Electric motorcycle brands have come and gone in the decades-plus since the first mass-market e-moto, designed by NASA engineer Neal Saiki for Santa Cruz-based Zero Motorcycles, rolled into town. But 2019 may be the e-moto’s banner year. Harley-Davidson's LiveWire, the company’s first e-moto (with a starting price just under $30K) is on the scene, and the company plans to open a new research and development facility in Silicon Valley later this year. Plenty of other players, including California companies such as Brisbane-based Alta Motors and Long Beach-based Fly Free Smart, are still in the race too.
The one to watch, though, may be in the form of a sleek cafe racer from EV upstart Tarform, which has captured the hearts (and wallets) of design and tech enthusiasts, including Silicon Valley investors Riz Kirk and Parag Vaish, since it debuted in Brooklyn last fall. The appeal? Sustainable materials; smart connectivity; and a fully electric, zero-emission powertrain—all the makings of a 21st-century bike—wrapped inside a Scandinavian-esque minimalist exterior that nods to a decidedly cooler past.
“Electrical doesn’t mean it has to be boring and soulless,” says Taras Kravtchouk, industrial designer-turned-tech entrepreneur and the founder of Tarform. While most electric brands are based on traditional motorcycle design—despite the smaller footprint of an electric motor versus an internal combustion engine—Kravtchouk, who has consulted for Spotify, Google and T-Mobile, as well as midcentury furniture and vintage ICE motorcycles, challenged his team to rethink nearly every component from the outside in. Sustainable materials like exterior panels made out of flax-seed fiber with bio-epoxy, 3D-printed parts, smart features such as Bluetooth connectivity and AI sensors that warn riders of risks like a turning car round out Tarform’s moto reinvention for the Tesla generation.
“People who might not like the fact that combustion-engine motorcycles are loud, they’re heavier and there’s a lot of maintenance involved make our product, and electric motorcycles in general, very appealing to a new generation,” says Tarform co-founder and Chief Operating Officer JC Jung. Millennial and female riders, in fact, are on the rise in the U.S., despite an overall declining ridership, but a bike that’s 20 to 25 percent lighter than traditional motorcycles, better for the planet and a looker to boot could be a game changer for potential converts.
Then there’s the sound. Lack of engine noise was an obvious road safety concern, so Kravtchouk, who is originally from Sweden, worked with Swedish composer Adam Nordén to develop a signature sound for the bike. “We didn’t want to mimic an internal compression sound because that would just feel strange,” says Kravtchouk. “Instead, we wanted to develop what is conceptually a sound of an electrical vehicle.” The result? A futuristic low-pitch hum that intensifies as the bike accelerates.
“When you think of mobility, how do you get people to switch from an old-fashioned combustion engine to clean technology? There are many ways to do that,” says Jung, whose yearlong trek from Colombia to Argentina on a traditional motorcycle inspired him to hop on Kravtchouk’s venture. “I met people who might be the most vulnerable to climate change,” he says. “My sense of urgency when I came back was, as an entrepreneur, what can I do to start something that is for-profit, successful, fun and has a positive impact?”
Still, sustainable materials are not yet on par with petroleum-based products in terms of durability (although they’re evolving fast), so the Tarform team experimented with a modular design through which parts can be replaced, recycled and upgraded as the technology catches up. “It’s a new way of thinking,” says Jung. “We’re pushing the limit of what’s possible to really showcase what kind of new biomaterial we can use.” But, how does it ride? The 2019 premium model, a Founders Edition that runs at $32,000, goes from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds with a top speed of 100 mph. Charge time is about an hour for an 80 percent charge, which will cover a 120-mile range in the city. So far, Tarform has tallied 600 preorders. Expect a $22,000 production model to come in 2020.