Michael Czysz's Mind-Bending Electric Superbike - Dreaming in Digital

American motorcycle designer Michael Czysz embraces electric power

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Adam Campbell

"I've got this thing I do to relax," Michael Czysz says. "I imagine I'm on my bike, and I just shift gears in my head. I did it just this morning in the shower. Then I caught myself-my bike doesn't do that anymore! It doesn't have gears. It doesn't even make noise. So I'm not dreaming in electric yet. I'm still dreaming in gas."

Even if his brain hasn't crossed the digital divide, Czysz's design facility in downtown Portland has been completely transformed. The dyno sprouted what looks like a rogue electrical transformer to power high-voltage electric motors. The old engine-assembly area is now a gleaming "clean room," where cutting-edge lithium-polymer batteries are painstakingly built by hand. Three MotoCzysz C1 internal-combustion prototypes-the fabled "American Contenders" intended for MotoGP competition-have been retired to the office. The shop, where real work gets done, is 100 percent electric now.

When Czysz decided in 2003 to abandon a very successful, 20-year architecture career to build a world-class MotoGP racer, it was an outrageously ambitious undertaking. He re-imagined the motorcycle from the ground up, arriving at radical solutions like a "frameless" carbon-fiber chassis (predating Ducati's latest design by six years), the patented 6X-Flex "coaxial-steering" fork and a longi-tudinally mounted, narrow-angle V4 engine with twin counter-rotating crankshafts.

The timing couldn't have been worse. A 2007 rule change lowering the MotoGP displacement limit to 800cc made the 990cc C1 irrelevant for competition. Then the economic recession, and the subsequent reprioritizing of both the automotive and motorcycle industries, made interest in-and funding for-high-performance internal-combustion technology evaporate overnight.

"The change to electric was more about inevitability than opportunity," Czysz says. "I traveled around the world, met with a number of manufacturers, and everybody said the same thing. 'We're not really working on high-performance ICE [internal combustion engines] right now. We're not sure what we're doing, but we're not doing that.'"

Inevitability quickly became an opportunity. "I realized almost immediately that everything we were trying to accomplish with the C1 project, we could do better with an electric bike," Czysz says. His primary objective was to isolate the chassis from the dynamic forces exerted by a heavy crankshaft, pistons, rods, valves and cams all spinning at 15,000 rpm. An electric motor, by comparison, has a single moving part-a small rotor-that exerts a negligible effect on chassis dynamics.

The e1 (Electric 1) went from sketch to completed racebike in five frantic months, debuting at the Isle of Man for the inaugural TTXGP electric motorcycle race in June of 2009. That first bike was beautifully finished and flush with innovations like hot-swappable batteries and a fully integrated digital drivetrain. Unfortunately, it barely made it past Bray Hill before one of the Agni motors-the only major component not designed and built by Czysz-melted down. We were there and caught up with Czysz immediately afterward. He was distraught to the point of distraction, and on the verge of abandoning the motorcycle business altogether.

Visiting his Oregon headquarters one year later, the story couldn't be more different. After winning both the 2010 Isle of Man TTXGP and the inaugural North American round of the FIM's ePower electric-bike world championship at Laguna Seca, Czysz now considers last year's "failure" a gift. "Losing that race was the best thing that could have happened," he says. "If we had won, we would have probably put a bit of polish on last year's bike and maybe made a small improvement. Instead, we scrapped everything and started over. Now we're miles ahead of where we were."

Even the original looks obsolete alongside the e1pc v2.0. The batteries have been completely redesigned, with advances in chemistry allowing the 10 individual cells to be downsized to decrease overall bike width, yet still carry more energy. The old batteries were 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) each; the new ones are 1.25kWh, for a total energy capacity of 12.5kWh-or roughly 10 times the capacity of a Toyota Prius. The batteries are now wireless, too. Last year's stub harnesses are gone, the terminal posts on each battery now mating directly to the CAN-bus inside the frame. Wireless construction is safer and more reliable, and the plug-and-play construction makes hot-swapping spent batteries for a freshly charged set a 2-minute task.

New chevron-shaped battery packs provide more front wheel clearance and allow the motor to tuck in beneath the bike, not that motor clearance was an issue. The brushless DC, permanent-magnet motor MotoCzysz designed, using a rotor and stator sourced from Remy, is the most compact ever built for its given power output. The secret is Czysz's sophisticated liquid-cooling system that negates the need for a large surface area to absorb and disperse heat. Exceptional thermal efficiency allows a continuous power rating of 135 bhp and a mind-boggling 250 lb.-ft. of torque. Those numbers are so impressive that Remy-one of the biggest and oldest names in electric-motor technology-has partnered with MotoCzysz to adapt this cooling strategy to its own products.

Remy also supplies the motor controller, which is extensively modified by MotoCzysz. Controller software development is being brought in-house to maximize Czysz's ability to fine-tune the acceleration and regenerative braking (read: engine braking) strategies, which are almost infinitely variable. "The potential to tune is just amazing," he says. "We can adjust the motor, digitally, in ways ICE guys can't even imagine. It can be one motor under braking and something completely different under acceleration. Using GPS, it could even be programmed differently for every corner. It's like Photoshop with horsepower. The possibilities are endless."

Revised bodywork breaks even further from conventional motorcycle design than the original prototype. Slimmer batteries and a reshaped upper fairing reduce frontal area by almost 30 percent, significantly decreasing aerodynamic drag. Fairing side panels are separated from the upper to form massive vents that reduce wind pressure against the front of the bike. White-painted "winglets" create turbulence behind the vents to suck air through a radiator as big as anything on a conventional motorcycle. The abbreviated tail is purely pragmatic: "This bike was built under a compressed timeframe," Czysz explains. "We didn't have time to go to a wind tunnel. I knew that a bad tail could do more harm than no tail, so I left it off."

All this possibility gives Czysz a new sense of purpose, and renewed commitment to motorcycle design. "I love racing," he says, "but I always knew, somewhere deep in my mind, that on some level it was kind of pointless. You risk lives, you waste tons of fuel, and for what? To ride around in circles? Now I feel like I'm doing important work. The work I'm doing with this motorcycle might someday actually make the world a better place."

Others get it too, especially the investors and large manufacturers he tried-and mostly failed-to attract with his C1 project. Conventional racing is about extracting maximum power, no matter what the cost. Electric performance, on the other hand, is a quest for efficiency, making it the perfect pursuit for this post-millennial, conservation-obsessed era. Developing the e1pc has made Czysz hyper-focused on efficiency, and that hyper-focus has made his ideas very relevant to the future of vehicle development.

"Look at Laguna Seca," Czysz says. "On any given lap, we used an eighth or less the amount of energy a MotoGP bike used and we went about 75 percent as fast. If we walked into Honda, BMW or Ferrari and said we could run a lap 75 percent as fast using 12 percent as much energy, they'd probably say impossible. But we're doing it. That's important as efficiency becomes a bigger part of the equation. It won't be a free-for-all on fuel forever."

It's a minor tragedy that the e1pc is unlikely ever to see series production. Czysz has little interest in the headaches associated with being an OEM. Besides, he doesn't see much of a market for what he estimates would be a $100,000 production bike, given the current price of cutting-edge e-bike technology. "In an emerging market, the products are underdeveloped by definition," he says. "I don't see any value in selling a sub-standard bike at a higher price."

What he's more interested in is develop-ing the intellectual property (IP) that will be adapted by other manufacturers for use on their production electric bikes. And even though he's a dyed-in-the-wool motorcycle enthusiast, with amateur roadracing bona fides and a part-time gig instructing at the Skip Barber Superbike School at Laguna Seca, Czysz is really focused on the automotive side of the electric revolution. "My real priority is developing solid, well-engineered solutions for some of the 13 million cars that will be built next year," he says. "That's the trend that I want to be on. I certainly don't want to build my business around selling 100 high-end motorcycles a year."

Conveniently, the performance parameters of a superbike are very similar to those of a small commuter car, allowing Czysz to indulge his motorcycle habit while at the same time developing real-world technical solutions that can be applied directly to automobiles. In addition to Remy, MotoCzysz has also partnered with Indian auto giant Bajaj to develop an electric car. We saw the proof-of-concept prototype coming together at MotoCzysz headquarters, and while we can't reveal any details, it's safe to say it will elicit the same reaction parked alongside a Honda Fit as the e1pc would parked next to a CBR600RR.

Czysz also dropped details surrounding the next-generation e1pc-and there will be future versions coming soon. Further advances in battery chemistry could reduce weight by as much as 100 pounds without sacrificing range or power, bringing it down to 425 lbs.-essentially equal to a current 600cc sportbike. But what excites Czysz even more is the possibility of a hybrid version combining the best aspects of the C1 and e1pc.

"Imagine a bike with electric drive and a small ICE engine acting as a generator," Czysz says. "You could have the instant, massive, continuous torque of the electric bike, and a small gas generator to offset some battery weight and ease range anxiety at the same time. We know exactly what that bike will look like. We're talking about it now."

We can't wait to ride it. And we hope another motorcycle manufacturer is paying close attention, and will partner with Moto-Czysz to adapt that hybrid technology for series production if Czysz doesn't reconsider and do it himself. He already designed a transmission for the C1, so perhaps he could give his hybrid a few gears, too. That, along with the exhaust note from the generator motor, could bring his gas and electric dreams together at last.

Exact Change
Why the MotoCzysz e1pc is the Future of Superbikes
"Is it as good as a gas bike?" That's the only question that matters regarding electric superbikes, and it's not easy to answer. By most objective measures-top speed, weight, lap times-it's not even close. Any 600cc sportbike will run circles around MotoCzysz's e1pc, the most sophisticated electric motorcycle in the world. But measured against more subjective criteria, in terms of power delivery and overall rideability, the e1pc is by far the better solution. There's never been a sportbike that's easier to ride fast.

The e1pc redefines our idea of a powerband. Michael Czysz says his motor produces 250 lb.-ft. of torque from zero rpm, and maintains that mammoth output undiminished three-quarters of the way across its rev range before tailing off. Power availability is always proportional to the amount of space under the dyno curve. With a graph that looks more like a rectangle than the traditional triangle, the e1pc offer more headroom under its curve than any internal-combustion engine in the world.

On the racetrack, this translates to power that feels immense, immediate and incredibly broad. Whenever you pick up the throttle on a traditional motorcycle, you get a different torque response depending on engine rpm. Because the e1pc's torque output is so linear and wide, you almost always get the same torque response. Whether exiting a 20-mph hairpin or a 120-mph sweeper, engine response is consistently powerful and predictable, like a bike that's always in the right gear with the revs perfectly matched.

The e1pc's direct-drive electric powerplant is essentially silent and vibration-free, and with no gearbox or clutch to manipulate, layers of distraction are stripped away. Keith Code famously described riding a sportbike as "making change from a $10 bill: $2 of attention is spent on the shift lever, $2 on the clutch, $2 on the throttle and $2 on the brakes. The $2 left over is what you have to spend on everything else." The preternaturally calm e1pc gives you what feels like $6 in change, so you have even more attention to spend on body position, traction management and negotiating curves.

This unique sensory experience, and the unparalleled ability to focus on going fast, is the essence of an e-bike's character. "Without any noise, vibration or gears, you'd think this bike couldn't possibly have any character," Czysz says. "But what I find is that you're able to get in tune with the bike on a much deeper, more profound level. You're able to concentrate better and go faster as a result. To me, that's everything. If I can go faster, I think it's a better solution."

We agree. And we can't wait to ride the next-generation e1pc. Czysz says new battery technology will subtract 100 lbs. from the 525-lb. bike, making it comparable to a 600cc sportbike, while advances in motor development will allow higher rpm to turn that prodigious torque into more horsepower and greater top speed. Believe it or not, a few more technological leaps will have many of us lusting for electric superbikes.

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