number of Roadsters, to test design principles, and gain experience in general. This let them build a follow-on Model S, to much acclaim- a pure EV, not a battery box with a gasser backup. To Brammo then, their earlier Brammo Enertia served as their Roadster, and the Empulse was to be their Model S. To much acclaim, hopefully.
Just one problem with this metaphor, and in general anyone trying “the Tesla of _____” meme. Tesla had a half a billion dollars to get off the ground, and even then they still started with Roadsters first. Brammo? Not so much. Tesla had the luxury of money and time to polish their products, and they still had to poach Mercedes staff. (This was after licensing the Lotus Elise platform for the Roadster.) Hence, the Model S has a thought-out design in general, and thought-out details. Where details had to be figured out from scratch, half a billion will get ‘er done somehow. Of course, cars are cars, and motorcycles are motorcycles; I’ll be the first to point out that. Cars are expected to be driven all year, in all weather, not motorcycles. Cars also need far more standard equipment to be sellable, let alone competitive. Crash testing alone will cost an automaker as much as some motorcycle designs.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Brammo didn’t follow their own Tesla billing. In their runup, Tesla had promised a 2-speed tranny for the Roadster. They had to ditch it when it didn’t make sense, and go with direct drive in the final car, burning the redesign money as necessary. Years before Brammo’s Empulse. Tesla also did their own motor, and a well-integrated charger with some advanced (but not quite new) features. The Model S liquid battery cooling, like the Chevy Volt and Mitsubishi i, comes along with the cabin air conditioning. You don’t spend $70,000 and not get air conditioning. Brammo’s cooling had no such luck.
Brammo certainly didn’t drive their retail operations ahead, like Tesla. Even after the Empulse introduction, I had no dealerships near me, and I’m hardly alone. The lack of channels should have been another clue. Granted, we’re in high-priced territory like European brands, but I can still find Ducati dealers, even KTM.
Brammo claims their programming is an ace in the hand; the embedded development people will sit there, unimpressed. A machine with a straight UI for one key function can be programmed up, no problem. Anyone who’s run through the Tesla S interfaces (yes, plural) will surely not be impressed by Brammo’s. In my limited software experience, I would put the task of Empulse coding above the level of a car CD changer, but far below a non-hybrid car with automatic transmission. Old hand, and I still have to work the clutch. About six “modes,” and requirements for stability and highway reliability of course. But nothing vague and undefined like a general purpose computer, or even a tablet or smartphone. The few, well defined controls on a bike are way easier than the free reign (some would say quagmire) of the desktop metaphor. Mission Motors is trying a Tesla-like color screen, and they’re doing no better.
Will Polaris do any better? I don’t sit on their board or even hold any shares, but I’m going to say no. Polaris had put tens of millions of dollars into Brammo, and is now looking into their options. Needless to say, Brammo did not sell tens of millions’ worth of bikes, and still has other creditors besides Polaris. Polaris could pump more money in, if they think Brammo was almost there. They aren’t; assets will be moved from Oregon to Polaris’ midwest operations. Seems to me Polaris is simply breaking as clean as they can, salvaging what still runs and eating the rest for as little of a loss as possible.
Closing lesson: don’t make a gasser vehicle, but electric where the gas was. Certainly not if you weren’t a gasser bike company to begin with. If you’re a new company, a new company in tech, then sell me new tech. The first year or three will be rough, of course. I may not go for it, which hey, is part of being new tech. Better things will come in a year or three, and you’ll be in a good position to up-spec the newer tech as it comes. A good position as a manufacturer, with a supplier base and retail system. If you haven’t found the money to run three rough years, then maybe you don’t have the tech- or the clue- you thought you did.