Onomatopoeia is a theme that is common to sports. There’s the “swish” in basketball, the “crack” of the bat in baseball. With motorcycle riding, it’s “brraap,” the whinnying sound the engine makes as the rider winds up the throttle. While the number of R’s and A’s vary in spellings of “brraap,” the sound itself is unmistakable.
But what if motorcycles didn’t go “brraap”? That’s what northern California-based Alta Motors is looking to find out. The company’s first production motorcycle, a high-performance motocross bike called the Redshift MX, launched late last year with an electric powertrain that delivers a ride comparable ride to a gas-powered ride with none of the noise.
Of course, the lack of noise is only one benefit of the Redshift. Alta hopes to disrupt the motorcycle world similar to how Tesla revolutionized electric cars. (It’s worth noting that Tesla’s first production model was also a performance car, the Roadster. Only after that proof of concept did the brand expand into more conventional auto styles.)
The Redshift MX delivers 40 horsepower and 120 ft-lb of torque, which is equivalent to most 250cc gas-powered bikes. But unlike gas bikes, that torque is accessible instantly instead of just at high speeds. The result is a bike that is easier to ride, easier to maintain, and just as fun as conventional motorcycles. And Alta isn’t restricting itself to dirt bikes. It’s about to start production on the Redshift SM, a street legal supermoto bike, with a range of up to 60 miles, making it an ideal commuter bike. A street tracker concept that was revealed last winter is also expected to come to market some time in the next 12 months.
To find out how the brand got started, the benefits of an electric bike and what other products could come in the future, we spoke with Jon Bekefy, a former brand manager at Ducati who became an electric convert and is now director of marketing at Alta.
How did the idea for Alta Motors first come about?
Two of our three founders [Derek Dorresteyn and Jeff Sand] were really good friends. They would ride motorcycles together a lot, often competing in races or amateur events together. In 2010, they both started to talk about how to make a better motorcycle. As you get older, reflexes and reaction times slow down so you start looking for better equipment or advantages. Derek and Jeff started off this weekly evening meeting where every Tuesday night they would get together and talk about how to build a better motorcycle. They hit upon the idea that better power, control, and traction could all be harnessed with the use of an electric powertrain. Tesla was coming onto the scene and other [electric car] manufacturers. It really started with, “How do we ride faster, better? How do we build a better mousetrap?” A few years into the process they’d created this bike and realized they had something that could be commercialized and scaled. They added one more founding member to the team who is still our CEO today, Marc [Fenigstein] and the three of them started to create a business.
How did they make that first prototype?
Derek was a professional speedway racer, nationally ranked and a supermoto racer. At the time, he had an old school and celebrated machine shop in San Francisco. He did precision work in exotic materials and metals for lots of clients. Jeff is a designer by trade. He had developed everything from snowboard bindings to sunglasses. Jeff came from both action sports and design. Derek came from engineering and manufacturing. That’s what helped fuel the creation of that motorcycle.
How much of the DNA from the original prototype is in the motorcycles today?
I’m proud to say that a lot of it does. We’ve cleaned and streamlined and solved problems for bugs. When you look at the two bikes, you can tell that one came out of a machine shop and it’s this giant piece of billet [aluminum]. But the lines and the design and the basic architecture is the same [in the production version]. It’s really surprising.
There is a ton of attention paid to the electric car market, but not as much to the electric motorcycles. Why do you think that is?
The motorcycle space, while we think of ourselves as being super rebellious and wild at heart, dogma is a huge part of this form of transportation. We still look back at the quote-unquote glory days. While the car space is very traditional, it is still renown for having forward thinkers that push the entire space forward. In the motorcycle market, things happen incrementally over long periods of time. It’s a space worth disrupting, but it’s a challenge. Tradition and legacy are very tightly wound in the story of motorcycling in America.
Do you hear rumors of the bigger motorcycle brands making electric bikes?
You’re starting to. Honda has raced at the Isle of Man TT in the UK with an electric superbike. A few years ago, Harley brought out this motorcycle called the Livewire, which was almost like a live case study. They put on a road show and had everybody check it out and provide feedback. Currently, both Polaris, which owns Indian, and Harley have both pledged to have electric product in the market within the next five years. It’s one thing for a small company to create something, but that legitimacy of a big brand is what will really propel this forward.
What is the potential for electric motorcycles?
The potential is incredible. We’ve raced at Red Bull Straight Rhythm last October. We’ve always made it a point to say we want to race gas bikes to prove the parity of the technology. An electric powertrain, much like in a car, it does provides all these wonderful sensations—the sense of immediate torque, quiet, no heat, no vibrations. From a recreational competitive mindset, the benefits are incredible. You have less fatigue. There’s a lot of potential there. If the potential is a 100 for the recreational sporting pursuit, I think it’s 10X for urban. You have this powertrain that can be tightly packaged in a small platform that doesn’t require a transmission. You can suddenly talk to novice riders or smaller riders, anybody that may have been slightly intimidated by what was happening in a traditional motorcycle, and you can offer them them all of that style and street cred but in a package that is really forward thinking and very accessible. When you talk about urban growth and city centers reducing traffic and not allowing cars, the answer is either bicycles or e-assist or electric scooters and motorcycles. We remind ourselves that in the ‘50s Honda built this gas motor and put it in a motorcycle to prove in competition that they had something remarkable. Then they scaled that it across every industry. It’s a mistake for people to consider us just a motorcycle company. We certainly are, but with support and success, we have the ability to make tiny scooters, small delivery vehicles. It’s incredibly wide open where we go.
How does riding an electric motorcycle compare to riding a gas one?
They compare really well. The biggest challenge is price. Not only are we building new technology, we are also doing it in California. At that small scale you incur pricing that isn’t always as competitive. But everything else is incredible. First and foremost, we are a design company. We clearly chose to produce a product that looks and feels like a normal motorcycle. On the performance side, it produces 40 horsepower and 120 ft lb of torque. Its equivalent gas bike is a 250cc dirt bike from Honda or Yamaha. On a race setting, the bike competes with other brands just as well. We’ve won races. To be here long term we have to get pricing to a place where if it’s not the same, it’s an upcharge for being American made and being electric, but it’s not this really steep markup. After that, it blows the doors open for development of new products.
What is the reaction of people who are used to riding traditional bikes when they try out the Redshift? The “brrapp” sound is so fundamental to motorcycles. It must be strange to ride one that doesn’t make that sound.
The immediate relationship with the bike is one of excitement because it looks and feels like a dirtbike. There’s always a little concern because there’s no clutch, no shifting and no noise. But I’ve never put anybody on the bike and had them come in and be disappointed. The noise of a motorcycle is wonderful but at the same time it’s a huge distraction. Suddenly [on the Redshift], you’re pulling up to a stop light and hearing people’s conversations as they cross the street or the radio in the car next to you. The same goes in the dirt or the trails. It’s very much like a mountain bike experience. Suddenly you’re talking to your friends as you’re riding in the woods or sneaking up on wildlife. That’s a really incredible experience.
How much of a concern is the “green” aspect of the bike for you?
For a lot of us it’s a personal mission and a point of pride. We have a competitor in this space, which is Zero Motorcycles. In all of their messaging and content, they go after range. We never really set out to do that. From the very beginning the mission statement was always to build a better motorcycle with an eye toward performance. For us the green thing is there, but it’s not overt. I think we’ll always be somewhat of a performance-oriented company.
When did the Redshift first launch and how many have been sold so far?
We went into production on the motocross bike in November 2016. The Supermoto, our street legal bike, comes online in July. For the last 5-6 months, we’ve only been building motocross bikes, delivering all of the early preorders we had when we were still not in production. To date, we’ve built a couple hundred motorcycles. Every one we’ve built is sold. By fall you’ll see both the motocross bike and the supermoto hit this balance point where we’ve got inventory and it’s not quite so sparse.
Do you know if Alta Motors customers are also electric car owners?
I don’t have hard numbers on it. I can tell you some certainly do. We have a couple customers who drive to the track with their Fisker or a Tesla Model X and have their electric Redshift on the back. While they may not all own electric cars, they have all experienced it. The Tesla phenomenon is real. I used to work for a different electric motorcycle company quite a few years ago and you would talk to customers about the benefits and people didn’t understand it what an electric powertrain does. But in the last year or two you as Tesla has become a household name, you start talking to customers about what the Redshift can do and they almost brush you off and say, “Yeah, I know. I’ve driven a Tesla or my wife or my mother owns a Prius.” Market adoption of the technology as a whole has increased.
Can you envision a time when electric motorcycles become the dominant form?
We’re not here to force people off of their gas bikes. Green initiatives don’t work when you’re telling people to do something because nobody likes to be told what to do. These green initiatives work when people adopt it of their own will because of some particular reason. For Alta, we hope that the adoption rate is driven either by design or performance.
Does Alta have any other products in development?
In February we showed a concept of a low seat height street tracker motorcycle, similar to a Harley Sportster or Ducati Scrambler. It’s a very beautiful bike, very low seat hight, very approachable. The goal is at some point in 2017 or early ‘18 to bring that tracker concept to market. From there, there’s lots of conversations about what the future holds.