Electric vehicles are becoming a reality, and Michigan is in the thick of it, with the Chevy Volt in production in Detroit and a factory going up in Holland to produce the Volt’s lithium ion battery.
Ann Arbor has an electric vehicle of its own that’s out to make a splash on the national scene. “We’ve been operating in stealth mode,” says Erik Kauppi, chief engineer and co-founder of Current Motor Company, a start-up manufacturer of electric motor scooters that go fast enough to drive on I-94, recharge in four to six hours in a regular wall socket, and cost $5,000 to $7,000. Current operates out of a hangar-sized pole barn on Jackson Road that serves as assembly plant, office, and showroom. After two years of tinkering, the company now has ten of its scooters on the road.
We’re a nation of car drivers, so the Volt has been the attention grabber. But as Kauppi and his co-founder John Harding see it, the market niche most ripe for immediate exploitation by battery power is motor scooters.
What is a motor scooter, anyway? “Scooter is an awful word,” Harding admits. “There is no legal class of vehicles called motor scooters.” Michigan, like most states, considers any two-wheeled vehicle that goes over 30 mph a motorcycle. Current’s scooters meet that definition, which means you need a motorcycle license and insurance to operate one.
Scooter” refers to the style: you step through it, rather than straddle it. Scooters are easy to mount and dismount, making them great commuter vehicles. They’re very popular in Europe. Culturally speaking, a scooter is Marcello Mastroianni zipping from cafe to cafe in La Dolce Vita, rather than Peter Fonda armored in leather for a cross-country odyssey in Easy Rider. Current chose to use scooter styling because it allows more space for batteries, addressing the range and power concerns of American consumers.
Harding is painfully aware that “scooter” is also used to describe a raft of ridiculous putt-putt vehicles, especially those midget bikes that Shriners parade in. And to many people “scooter” means “moped.” Mopeds, which commonly use scooter styling, have less horsepower and no transmission, and they require no license and no insurance. Current has those in development too, but they’re a few years out.
“About 200,000 gasoline-powered motor scooters are sold each year in the United States,” says Harding, and Current is making a run to capture as much of that market as it can.
Harding, forty, is a computer scientist from Wales educated in Manchester, England. He met his wife, Ann Arborite Laurie Krauth, in 1997, while working as a software engineer at Ford. In 2007 he started selling electric motorcycles over the Internet and was frustrated by the two extremes–on one hand, cheap Chinese bikes that were often defective and impossible to service, and on the other, high-end, highly styled electric motorcycles like the Mission One sports bike, which, Harding says, “sells for $60,000. It’s the Tesla of the two-wheeled world.”
There was “no middle ground for a decent-quality bike you could trust, use, and get serviced.” So he and Kauppi, another onetime Ford engineer, whom he had recently met on a consulting job, set out to invent one.
While Harding is fresh faced and energetic, Kauppi looks more like he belongs in Easy Rider, with a shaggy beard, ratty shirts and jeans, and an offhand way of speaking quietly and calmly in complete, complex sentences. They buy batteries and other parts purchased overseas and modify them in their shop.
Some of the modifications in braking and motor configuration are significant, with patents pending. The bikes have regenerative brakes (like a Prius) and permanent magnet rotors mounted to the wheel rims–axles remain stationery–keeping all the moving parts to a minimum.
“No slip rings, no brushes to wear out. A direct connection, nothing to fail,” says Terry Richards, a self-described “shop rat” who has played a critical role in product development, showing off the insides of a Current electric motor.
“The motorcycle is perfect for batteries,” says Richards. “You don’t worry about your range decreasing in the winter, because you’re not riding it. You don’t worry about salt contamination, because you’re not riding it. Power brakes, a heater, all those things that really hamper electric vehicles–not a problem.”
“‘Range anxiety’ is the big buzzword in electric vehicles, but your typical scooter customer doesn’t get on a scooter and drive to Chicago or even Dearborn. These are for commuting. So most people who ride scooters can ride an electric scooter without any change in their habits,” says Kauppi. Current’s bikes can go from thirty-five to eighty miles on a charge, depending on the model (they look identical; the difference in the four models offered is in the size of the battery pack).
Why go electric, which costs at least twice as much as a gasoline-powered scooter? “There are lots of reasons–ease of maintenance, lower operating costs. But the big reason that causes customers to pull their wallets out is the environment,” says Kauppi. Despite the fact that most electricity is generated in coal-burning plants, he says, the “well-to-wheel CO2 production is 30 percent less for an electric vehicle than a gas vehicle of the same size and weight.” And gas-powered motorcycles, whose emissions aren’t as tightly regulated as cars, are notorious emitters of other pollutants.
While billions of public and private dollars are being poured into developing electric automobiles, Current’s initial investment was just $125,000. Small economic development grants and loans led them to Peter Scott of SPARK, first their mentor, now their full-time president and rainmaker. Scott recruited Wisconsin-based “angel” investor Lauren Flanagan, who’s kept enough cash flowing to get the start-up through the harrowing period of product development.
Current originally hoped to begin sales a year ago and to be lauching a dealership network by now. Continued tinkering with the design has held things up: the company is still writing the production manual and figuring out how to assemble the scooters a little more efficiently.
Because Current uses a modular production scheme–which Kauppi describes as “two guys, a toolbox, and a workstation”–rather than an assembly line, output can easily be scaled up or down. Current’s now taking orders. But Kauppi says the wait time for a bike is about six weeks, so customers may have to wait till next spring to enjoy their electric scooters.