Monday, January 9, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

My wife forwarded this interesting video to me, which shows work in progress on a gyro-balanced, fully enclosed electric motorcycle made by an upstart company called Lit, in the Bay Area. They call this model the C1.

I think it's pretty cool, although whether it should be thought of as a motorcycle or not is one of the questions that go unanswered in the video. It's sort of a cross between a Segway, a BMW C1 and a Quasar, tweaked to run on batteries.

20-some Quasars were built in the 1970s in England.
The bodywork for the BMW C1 was built by Bertone. Users commented that they'd have liked a more enclosed design for improved weather protection.
Unlike either the C1 or Quasar of course, it's fully enclosed. The female model's seen hopping out of it sans helmet. BMW had originally hoped that countries that homologated the C1 would allow riders to operate it without a helmet, too. The C1 'bubble' was actually a pretty strong roll cage that BMW claimed provided protection comparable to most ultra-compact cars, and C1 riders sat in car-like seat equipped with a four-point seat belt.

Some countries did allow C1 users to go without helmets, although one reason it 'failed' was that one key market, the UK, maintained that it was a motorcycle and as such users needed a helmet. In fact, there was some concern voiced about the weight of a crash helmet exacerbating whiplash injuries in frontal or side collisions, assuming the operator was tightly strapped in. Sweden ruled that C1 users did have to wear crash helmets but didn't need to use the seat belts.

I've read that BMW sold about 20,000 C1s (there were two versions, one with a 125cc Rotax single and a nominal '200' that actually displaced 176cc.) I'm not sure what the years of production were, but the run was short (2-3 years) and ended in the very early 2000s. That made it a failure by BMW standards, although of course 20,000 units would be a wild success for any existing e-bike manufacturer.

If there's a cautionary tale for Lit here, it's got less to do with helmet regulations than the pitfalls of trying to market a vehicle that's neither car nor motorcycle. (And that it's highly unlikely they'll bring their vehicle to market as the 'C-1', a trademark that BMW will surely challenge, since it harbors its own ambitions for an electric version.)

The whole is-it-a-car-or-a-motorcycle question isn't just a marketing pitfall. One reason there are as many e-bike startups as e-car startups in the U.S., despite the fact that the car market offers vastly more commercial potential, is that motorcycles face far fewer regulatory hurdles. While Lit chose to show us a 'fender bender' which its virtual C-1 survives unscathed, the fact is that as a motorcycle it won't need to undergo a multimillion dollar crash test prior to U.S. homologation. That's a huge advantage for an upstart company, but it comes with an offsetting disadvantage, which is that only a tiny fraction of U.S. commuters are licensed to ride motorcycles.

There are plenty of motorcyclists who might be talked into (literally) a fully enclosed vehicle, although few motorcyclists will be swayed by Lit's gyro stabilization system. We already know that falling over, per se, isn't the problem. (Though I suppose that a combination of full enclosure and gyro stabilization might add up to a two wheeler that was practical on snowy winter roads.)

I note that the prototype is fitted with a steering wheel and not a handlebar. It's not that obvious to me whether the Lit C-1 would need to be countersteered like a motorcycle or simply steered like a car. In the slalom portion of the video, it seems to handling like a motorcycle. But their little proof-of-concept seems to be fit with two gyros. That, along with the C-1's spinning wheels, would mean that it presumably has gyros spinning on the x, y, and z axes.

They wouldn't need to spin all the time; motorcyclists keep their bikes on two wheels with no trouble at all once underway. But the gyros would inevitably have a spin-up delay that's not visible in the crash simulation, which leads me to think that Lit intends that the gyros will run all the time. If they do spin all the time, then, I don't really know why the C-1 needs to lean into turns.

Does anyone from Lit care to get in touch with me and explain the Lit system in more detail?

Until then, I have to say that - style wise, anyway - the vehicle's kind'a cool and aerodynamic. I've argued to 'bring back the dustbin' before, as a way to differentiate between Superbikes and MotoGP bikes. Oh well. As MotoGP moves towards production motorcycles, I guess I'm really a lone voice in the wilderness arguing that MotoGP designers should at least have the option of fielding bikes that are fully enclosed/streamlined. Longer, lower feet-forward designs would inevitably face cornering clearance issues, but throwing a few gyros into the equation might reduce cornering lean angles, or even eliminate them.

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