Redux: The Future Just Got Here?

Redux The Future Just Got Here?

January 31, 2016 7:00am

We all knew this was coming. An electric motocross bikes could produce huge advantages in noise and maintenance reduction, potentially opening up the sport in ways never thought possible. But just like in cars, the question is, when would electric technology advance to a point where it could be a suitable competitor for gasoline in terms of power, range, weight, reliability and cost?

We assumed that was a long way off, but San Francisco-based Alta Motors, with its RedShift motocross bike, believes that time is now. The company has quietly been working on this electric motocross concept for eight years. Now, the bikes are going into production and the company feels that it’s fully competitive with any modern 250F motocrosser. In fact, they’re claiming performance as the number-one advantage of this machine over a gasoline powered bike. Noise? Maintenance? That’s secondary. The Alta RedShift is supposed to make you faster on a motocross track.

Really? We recently spoke with Alta Motors co-founder Marc Fenigstein and asked him every question a skeptical industry could come up with. This is part one of a two-part interview about the Alta RedShift.

Racer X: Well, this was a big surprise. I think everybody knows that someday there is going to be an electric bike that fills a huge void, but I don’t think people knew that it practically exists right now. Where did this come from? How long have you been working on it?
Marc Fenigstein:
We’ve been working on it for a long time, we were just awfully quiet about it. We were semi-stealth. So Derek [Dorresteyn] and Jeff [Sand], my co-founders, they started kicking this around something like eight years ago. We really started to work on it about six years ago, and in 2010 we all quit our day jobs. It was about a year later, late 2011, that we dropped the first hint and we showed our very first prototype in supermoto trim in San Francisco. And then we went sort of head down again for the next four years. We did it for a couple of reasons. There’s unfortunately a lot of scorched earth in the electric vehicle space and there’s been a lot of promises or expectations that couldn’t be met. We worked really hard to try to avoid that. I don’t think we were immune to it. Even we knew, as conscious as we were of setting reasonable expectations, especially on a timeline, that when you’re doing something this ambitious, frankly you just don’t have the control to be able to promise things. So we were staying as quiet as we could. We didn’t want to share anything with the public until not only we knew we were hitting our numbers, but we knew we were going to put this thing into production and it was going to be real.

Yes. The electric thing, you hear claims all the time, and then if you don’t live up to them, it seems like a failure because it didn’t do what you said it would do three years ago.
The real test of any product is how it does in the market, and that’s what’s ahead of us this year. We’ve done everything we can to deliver on our own expectations and build a bike that we believe is the best bike in motocross. That’s not for us to say, that’s for our market to tell us.

Alta Motors co-founder Marc Fenigstein
Alta Motors co-founder Marc Fenigstein Courtesy Alta Motors

That’s the thing, because it’s so new, I don’t think people maybe realize how ready you are. I’ve heard that this isn’t like Version 1.0 of the bike, it’s not “buy one, help us work out the bugs.” Your goal is to have this bike perform so well that you can legitimately compare it to gas-powered motocross bikes that exist right now?
That is absolutely the goal, yes. And we do our testing with what we consider the top 250 four-stroke—I won’t say which one but all of the top five fall within a pretty narrow range of performance anyway, so I think any of them would be credible. We are right now very happy with the way the bike is performing. The real proof is when someone who puts his or her own money down on it throws a leg over it and agrees. It’s going to be an exciting first quarter for us in 2016.

What’s the background? You chose not to build a street bike, for example, or a car or a drone. Why a motocross bike?
It’s a couple of things. So, Derek, our CTO and one of our two co-founders, he was basically born a motorcycle racer. He’s a second-generation racer on both sides of his family. His uncle is a Hall of Famer. His dad was a pro. He got his pro license at 16 or 17 racing flat track and speedway. And then he had a second career in the early 2000s in supermoto, until someone blew out his knee. So it’s in his blood and this format of bike is where he spends his time and energy and passion already. Jeff, our chief design officer, has been an amateur racer for 30 years, first road racing but then a lot more in off-road. Not necessarily motocross but hare scrambles, cross country, enduro, that sort of thing. So they were both recreational riders and it was what they were focused on. I come from a little bit different background. I was more of a street rider and road racer and I came from downhill mountain biking, which was my competition background. They naturally looked at the problems they were trying to solve. Derek had his KTM, got a bunch of hop up parts, built the thing out. It’s dyno’d at like high 50 horsepower. The thing was a monster. He took it out and it was unridable and all of a sudden he was slower. If you spark this conversation between the two of them, they’ll talk about what makes you fast in the real world and it isn’t power, it is more control. More control led to the discussion of what creates control and the realization that electric motors actually deliver the ideal amount of control. And then they started digging into, well, how far away are we from electric being competitive? Once you start thinking as control as your source of speed, it becomes inevitable at some point that we’ll find parity compared to the best of what gas can do.

The fundamental numbers worked. When you look at the base level of how much power per pound modern electric motors have, the energy per pound in modern batteries, and how much energy you need for off-road, especially for motocross where you have a fixed time for the race, that was it. That set them off. When I came in, this challenged every assumption I had, because I’d been looking at street bikes and the numbers didn’t work out the same way. What it came down to was, coincidentally, they were already interested in off-road bikes, and they had also found that off-road is the space where the power, energy and weight equation worked for electric.

The company feels that it’s fully competitive with any modern 250F.
The company feels that it’s fully competitive with any modern 250F. Courtesy Alta Motors

That’s fortunate actually that the energy part worked out that way, but I think the weight thing is really critical. On street bikes and cars they immediately talk about range. But in motocross weight is so critical and batteries have always been such an obstacle as far as weight. How were you able to make this bike competitive there—especially compared with a 250F, which is a little lighter than a 450.
There’s a couple of things. The first is the very simple fact, and this is true for every electric, not just for us, that a motocross bike doesn’t need as much energy as a enduro bike, let alone a street bike. The easiest way to look at that is look at the fuel tank size. Motocross bikes are like a gallon and a quarter these days. Cross country, depending on the bike, you might get an aftermarket tank, you’re looking at twice that or even three times as much. For a street bike you’re looking at four to five gallons. So, if we’re only competing against a gallon and a quarter of gas, the battery challenge is a fraction and we can elevate all the advantages of the electric motor and motor control. Now, what’s unique about Alta is we didn’t start out with, “Hey, what’s the best battery pack and best motor we can buy that’s already out there and already commercialized.” Instead, we started with the fundamentals of this is how much horsepower per pound an electric motors can produce. Let’s design from scratch an electric motor to get as close as the theoretical potential in our format as possible. The exact rear wheel torque and top speed that we want, what is the smallest, lightest motor that can be built? And we did that for every component of the drive train. And not only was each one sort of clean sheet developed, but they were all developed in concert, they were developed to work with each other, and also to work as a system that optimized for the center of gravity, and for rotational inertia. We placed the heaviest part of the motor in the center of the bike. And the chassis itself was also developed purposefully to house those specific components. So you can get as close to the theoretical capability of each of those technologies as possible. That’s what allowed us to get to build a bike that was competitive in weight with motocross. You couldn’t just do it by taking the best off the shelf components and integrating them.

Give us an idea of the range? And you’re right, in motocross a lot of people literally ride fifteen to twenty minutes and they’re tired then they take a break. You don’t need to ride all day long like you would on a Harley or a cruiser.
So it obviously depends on the format. You put a lot more power down on a motocross track than you do on a trail. So from our experience so far, for the average recreational rider, somebody who does a lot of motocross but isn’t a pro, you’re getting about an hour of motocross track time, or about two hours of trail time. A national level pro will burn through a pack in about 30 minutes.

Which is startlingly similar to what a regular gas bike would do. At the pro level, a 30-minute moto is pushing a stock tank to the max.
Yeah. So, a useful data point is we finally entered our first race in December, which was a supermoto race at the International Motorcycle Show in Sacramento. It was a regional pro race run by Supermoto USA. We had planned to enter the bike as a 250, and our rider that day completed a practice session, the 250 qualifier, the 250 race, and also a 450 race, and he started every single one of those with a full pack and had no range problems in each of the sessions. Now, we were using an off-board fast charger that we have for internal use, that’s at about half the charge time. We expect at some point in the future to make that available to the public. But overall, that was a really, really full day. There aren’t that many riders out there that are going to put in that many laps at that kind of pace in a single day, and we had no problem with it.

What’s the charging time then? And also, can you put different battery packs on? Could you conceivably have three battery packs ready to go if you’re a person that would want to ride a ton?
From the standard charger, which just plugs into a 110 outlet or a generator at the track, or a wall outlet in your garage, it’s about a five hour charge from completely empty to full. Like I said, the fast charger down the road will approximately half that, but that’s not an accessory that’s available yet. The pack is swappable. It is about a 70 pound pack so it’s better done as a two person job, but two folks that know what they’re doing can swap a pack in a few minutes. What we have found is we developed it with a swappable pack and I do think that pro teams, or long-distance riders, could swap packs, but for most folks it is much, much easier to just charge between sessions. Those folks are tired before the battery is!

The other thing is, and this is pretty similar to our philosophy on marketing, we try to be really up front with customers about the ranges and the limitations. The fact is if your favorite days are long, cross-country days, you’re better off on a gas bike. But for the days that this type of range suits you, I don’t think that you can find a faster, more fun bike. But we don’t want any customers to ever be stranded on the bike. We want to be realistic and we want them to be realistic with themselves about what their real ranges are. For me personally, I am probably going to keep my KTM 250 for those long days. I can tell you that I am sort of disappointed that I have to do this, because I like riding the RedShift more, but there are days when that range is important.

[L to R] Jeff Sand (company CDO), Eric Gauthier (first Red Shift customer) Fenigstein and Derek Dorresteyn (CTO). Gauthier and Jeannine Smith, who own and operate Suspension Performance in Mountain View, CA, are the first to purchase a production Alta Red Shift.
[L to R] Jeff Sand (company CDO), Eric Gauthier (first Red Shift customer) Fenigstein and Derek Dorresteyn (CTO). Gauthier and Jeannine Smith, who own and operate Suspension Performance in Mountain View, CA, are the first to purchase a production Alta Red Shift. Courtesy Alta Motors

The next thing is the chassis design. Obviously you’ve come up with great solutions to make the weight at least feel somewhat similar, but we haven’t seen in an effective American-made motocross bike practically ever—there’s a few exceptions here and there. So what about the chassis and suspension and handling and all these things that are arguably more critical in motocross than even the power plant? Who helped with the development there?
The chassis was all in-house development. The suspension, wheels, tires, brakes, all of those things are conventional motocross parts. WP 4CS forks, WP fully adjustable piggy back shock. The springing and valving is custom to us, but it is similar equipment to what you see on some orange bikes. Brembo brakes, Bridgestone tires. But then everything in-between is custom to us. We did benchmark everything out there. So we looked at the four Japanese bikes and KTM, and we used that as our references to make sure of a couple things. There are years of evolution and development in the modern motocross chassis. It has arrived where it has in terms of strength and stiffness and ergonomics for very, very good reasons. We didn’t mess with any of that. But since we are fitting different parts into that chassis, the form it takes to achieve that strength and stiffness is going to be fundamentally different. We ended up developing a very novel approach to the chassis, which is this two-piece design. A monocoque rear bulkhead that houses most of the drive train and is heavily integrated with the drive train, and then the front monocoque, the front sub frame that bolts to it, and actually acts as the radiator for the system. It gives us a really, really efficient version of that structure. It ends up being on its own pretty competitive in weight to an alloy chassis like you’d find on the Japanese bikes, but it actually incorporates dozens and dozens of features that are normally separate parts.

Does the bike have gears? Is there an aspect similar to a clutch? These are standard parts of the feel of riding a motocross bike. How does that work?
It’s a single gear ratio, no clutch. It’s direct drive. There is an internal gear reduction but it’s just one ratio. You can think of the thing as just being in second gear all the time. What that allowed us to do was one, locate the motor where we want it, and two, run a very high speed motor, which gives us a lot more power than you would without that gear reduction. But it’s a fixed ratio, so that means no levers at all on the left side. No clutch lever on the left hand, and no shift lever for the left foot. That is probably the thing that takes folks the longest to get used to, depending on your style of riding and how much muscle memory you’re built up. That could take 30 seconds to 30 days.

Everything else about the bike is really intuitive. People pretty much immediately start having fun on it. So that same question did open up the possibility of dual hand brakes. We explored that a bunch internally, moving your brake lever from your right foot to your left hand. There’s two parts to the answer: One is when I look forward a couple of decades, I’m pretty sure all bikes will come with no foot controls and two hand brakes. For almost every kind of riding it is a superior setup. You never get your right foot caught up as you’re coming into a right-hander, and you naturally have finer control with your hands than you do with your ankle. That said, what we found with motocross testing and especially the older and more pro the motocrosser, the harder it was to make that transition to a hand brake. Tapping the brakes is so imbedded in muscle memory. It’s really disconcerting to go off a jump and want to bring the nose down and go to tap the brake and have it not be there. So we are shipping it with the foot brake and the hand brake is a planned after market accessory. We want people to be really conscious about a decision to go to the hand brake. The other place where it rears it head, the whole muscle memory, is using full braking when your instinct is to pull the clutch. The last thing you want when your instinct is to pull the clutch is for that to result in a rear wheel lockup.

Yeah, that would feel very awkward at first, and a lot of times you’re using the clutch to get more power and in this case it would turn into a brake, which is doing the exact opposite. But, hey, all the riding coaches nowadays, they all preach riding on the balls of your feet as much as possible, and obviously it’s limited by how much shifting and braking you have to do, where you have to get back to your arch or your heel. So maybe down the line this is the better way to go. That’s a sales pitch I’m just handing your right now.
I’ll take it!

"I really do want the answers on real world performance to come from our customers. Performance was absolutely the primary goal." Courtesy Alta Motors

Obviously the proof will be in the riding but I’ll let you state what I’m sure is a huge advantage of an electric bike—the maintenance standpoint and the noise. It has to be a world apart.
Yeah. Well, neither of those were actually our primary goals when we went in.

The performance was actually number one?
Performance was number one. I want to be really careful at this stage about the claims I make here. I really do want the answers on real world performance to come from our customers. Performance was absolutely the primary goal. That said, we certainly recognize that noise and maintenance were going to be secondary benefits of moving to electric. The maintenance one I think is huge. You have tires, chains, sprockets, brake pads, are your standard stuff to maintain, but one break-in oil change that I think we do about two hours in, and then you don’t have to touch the drive train for another 1,000 hours. That’s a lot, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a motocross bike with 1,000 hours on it!

We’ll have part two of our interview next week. You can learn more at AltaMotors.co.