In the moments after Daniel Kim narrowly escaped from under the 500-pound Land Rover chassis that he was welding, he decided that he needed to rethink his ideas about vehicles.
This was in 2004 and Kim, a Land Rover mechanic in Portland, Ore., was trying to build the “perfect SUV” – capable of running on biodiesel, shorter, more rugged.
“I started thinking about the reality of how we drive,” Kim, who is now the founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Lit Motors, said of the accident’s aftermath. “Seventy percent of people drive alone and, when they park, they waste space.”
In the two weeks following the incident, he conceived of an enclosed electric motorcycle that could protect people from the elements, go for hundreds of miles and be so stable it wouldn’t tip over. Kim recently showed off the fruit of his convalescence at Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif.: the C-1.
“We’re making a safe motorcycle,” Kim said.
Cars, by Kim’s reckoning, are most often a waste of space and, for the most part, they’re terribly inefficient. Motorcyles are far more efficient but they’re dangerous.
The C1 is gyroscopically stabilized – sort of along the lines of a Segway – so it can’t tip over. It delivers 1,300-foot-pounds of torque and has about 200 miles of range or, as Lit employee Ryan James put it, “three times the range with one-third the battery requirement” of electric cars. A regenerative braking system helps goose the range and airbags protect the occupants.
The prototype on display at the Fortune conference, made of fiberglass, was stabilized by more prosaic means: a couple of supports kept it upright. But the crowd climbed into the cabin to enjoy Kim’s sleek invention nevertheless.
Much of the Lit team, including Kim, are graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, and it shows in the surprisingly aggressive snub-nosed profile of the C-1.
The C-1 will set drivers back $24,000 and it won’t be ready for another 18 months.
The worldwide market for electric two wheeled vehicles is astronomical: the clean energy consultancy Pike Research estimated in 2011 that there would be 138 million electric motorcycles and scooters on the road by 2017, with heavy concentrations in China and southeast Asia. In the U.S., the vehicle would appeal to aging motorcyclists and people who wanted transport without owning a car.
But for Kim, the C-1 is more than a mass-market play; he thinks vehicles should be exciting. Lit’s website brands it “a rolling smartphone” and Kim himself describes it as an app that could be programmed to pop wheelies, corkscrews and other BMX tricks.
“Why not?” Kim said. “The sky’s the limit.”
Much remains to be done before the vehicle can ply the roads and others have failed on the path before, notably the SAM electric motorcyle developed by the Swiss company Cree.
But Kim’s vision has already taken him this far from his near-fatal accident.
“This is exactly what I wanted,” he said.