When the checkered flag fell on MissionMotors’ 90-mile-per-hour lap this summer at the 2011eGrandPrix, it wasn’t just that one of the world’s fastest electric motorcycles had completed the 2.2-mile track in record time. It also brought the day closer when you will drive home, far more slowly, the world’s most efficient and durable electric vehicle. At least that’s the dream of Jit Bhattacharya, the CEO of Mission Motors.
"Every advancement we make here, every time we shave a second off a lap, we’re making an EV more competitive out on the street," said Bhattacharya, standing on the edge of the Laguna Seca Raceway, perched on California’s Pacific coast. The company is riding high after its motorcycle, the Mission R, took first place at TTXGP/FIM e-Power championship, packing 14 kilowatt hours into its compact frame. That’s just two less than the much larger, and four-wheeled Chevy Volt. Spectators at the race crowded around the track never heard the roar of an internal combustion engine, just the high-octave scream of electric engines at full throttle. This year’s lithium-ion batteries powered the field to speeds narrowing the gap in race times between EVs and their counterpart gasoline "superbikes" to about 10 seconds—half of last year’s difference. If Mission’s bike had been competing in the gas-powered category that weekend, it would have finished fifth.
As it turns out, the world’s fastest electric motorcycles are a proving ground for better systems for all EVs. Although the biggest auto manufacturers such as Nissan, Ford, and Toyota have already devoted more than a billion dollars to commercializing their own EV technology, after almost a century devoted to internal combustion they have comparatively limited expertise sending electrons through their engines. That’s opened up the field for some insurgents. The 13 entrants in the 2011eGrandPrix, ranging from Oregon-based racers MotoCzysz to commercial producers Brammo to European racing team eCRP, are designing for speeds and conditions few other EV manufacturers are considering. Racing motorcycles offer the chance to design a 21st-century vehicle from the ground up, with more than just a sales target in mind.
"We’re taking it closer to the day when an EV is going to not just beat a gasoline vehicle on the track, but it will be the preferred vehicle on the road," says Bhattacharya, who is reportedly licensing Mission Motors’ technology to major manufactures (he will not say which), and just received $9 million to expand their operations.
Innovation today is proceeding faster than even the drivers and designers expected, said Michael Barnes of Lightning Motorcycles, whose second-place finish was powered by an engine rescued from a General Motors EV-1, the electric car famously killed by GM. "Before I started to race electric, I thought it would be at least 10 years before they would be comparable to a [gasoline] bike," Barnes said during a post-race interview. "That quickly dropped to five last year, within a year of racing. Today I just don’t know."
The record books tell the same story: Six different teams beat last year’s fastest electric lap. New technology at the 2011 race, from regenerative shocks to super-dense batteries, promises to accelerate the game still more. But economic and policy conditions are driving innovation in the EV field as well. Both the U.S. and Chinese governments have announced ambitious EV goals. China plans to churn out 1 million EVs annually by 2020, while the Obama Administration has set its sights on 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015 (about 1.7% of new sales). The Department of Energy says at least $400 million in Recovery Act funds, matched by the private sector, will be spent on EV research and construction of more than 22,000 electric charging points in at least 20 cities across the country.
But meeting these targets will be a stretch. Pike Research believes the U.S. goal "appears to be well beyond what the actual vehicle market [in the U.S.] is likely to be," and pegs global plug-in vehicle sales at 5.2 million units by 2017. Today’s market is also crimped. Pure plug-in EVs—with no gasoline engines—are only expected to sell about 114,000 vehicles worldwide by the end of 2011. Full or partial electric vehicles were less than 3% of new sales in 2010, despite 57 models of hybrids and battery-electric vehicles on the market. And sales of the much hyped Chevy Volt have been far below expectations.
These numbers reflect the moment’s hard financial reality: Prices are too high. A dismal economy, and new small, fuel-efficient cars such as the Chevrolet Cruze, that compete with hybrids on fuel-efficiency but beat them on price, mean economy buyers still see electric or hybrid vehicles as a niche or premium purchase.
For now. That equation, however, may one day flip, in part thanks to the racetrack. Major manufacturers are placing their own billion-dollar bets. Fleet owners, who look at long-term savings more than the average buyer, are already announcing large orders (General Electric committed to purchase 25,000 EVs by 2015). Battery researcher Andy Burke, director of the EV Power Systems Laboratory at the University of California Davis, believes the technology is improving fast enough that either hybrid, partial, or full electric drives will be in 50% of new vehicles sold before the end of the decade—far beyond most predictions for the automobile market.
But given the pace of innovation, and recent race results on the track, EVs might cross that finish line before too long.
"[The internal combustion engine] has a 100-year head start, but we have a lot of engineering talent, and investment dollars going in," says Bhattacharya. "We are moving up that [innovation] curve much faster."