Thursday, February 10, 2011

Getting beneath the bodywork: James Parker on the Mission R

What a difference two years make. Mission's progressed from this rather strange creature (though I have to say I certainly got a nice shot of it last spring at Infineon...) this. The Mission R, slated for TTXGP (and Isle of Man?) competition this year. The release of these photos (by Kevin Wing/courtesy Mission) created immediate buzz. The machine, designed by James Parker and styled by Tim Prentice, may be the one that finally makes EV motorcycles sexy.
Time flies. It's nearly two years on, now, since I first visited the headquarters of Mission Motors, and interviewed them about the process of building a bike for the Isle of Man TTXGP event, and their plans to launch a road-legal electric sport bike.

After spending a couple of days in San Francisco and at Infineon with the Mission crew, I came away with mixed feelings. On one side of the equation, it was clear that they were all very intelligent. In the office space (itself reminiscent of a scene from The Social Network, minus the beer, dope, and chicks) there was a whiteboard covered with comically-obtuse algorithms. Basically, anyone else in the room, if I had their brain, I'd throw my brain out.

I was ready to believe that they were fully up to speed on batteries, motors, and the critical software that connects those elements and makes powerful e-bikes rideable.


There were a few red flags, too. On the technical side, no one else in the EV world believed the road bike specs they'd published (150 mph/150 mile range, etc.) were achievable with available batteries. And after years in the advertising business, I'd learned that smart guys protect their IP but amateurs overprotect it. If you've got a circuit board across a workshop on a bench in the background of a photo, no one's going to blow up the halftone color-separated photo when it appears three months later in Road Racer X, and reverse-engineer you. That kind of paranoia smacks of hubris, which is great when you're pitching VCs but a real hindrance when it comes to actually being competitive. In the marketplace, an inferiority complex is actually a good motivator.

Another thing I've learned is that while it may be true that 'what you don't know won't hurt you,' what you don't know that you don't know is deadly. I questioned the company's decision to hire an industrial designer with a background in personal computers. There didn't seem to be anyone there with a grasp of motorcycle chassis dynamics. And although they'd announced a date (now long past) when their first $60,000 high-performance street bikes would reach the market, no one had answers when I asked about contracts with key suppliers, potential distributors or dealer networks, or parts support. I came away with the impression that there was no business plan at all.

My overall impression was that in a math bee, the crew at Mission would kick Brammo's ass. But that if I was going to invest in an electric motorcycle company, Brammo would still get my money. And I have to say I felt a tiny bit vindicated when Brammo eked out the better result on the Isle of Man.

Some time after that, my friend James Parker mentioned that he'd been approached by Mission. I told him about what I just wrote there, adding words to the effect of, They want you, but what matters is, do they know they need you?

I heard no more about it until Mission's new TTXGP contender was recently unveiled...

What a stunner, eh? Parker's design – with styling by another friend of mine, Tim Prentice – immediately buzzed up as one of the best-looking motorcycles, well, ever. I suddenly paid attention to Mission again, and learned that in the interim the company had deleted original CEO Forrest North (he's still on the board, I think, but no longer involved day-to-day) and repositioned itself as, essentially, a specialized consulting engineering firm in the EV sector, doing work for Honda and other car companies. The whole motorcycle thing is presented almost as a proving ground for Mission's technology. That's probably a more viable position right now, and it made me think it was time to give Mission a second look.

I've already interviewed James about the design process, and Tim about the styling exercise. I've got a call in to Mission to talk engineering sometime soon. I hope to compile all that material into a re-evaluation of the company and its motorcycle between now and the TT. But over the next few weeks, I'll just post the raw transcriptions of my interviews, so you can begin drawing your own conclusions.

Parker, with the Mission R, sans bodywork and battery.
Herewith, the first part of my conversation with one of motorcycling's iconoclastic geniuses, James Parker...

Backmarker: There's been a lot of positive feedback about the new bike...

James Parker: Yeah,.. we couldn't ask for better response to what we've done; it's just a little strange to not have it running yet.

What are the hurdles to getting it running? I guess the next stage is getting it out on a test track?

Yeah, and we don't expect problems but the thing right now is that [Mission has] contracts to build equipment for other companies – not motorcycle companies necessarily – but they're under the gun with a company they have to build a lot of batteries for. So the battery for the bike's being put off until they get those other batteries done. It's one of those things where they're making money from contracts with other companies, and they're not in a position to turn any of that work down. They have to get that work out the door before they can get back to the bike.

As an outsider looking in, I get the impression that Mission may use motorcycles as means of proving their concepts, but that they're becoming a more diversified engineering and technology company...

That's exactly it. There's a large faction within the company that wants the motorcycle to go, and we're talking about all sorts of different plans. The company comes first, I guess you'd say. Sometimes it's a bit crazy; you really want to just move along smoothly, item to item on your checklist. We find ourselves having to do other projects that slow things down on the motorcycle side.

How much will the bike weigh?

It's 546 pounds. To put that in perspective, the TTXGP has a limit of 551 pounds. We're right near that limit. But a Yamaha R1 with a full tank of gas is something like 485. We're only 60 pounds more than that. That's a reasonable place to be at this point in the technical development [of EVs and battery technology].

The battery is about the size and weight of one of the weight stacks on the leg press machine at your gym. Once I get around to transcribing the rest of James' interview, we'll learn how this packaging challenge was resolved
Did you see the naked pictures yet? Have you seen the picture of the battery sitting on the floor in front of the bike? It's a pretty amazing box – over 85 liters of volume. The gas tank of a bike is typically about 20 liters. My biggest challenge was to have that volume, and everything else you need, in a bike that is about the size of a 600. It's a longer wheelbase than a 600; it's a 57.5 inch nominal wheelbase, but dimensionally it feels about like a 600 when you're sitting on it.

So let's accept the fact that it's not that much heavier than a conventional sport bike, but it is heavier. In a perfect world scenario – no constraints on you as a designer – would that extra weight, if you didn't have to make a motorcycle that looked like a sport bike, have led to some radically different configuration, say a feet forward design similar to a Gurney Alligator?

I don't think so. A sport bike doesn't look like a sport bike because of fashion. The riding position is really important. We could have been more adventurous in certain areas of this bike [pause] I'm not a big fan of certain blue-sky approaches. I had constraints when I came to this design, but I wasn't uncomfortable with those constraints.

I note that it has a single-sided swingarm, but that the chain adjustment is not the eccentric adjuster you'd expect on such a swingarm. I seem to remember when I visited you a couple of years ago in Santa Fe, that you had just such a prototype in your house. Is the problem with the eccentric adjusters that when you change the chain tension you're also changing the steering geometry?

It changes the ride height. This was something that Ducati struggled with a long time. They seem to have gotten around it, because they've done fine lately in SBK with the single-sided arm. It'll be interesting to see if their new [2012] superbike will have that swingarm. I've always thought that eccentric adjustment was the weak link in the single-sided arm; I've been working on it a long time.

Is this the first time it will see production? That must be gratifying for you...

Yeah, I designed this bike originally with a conventional swingarm, because I thought they'd expressed doubts about the single-sided arm, and I brought up the possibility of this specific design and they said, 'Yeah we want it.' It's more a marketing thing than anything else, but I was pleased because the single-sided mechanism is really workable. There's not downside to it that I can see; it's not any heavier.

We've talked over the years about the RADD front end, and you've explained the various problems with the conventional front fork. I'm guessing that the indreased weight of that battery, if anything, would give a RADD front end an even larger advantage. How close did you come to putting your RADD system on this bike?

I did drawings of it. With a small start-up company, I felt that I had to limit the challenges that I was presenting through the design. I would have loved to do that, and we've talked about it at Mission; it may be something we'll do in the future. But how much can a start-up company take on?

I understand. But from a packaging point of view it would've worked?

Because of the way the arms are, it would've extended our wheelbase a bit. I could have adjusted the wheelbase at the rear; it would've been quite a different design, but it wouldn't have presented any big problems and there would have been some benefits. It might've ended up a bit lighter. It's hard to say, because it's not what got designed. I definitely have drawings of it with a single-sided front arm.

So we might see it at some point?..

Oh yeah, the guys at Mission were very attracted to it. But how many challenges do you want in a single project?

Could that big battery become a monocoque structural element? Could you just attach a RADD front end to that, and basically lose the whole frame?

You could make a box around the battery, but the battery itself is a bunch of elements that are not inherently strong. The battery that goes in that box is basically six smaller sub-boxes, and those six all attach to the center plate. That battery takes some loads, because the center plate is load-bearing, but to do a monocoque box, the best way to do it would be to have the outer box take all the loads.

It's not like an [ICE] engine, which is inherently strong. It's not so much that the battery isn't strong, but the elements of it aren't.

We hear these spectacular torque and horsepower figures quoted for electric motors. I'm assuming that the Mission motor is capable of generating a lot of torque. Are there challenges to that, in terms of the geometry of the rear suspension under acceleration?

No, the torque isn't... There's a misunderstanding about the torque produced by electric motorcycles; I just wrote an editorial for Motorcyclist about this, and it's that some of the electric guys are quoting rear-wheel torque. The comparison I make is that if you have 90 ft-lbs of torque at the motor, and you have a 6:1 reduction [overall between crank speed and wheel speed] you could say that you have 540 ft-lbs of torque. And some people are quoting it like that. Everyone should quote motor torque; if you have a six-speed bike and you quote rear-wheel torque, you'd need to cite six different figures.

We have about 115 ft-lbs at the motor, and we have a 7:1 approximate ratio. It's very similar to a GSX-R1000 which has about 82, and a 9:1 reduction in first gear. Basically the Gixxer 1000 and the electric bike have, like 800+ ft-lbs in first gear. Electric motors can make a huge amount of torque; Czysz quoted something like 250 ft-lbs; I don't know how he did that, or if he's quoting motor torque.

I don't know if any available tire could handle that much torque...

Some guys are using almost direct drive. We have about a 3:1 primary drive, and two point something final. Some people don't have a primary at all; they run the final straight off the motor. It's all so new and progressing so fast that it's hard to know where you are.

I'm sure you saw that Chip Yates ran against those ICE bikes. His motor is massively powerful; 230 hp apparently, and ours is 140. His motor is physically much bigger, and he doesn't have much battery on it, compared to ours, but that thing makes huge power. When you're trying to think about how to go racing with this stuff. If you're going Daytona SportBike racing, you know you need a four-cylinder 600 to win, and that you need about 125 horsepower at the rear wheel and you're going to weigh 360 pounds or whatever it is. Right now, in the electric world, everyone is scratching their heads and wondering what the other guys' got.

You're old school; you still whip out a pencil and piece of paper and sketch things up? How was it for you, at Mission? Were they, like, 'What's that?' and you were saying, 'It's a sheet of paper.'?

There was a lot of that, but it wasn't difficult or tense. They respected me and I respect them. They can do things that I can't do, with CAD. And I can do things that they can't do. We just looked at it, like, we have to make a team out of this, and it worked – because I know what they can do with CAD, and they know that they can't draw a #ΓΌ¢&ing line.

Over the next few days, I'll try to finish transcribing James' interview and transcribe my talk with Tim Prentice. I've got lots, lots more insight from both guys on everything from racing plans to chassis dynamics. Taken together, the conversations provide an interesting view into the way they worked together to score a major design coup, and how these old-school guys - who normally work on paper and by carving clay - can bring their wealth of motorcycle experience to this high-tech sector. Hopefully, I'll also hook up with Mission's  Jorah Wyler, for a chat about turning electrons into sex pheromones. Keep checking back! Cheers, Mark

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