Redux: The Future Just Got Here? Part 2

Redux The Future Just Got Here? Part 2

February 7, 2016 9:00am

Last week we presented Part 1 of our interview with Alta Motors CEO Marc Fenigstein, one of the co-founders of this potentially revolutionary electric bike company. The Alta RedShift MX, and the street-legal RedShift SM (Supermoto), could certainly change the way we look, think, hear and feel about this sport.

Last week’s half dove into the concept behind the machine, and how it all came together. This time we get into the practical aspects—including maintenance, work, the retail price, the production roll out, and plans for racing.

Racer X: You mentioned the lack of maintenance. No air filters for starters, radiator fluid, oil changes, clutch changes…that’s a massive difference.
Marc Fenigstein: We do have a water-cooled system, so there is standard coolant but that also should never need to be changed for the life of the bike. The exception would be draining it for winter storage, which is standard vehicle maintenance. But you can look at the the inconvenience of doing oil changes every five hours, and then the eventual cost of valve adjustments at 20 hours and rebuilds at 40 or 50 hours. By our math if you do your own oil changes but you don’t do your own engine work, you break even, price wise, with this bike at about 100 hours. We’ll get into the retail price question, but for us the maintenance advantage is huge and once you get used to just being able to get on your bike and go, no warmup, no oil changes… I can’t tell you how many rides I’ve either been super late to or missed because you’re trying to cram in an oil or filter change in the morning, and something goes wrong.

On noise, this is something that we’re really excited about for the sport in general. At minimum I think it gives us another tool to preserve riding access and I think if we use it right it could open up lots of new riding areas or stuff that’s been closed off to us in the past. We’ve had a number of folks approaching us, in the US and Europe, about creating new motocross riding areas near urban or suburban centers. We know we have a bunch of depositors that are interesting in the bikes for backyard tracks. So to be able to bring back off-road riding as a backyard sport the way that it was in the 1970s, that would be huge. The bikes, by the way, are not silent largely because of that gear reduction I mentioned earlier. They have kind of a turbine engine sound to them. It is nowhere near as loud as four-stroke. The sound doesn’t carry the same way. What it does do is give the rider the critical feedback they need on speed and torque, how much power they’re actually putting down. You can hear it from about a city block away. So in terms of trail safety, if you were on a gas bike you probably won’t hear it coming, but you won’t hear most bikes coming. But if you’re say an equestrian, a hiker, a mountain biker, you’ll hear this bike coming before you get mowed down. If you’re on a motocross track, you’ll still hear a sound that gives you the proper feedback you need, and makes riding fun.

So while these are some great advantages, the very concept here of the electric motor wasn’t reduced maintenance, wasn’t noise reduction, it was that you thought that if you matched the chassis performance of an existing bike, and put this type of motor in it you can actually go faster? It was originally a performance-based hypothesis here?
Yes. So far all of our testing, and that includes base testing of riders who are outside of Alta, professional test riders, etc., have supported that hypothesis. In fact, we’ve gotten really, really positive feedback on the chassis and I think that’s interesting because on paper, like you said and like I said earlier, what we’ve done is match. But the bike, the handling and suspension is so refined. We didn’t change that equation in a way that should make the bike handle better, and what we all believe is happening is that the control provided by an electric drive train is so much smoother, more predictable, and able to put power down better, and people are interpreting it as chassis feel.

We know some of the testing for the RedShift has been performed by experience hands like Kris Keefer, which bodes well. But we're excited to get our hands one!
We know some of the testing for the RedShift has been performed by experience hands like Kris Keefer, which bodes well. But we're excited to get our hands one! Alta Motors

That’s understandable. I think two-strokes and four-strokes with very similar performance components, chassis and suspension, they handle completely differently with the same exact forks and the same exact shock. Four-strokes produce smoother power and that actually impacts suspension, so I guess this is just the next extension.
That’s the way we see it. On a component level kind of everything is new but in terms of the vehicle that we’re trying to create, we wanted to build something that was the natural evolution, that felt immediately comfortable and fit into the format that people rode, and what real performance is to them, whether it’s winning races or just being faster than their buddies. But it needed to be part of that lineage for good engineering reasons and for good market reasons.

The last thing: What does it cost and how do you buy one?
We sell through traditional motorcycle dealerships. We’re not a direct sale. We’re not opening up brand new outlet dealerships. We have not announced most of our dealerships yet. I think we only officially announced our first one, which is Alta of San Francisco, also known as BMW Motorcycles of San Francisco. We’ll be announcing a bunch more in California real soon. We’ll probably announce throughout the rest of the country mid-year. By design we’re rolling out the bikes to California first. We’re an expanding operation and want to make sure that we don’t distribute faster than we can support customers and dealers. We want to make sure that this is a really, really positive ownership experience. So the bikes are moving slowly, and that’s great for the customers that will get them. It might be a little frustrating for the customers that can’t get them just yet. We do take deposits on the bike which reserves your spot in line and ensures that when a dealer in your area does get their first shipment you can be at the front of the line for those. That’s a $500 deposit via our website. The expectation is that we’ll have pretty good national coverage. We won’t be in all 50 states in 2016 but we’ll have pretty good national coverage by the end of the year.

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What’s the price?
Motocrosser is $14,995. The supermoto, which is street legal, is $15,495.

You’ve already kind of given the calculation of how you might even recoup some of those costs with the maintenance and things like that.
Yeah. Obviously we recognize it’s at a premium, even over the high end of four-strokes right now. Part of that cost is that this bike contains the most advanced technology in all of transportation right now. A lot of things we’re doing are a couple steps ahead of even Tesla. But there’s no way around it, cutting edge tech costs money. We hope that the performance and then the saved maintenance costs make it worthwhile for customers. So far based on the demand that we’ve seen, especially from dealers, we feel pretty good about the bike.

So you kind of entered this space because you found that the energy requirements of a motocross bike are probably more practical for electric right now than it would be for, say, a car. So if this works, motocross in a way could potentially lead the charge. If this is the way the world is going with transportation, motocross could end up being the leading edge of it, or maybe now it is.
Yeah, I would argue that if it isn’t the tip of the spear it is one of the tips of the spear. We got into it because it was a space that we knew and loved, but when you step back from it and you look at the best opportunities for electric, this was the one that bubbled to the top. Based on today’s technology, if you look at the places where electric can be not just equivalent but superior, there’s a few, and this is definitely one of them. What makes this really exciting is it has an established racing format where we can put our bike head to head and put our money where our mouth is, and find out if we’re right. Is this really faster? We’re not doing it in our own electric-only races or some sideshow, we’re doing it on the turf of what the established standard is. I think the other interesting thing is it’s a market that is in it for the performance, not the environmental promise. Now, the environmental end, I’m sure a lot of customers are happy about that, but I’m also sure a lot of customers are completely indifferent. I bet some customers are probably actively opposed! But at the end of the day if the bike out-performs the current bikes in the way that we hope it will, all of that becomes irrelevant. That’s a really exciting moment for electric technology in general. The moment when it’s not selling because of an environmental promise, but simply because for that person’s use, it’s the best thing they can buy.

Will we see some racing from your perspective or is it just customers can buy it and race it themselves? Are there thoughts of a team or sponsorship or getting them out there for marketing purposes like the other factories do?
We will probably be participating here and there in some racing. There aren’t specifics that I’m willing to share at this point. I do expect in the first year that most of the RedShifts at races are going to be under people that paid for them. That is maybe more exciting for me. I think there’s more to be said about the bike and the brand if privateers are competing on it and winning on it than a factory effort.

It’s just so hard to wrap my head around this. It was so quiet and now all of a sudden it’s here, the idea that at high profile races a privateer might be selecting this machine within the next few months or the next year.
I want to put an asterisk on that, which is that the AMA and the FIM have not homologated these bikes yet for any racing class. That is something that we’re working on. The FIM especially has been really directive and active in working with us to figure out the homologation. At the local and regional level, pretty much universally, every promoter or organizer we’ve spoken to has said you could run them in open class and most have said you could run them in 250 which is what we designed them to be.

Can you claim this as a made in the USA product?
Yeah, absolutely. I am standing 20 feet from our production floor in Brisbane, California. We’re just outside of San Francisco. Designed and built in California.

Just the fact that you’ve launched it, you’ve made this thing happen and it’s made in the USA and the bikes are about to go on sale, congrats on that. That’s something that no one else has really been able to pull off yet, so well done.
I really appreciate it. It’s been a lot of hard work over a really long time. If we had more time I’ve got all kinds of war stories to share. But to be where we are right now feels great. I cannot believe what this year is going to bring.

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