ZBZ Blog Wrap-Up

ZBZ Blog Wrap-Up

“With electric,…You can be efficient and be a devastator.” – Luke Workman, former Zero development engineer, Gizmag.com interview, May 17, 2016

All year around, winter or summer, a Zero like ours can move through city traffic better than any gasoline powered bike, especially if one has occasional impulses to take advantage of evolving traffic situations with a few moto-only moves. So be warned: You’ll soon be riding through traffic a little more selfishly than you did on your trusty ol’ suck-squeeze-bang-blow exhaust generator. Aboard a Zero you’ll usually be over-and-out-exit-stage-left-tail-lights-in-the-rear-view-mirror-gone before witnesses realize you did anything funny, and whatever that was played a bit like a silent movie…in other words, sort of unreal. It registered visually but without confirmation from the other senses. No audio insult added to a possibly perceived injury. This never stops being neat. So enjoy exploiting the prime in-traffic secret of electric motorcycles: Stealth.

Saving money on gas is also cool and no periodic engine maintenance is pretty nice, too. So is the virtue of maybe being slightly kinder to our warming planet. Taken together all this is nothing to sneeze at…but it’s still the dead-silent kick-ass 10-50 mph torque that’s the biggie. No muss…No fuss...“Yippee-ki-yay, mother-fu—er!” all the way home. So beware. As with all addictive experiences, managing this can be a problem. Take away all of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and replace it with the soft whrrrr of dancing electrons and you’ve got a completely new game. Trouble in River City, my friends, and it’s spelled Z E R O. You traffic-cutting, bad-ass, son of a bitch, immature sociopath.


April 29 email from Zero to Aerostich:

“There’s no reason to put it away until it is shipped back. Keep riding! Ride the wheels off of it! The more miles the better as far as we are concerned.”

A drug dealer, writing to a junkie: “Here’s a bit more, it’s free…”.

The motorcycle not only survived intact, it is 5 for 5. All who took turns riding it now want one. Not a single functional or mechanical problem. It sat outdoors overnight all winter, in temps as low as minus 20ºf, and each morning it came right back asking for more. Even those anticipated corrosion-ugliness-damage situations were minimal…it’s actually developed kind of a nice hard-ridden patina.

In fact, just yesterday right in the center of Duluth’s downtown, a man about thirty five dressed in scruffy clothing with a sketchy kind of ‘I’m between jobs’ look paused in front of the bike just as I was about to put on my helmet and looked it over end to end then directly at me and asked “Did you build this?” “No” I replied, half-smiling, “It’s made in California.” This was at two in the afternoon on a typical windy, chilly, crummy overcast Duluth-springtime Monday. There were still a few patches of snow in the shadiest places and my guess is the temp was only about 39 or 40. A few moments later someone else hurrying past said, without breaking their stride, “Nice bike”. Spring is in the air here. Definitely.

As MY commuter tool, this bike has been a revelation. In the beginning I thought I’d miss the shifting and uhmm…’roar and thunder’ of my DRZ 400. Nope, not one bit. In fact, the ease-of-use, smoothness, quiet and forget-about-the-machine aspects of this Zero have been really nice. It’s so much more of a magic-carpet feeling than any regular motorcycle, and so much more fun to slice and dice around and thru surrounding traffic in silence. Going back to the DRZ is going to feel like getting on some kind of an antique. This bike is not for touring, traveling or those long back road riding days with friends, but rather it’s for putting more effortless fun into getting back and forth to work. For this, it’s the cat’s ass. Ten years or fifteen years from now every motorcycle company will probably be making a few models of electric motorcycles for exactly this kind of riding. Every one. And, if all this wasn’t enough, lots of today’s tech ‘insiders’ are predicting great increases in battery capacity very, very soon!

If I could design one of these bikes idealized for ME and MY commute, based on what Zero offers today, it would not be much different than this two-battery dual-sport model. I’d prefer this one’s relaxed steering geometry to the supermotard version’s steeper fork angle, but I’d really want to have the bigger front brake from that model. I’d also like the ride height of this one to be about 1” lower, and the handlebars to be about 1.5" narrower to fit my body size better. And I’d want to be able to install electric grips easily, and a larger headlight, and figure out a way to mount a low front fender. Maybe even a 19" front wheel with a rim the same width as the rear, and a similarly fat tire. Also, some way to cleanly eliminate the stylized forward-thrusting plastic ‘wings’ on either side of the frame. And I would like to be able to lock the forks in the straight ahead position, no matter how stupid this seems. (Uhhh…if Zero also offered a slide-in hybrid option to go into one of its two battery spaces with some kind of small gasoline-powered battery charger, it would sell. Engine from a small chain-saw, lawn trimmer or RC model airplane…I’m not a customer for this myself…just sayin’.)

One more small note about winter-riding-in-general. Today it’s about 38ºf, which is a helluva lot easier and more fun than riding was a few weeks ago at 18º, much less at minus 8º a month and a half ago, even wearing some of the best gear money can buy. But regardless of the temperature, the feasibility and ease of riding all winter was a revelation. One year ago it was a big deal to take a bike out for a short spin on that one sunny, nice dry-road day in January or February…we’d celebrate it.

Our Zero-Below-Zero commuting experiment proved that even in the most adverse cold weather situations riding is still far more fun than driving, and electric motorcycles left outdoors all year in very low temperatures worked just fine. These results were not anticipated, nor that it would quickly become easy and routine to commute all winter via motorcycle. Nobody expected that.

“I’ve Got a Secret” was the name of a pioneering and popular 1960’s TV game show (full-length episodes on YouTube, kids). The phrase contains a great truth about motorcycling-in-general as well as about many kinds of unrelated-but-similarly-societally-marginalized, non-mainstream activities and experiences. Across the USA the wonderfulness of using motorcycles for commuting has been a long-time-secret known to only a very few riders. Most people have almost no idea how great riding nearly every day can make you feel, especially compared to the falsely ‘relaxing’ experience of being inside a car or bus.

Soon after you first learn to ride you find yourself going down the road thinking you know something everyone in the cars surrounding you doesn’t know, so you giggle to yourself a little. (…And now a word from our sponsor: Same thing when first wearing an Aerostich one-piece R-3 suit. You quickly realize you’ve discovered something about dressing for riding everyone else who rides in regular gear doesn’t know…Now back to your regularly scheduled program.) Then, as you ride more you forget this is secret stuff and begin to take it for granted. With an electric bike you discover anew it is a lot more fun to slice through urban traffic, partly because you are able to do so with greater abandon because of the silence, and because you don’t need to devote attention to managing an internal combustion engine with its lumpy torque curve and multi-speed transmission. No amount of fuel injection programming sophistication at the other end of any twistgrip works quite as smoothly as this Zero’s one-speed digitally-controlled stepper motor.

To be fair and complete, you do need to recognize most recreational riding is some version of an all-day, or at least several hours long, group affair: You and one or more of your buddies go riding, tracing out some interesting roads with maybe a lunch or dinner stop along the way. A Zero doesn’t work well for this unless everyone else is also on one because the limited distance-to-empty range and longer energy refill time is fundamentally incompatible with combustion bikes. But taken by itself it’s another story. If its battery range falls within your requirements it’s a far superior piece of equipment: Less costly to ride, simpler to manage dynamically, and even more slippery thru surface-street traffic than the very best gasoline powered motorcycle. You’ve got a secret and it’s a big fat one. But don’t gloat or brag. You’re too good for that, and soon-enough these kinds of bikes will be a lot more ordinary in urban traffic anyway.

This Zero functioned well all winter and with less corrosion damage than anticipated. No matter how ugly and unpleasant the riding condition, everything just worked. After riding this thing for several months now getting back on my Suzuki DRZ 400 commuter feels like I’m getting on an antique. (It’s ok honey…Don’t cry. I still love you. I’ll always love you.) This bike helps me appreciate the condescending smugness and pride new Tesla car owners exude…

In terms of ride dynamics, our Zero is fine, but nothing special or extraordinary. It pulls, turns and stops about like a typical 550-750cc bike. But in terms of cut-and-thrust traffic functionality it’s an entirely new world. The magic carpet effect of every bike is magnified here because it’s so vibration and noise free, and every bit of torque is there instantly, right from the bottom. And again, all the crap you can get away with (if you are inclined to get away with stuff) is more safely available. Sketchy moves, whatever they might be…Use your imagination. I just can’t get over that part, or emphasize this enough. Full disclosure: In my own day-to-day commuting I’m enough of a coward that there’s probably only one ‘safe’ opportunity per week to actually do anything questionable which may somehow cause anyone nearby stress. With this bike that number-per-week goes from maybe one to two. And boy-howdy, every time an opportunity comes up it’s priceless, and I’m grinning to myself for the rest of the day.

What’s beneath The large Zero labels on this bike are two $4k each (?) handmade-in-California batteries wrapped in a fairly conventional Taiwanese or Chinese (?) chassis which might have cost less to produce than even one of its high-tech batteries. Plus an amazing electric motor and digital controller system. My knit-picks were few: The rearview mirrors are not the best because the stems are too long and they are too high. And the mirror’s ball-socket does not have enough friction to resist even light knocks and taps, either. Maybe that’s adjustable? I didn’t look. There was a little too much free play in the throttle on ours, too. Very slight. Other knits were picked earlier in this blog (fenders, bodywork styling, electric grip circumference, etc). That’s it.

Thanks Zero! Thanks Volunteers!

Afterword - Part 1

“We wanted flying cars and what we got was 140 characters…”

–Famous observation of tech investor (Facebook, others) and Pay Pal founder Peter Theil, in his book ‘What Happened to the Future?’

At one of our Aerostich Pop Up events a rider on a modified Zero came in and bought an R-3 Aerostich suit. One of the many mods on his bike was a half-completed dustbin fairing. Adding a Vetter style scooter body to any Zero or other electric motorcycle would probably mean 50% more range. And a semi-recumbent riding position would be an engineering choice, not a requirement.

This Zero’s electric motor makes 44 horsepower (33 kW) and the entire bike only weighs 131 kg (289 lb.) with both batteries installed. Range-to-empty is 40-70 miles, depending on speed. The added wind-resistance of moving at highway speeds makes a significant difference.

“It’s looking like the 2020s will be the decade of the electric car. Battery prices fell 35 percent last year and are on a trajectory to make unsubsidized electric vehicles as affordable as their gasoline counterparts in the next six years...That will be the start of a real mass-market liftoff for electric cars…By 2040…Thirty-five percent of new cars worldwide will have a plug.”

– Tom Randall, Bloomberg Business, Feb 25, 2015 bloomberg.com/features/2016-ev-oil-crisis

I easily remember when electric motors in this bike’s horsepower range were massive, about the size of a thirty to fifty gallon drum. Hmmmm…Right now Apple, Google and others in Northern California and elsewhere are creating flying car prototypes with lightweight electric motors and batteries exactly like what is in this Zero. It’s literally an R&D boom. A uniquely synergistic tech/money/culture alignment of the planets. In some ways it almost resembles a gold rush or fad.

Only three months after the above story Bloomberg Business Week made “flying cars” their cover story, in its June 18, 2016 issue, they reported Larry Page of Google had just spent more than $100M on a startup called ZeeAero, plus more at a second separate development lab called Kitty Hawk to create an entirely different type of flying electric machine. “…within the next few years we’ll have a self-flying car that takes off and lands vertically-or at least a small, electric, mostly autonomous commuter plane,” they reported.

Larry’s larger development effort is probably a small electric airplane and the other is probably a four or six rotor one or two person camera-drone-style aircraft. The same story also mentioned flying car projects by JoBen Bivirt and Pinterest co-founder Paul Sciarra, and AeroMobil, and Terrafugia, and Airbus (yes, the Airbus) and Lilium Aviation. Separately, a Chinese-developed Ehang 184 “megadrone” was displayed at the Las Vegas CES trade show this summer and was said to be capable of taking one person aloft, remotely piloted like a camera drone. This “world’s first self-driving taxi-car” featured four fold-away-for-storage arms carrying stacked (counter-rotating?) fans. It sure looked like an upsized version of any camera or toy drone, though it’s single passenger capsule somehow didn’t look quite right. The ballistic parachute roof sure did, though. All small electric aircraft are sure to have them.

With stars in their eyes and visions of Henry Ford’s revolutionary 1918 leapfrogging of motorcycles via the famously practical Model T automobile, all these teams are heading straight for flying cars. Perhaps they want to skip right over bikes (again)? Well harrumph…Those working on creating this future commute to their development labs by car, just as they got to and from everywhere else for as far back as they can remember. OK, maybe this is a chip on my shoulder, but this brave new electric-flight future would be a lot cooler if it was about flying motorcycles more than flying cars. Skip right over those noir wet-weather Blade Runner levitating cars for now, please.

Afterword - Part 2

Just as we were beginning our Zero winter-commuting adventures, and about eight months before that Bloomberg feature one of us (Randy) replied to an email about flying cars with a link to Google images of many existing flying motorcycle-ish machines: “Cool. I would like to try one. The hover bike is supposedly close.” And “Our gear would work great for flying weather-exposed transportation.”

I replied: “Sort of, but the overlapping fans shown are not good. A part of two of the fans ‘swipe’ through their 360º circle is through the ‘dirty air’ of the upper and overlapping fan. And thus less effective and potentially destabilizing or vibration-inducing. Each ducted fan needs to be in as clean air as possible for maximum efficiency…I could draw a sketch of how I would do this that would look not a lot like any of these images. The center section would look a bit like a vertical rectangular old-fashioned telephone booth, but without any glass. In the center of the ‘booth’ would be a saddle, motorcycle style with footrests. Beneath the saddle, batteries. Above the saddle a ballistic parachute attached to the ‘roof’. At the bottom, two dolly wheels. At each corner, about at saddle height, sockets to plug in and lock each of the ducted fans. Each fan about 6' diameter. To make the pilots view better, two of the four upright ‘phone booth’ corner beams might end at about waist height and only two of them, diagonally opposite, would continue up to the mounting platform for the ballistic parachute. The pilot would sit on the diagonal, with one overhead beam to each side. A fan directly ahead, one to each side and one directly behind. The fore and aft fans would be about a foot farther out from the booth than the side fans, for greater lift leverage and because slightly more of the motion would be forward, not side to side. The side fans would be directly adjacent to the booth. All four fans would be the same size, though, for cost and fabrication and controller-logic reasons. For simplicity the entire center structure would be fabricated from stock extruded aluminum tube, beam and angle and sheet materials. Each ducted fan structure would be carbon fiber (blades, duct), with an aluminum arm or tube about 4” diameter connecting the motor/hub section of the ducted fan to the socket which would plug into each ‘phone booth’ upright section. One into each corner, projecting horizontally outward from the corner equidistant from each flat side of each extruded vertical beam. In other words, from the edge or corner, not from a flat side. This would be a very cost-effective way to build a safe, controllable, portable and flyable one or perhaps even two person flying machine.

I bet all-in it would cost only about $50K to develop a flying proof-of-concept. Any engineer could easily calculate how long it would stay in flight, based on how much battery, and how much the pilot weighed. A wonderful goal might be 15 minutes of safe flying time, which would be quite a lot at 2000’ while moving laterally at maybe 70mph. And again, the whole rig assembled would be about the same footprint of a small pontoon boat (a bit wider), so I could take off from any residential driveway and land on just about any flat roof.

If I had one of these, I’d take it to work in the rain today. And probably every day thereafter. I have a feeling the FAA would have a problem with it, though. My guess is the all-in development cost would be only $1M with a production and commercialization cost of an added $5-10M. Which is almost nothing in relative terms. The five of us could make this, and none of us are geniuses. I just know we’d do a better job than what’s out there now (Google, November of 2015).

Sure is fun to daydream-write it out…And you know how the early aircraft builders would name their crafts: The Spirit of St Louis. The Lark of Duluth. The whatever. We might name this one the ‘Monty Python’, I think.”

A day or two after writing the above I wrote again about another shared Google-linked video businessinsider.com/hover-bike-to-hit-market-in-2017-2014-5: “These have come a long way in a short time. I saw video of an earlier version of this one a year or two ago in tethered flight. Even emailed the developer to see if they wanted to work with us on a riding suit for the test pilot. I see now they’ve added some little ducted side things for yaw and pitch control and turning, and the rear fan is now angled for forward thrust ability. Good progress, but a four-fan or six-fan configuration would be so much easier to fly and control. Much more inherently stable, too. And maybe even flyable to a controlled landing with one engine down if needed. What these folks here seem to be after is a package narrow enough to carry down a highway. Something 8' wide max. For marketing reasons.

As usual, I’d come at this differently. Four ringed fan sections each 8' diameter. And they would not be very heavy. Just electric motor and carbon fiber. They could stack four high for transport on a trailer, then at the launch site attach to the center section with some kind of durable socket and latch design. The center where the rider and batteries are is the heavy part. But it still would probably be liftable by one person. Or maybe drag-able with dolly wheels beneath. Assembled, the five sections would be about 16' wide and maybe 18 or 20' long. Still manageable compared to a regular helicopter, auto gyro or small airplane. And vertical take off is the huge advantage of any of these. Footprint size isn’t the issue. The problem this kind of flying machine solves is eliminating the need for a runway, and (crucially) the skill of ‘balancing’ as a conventional fixed or rotor wing flying machine requires.

Or maybe the fans would only need to be about 5' in diameter? Four 5's = 20. Two 8's = 16. So the whole thing would be only 10' wide x 13-15' long. About the size of a small pontoon boat. The other element that I’d add to my four-rotor version is an aluminum or carbon fiber ‘roll cage’ above the pilot’s saddle. And on top of the cage would be a ballistic parachute.

Still fun to write about it and share. I’m fairly sure I’m correct about the above junk, for whatever it’s worth. I was thinking four rotors were the only way to go the moment I first saw a little camera drone maybe three years ago. It was an ‘ah-ahhaaa!’ for obvious flyability and control reasons, and now that this way has been demonstrated, where are the full size human carrying versions? No wonder all the money is flowing to making these machines now. All the existing technology is out there already. Nothing needs to be invented or pioneered. Lightweight batteries? Check. Lightweight airframes and lightweight super-powerful electric motors? Check. Digital joystick flight controllers (from camera drones)? Check. What has always been Apple’s recipe for success? All the stuff in their Mac computers, iPods, iPhones and pretty much everything else they ever made was already out there. They just adapted and mashed it up a lot better than everyone else.


Actual parts needed for a home-made flying proof-of-concept: Four Zero Electric Motorcycles, single battery model. To be scrapped and parted out.

Motors: Zero

Batteries: Zero

Controller: Zero motorcycle engine controller.

Flight dynamics processor: From any small camera drone.

Airframe: Welded aluminum. Speedrail?

Ballistic parachute: Gov’t surplus plus four 20 gauge shotgun shells.

This whole thing is a mashup of existing components. Nothing new needed to be invented. Welcome to your flying car.


Whenever new stuff like this gets perfected enough to become market-viable early adopters begin enjoying whatever-it-is long before regulations catch up. This happened in the 1960s with snowmobiles, in the 1970s with ATVs and today with all the little camera and toy drones, and it’s probably about to happen again with personal flying machines equipped with Zero-type batteries, controllers and electric motors. Which is really cool.

Presenting: Your 2018 Apple flying car! Quick, central casting, get me a tall thin guy in a black turtleneck, jeans, round glasses, an impish grin and a twinkle in his eyes!

And an Aerostich R-3 Stealth one piece suit…Size 42 Long.

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