"We're a little different than your typical Bay Area start-up," says BRD Motorcycles CEO Marc Fenigstein. Right down the street from some of the most innovative companies in America, Marc and the rest of the BRD team are busy changing the face of the motocross industry through their pioneering electric bikes. The Redshift, BRD's flagship motorcycle, is 250 pounds of power and handling all wrapped up in a drop-dead gorgeous custom frame that charges in a wall socket. "Nobody needs electric motorcycles," says Marc, "but we found a way to make everyone want electric: by making them go faster."
On the test track, the RedShift is four seconds faster on a 1:10 lap than the KTM 250, a comparable gas-powered bike. "That's the difference between classes!" says Marc. "Motocross has two full-size classes, 250cc and 450cc. The 250cc is the larger market segment and the more appropriate size/power bike for most mortal humans." Where a gas-powered bike can generate 40 horsepower at its peak, the RedShift "can put down 40 horsepower anywhere."
Moreover, pro riders heavily train their arms in order to endure "forearm pump," the debilitating strain generated from shifting with the clutch with the left hand and cutting the throttle with the right hand. Using an electric motor helps to eliminates this strain, since the rider remains in the same gear the entire ride and only needs to "finely tune" the throttle. For average riders, this is a "huge advantage."
While BRD's motorcycles hold their own on the track, "We own the street," says Marc. Although the gas-powered competition "would never be street legal," the RedShift is built for riders to enjoy both on the dirt track and for trips around the city. Although you may not be able to hear the RedShift "going down the street from inside your house," BRD's motorcycles are "definitely not silent." Marc described the sound as something "like a podracer," with the pitch of the noise "always tied to your speed." In Marc's opinion, this is the "perfect product feedback for the user."
Read on for the full story:Prior to joining BRD, Marc worked in consulting, then as a business strategist, despite having gone to engineering school. "To me it was a very linear path, not by design, but by serendipity," says Marc. His current role on the business side of BRD is a result of "not being a particularly good engineer or artist, but being good at everything in between." Marc regards original co-founders Derek Dorresteyn and Jeff Sand as the design geniuses of BRD, despite having only "one degree in ID between the two of them."
But Marc was not always so optimistic about the prospect of building and marketing a next-generation electric motorcycle. "I knew in advance it was a terrible idea and they shouldn't do it," says Marc. "The numbers weren't there for performance and economy." Yet seeing the RedShift up close and personal quickly removed any doubt in Marc's mind. "It was beautiful," says Marc. "And then they started talking. They found a space where electric could compete—and win—within motocross"
"Race bikes require huge amounts of maintenance," says Marc. Some bikes require oil changes every 3 hours. Switching to electric drastically reduces these maintenance requirements. In a side-by-side comparison between the RedShift and a gas-powered bike, Marc showed how gas-powered would be less expensive than the RedShift initially, but the constant maintenance required would drive the cost up significantly over the lifetime of the bike.
Beyond simply designing the necessary electric technology—which includes the motor, battery pack, battery management system, and ECU—BRD also designed an innovative chassis for the RedShift. Most motorcycle frames are composed of a variety of pieces all welded together. The RedShift's frame doesn't have a single weld on it. Where welding causes the metal to warp and weaken, casting has no warping whatsoever. The chassis is cast as two pieces, then machined as a single fixturing (both halves are machined at the same time after being fit together), meaning that all surfaces and holes are perfectly aligned. The unique and beautiful look of the RedShift is thus "a result of the technology, not the reason for it."
Having only "four guys in a machine shop in San Francisco" may seem like a disadvantage for a transportation start-up, yet designing motorcycles instead of cars comes with far fewer hurdles. "We couldn't have built a car with a team this small and be able to innovate so much," says Marc. Cars require significant crash-testing before they can make it to the road, while Marc described the Department of Transportation's stance on motorcycles as, "If you're dumb enough to ride one, we're not worried about you." Still, BRD is in the process of hiring a third party to conduct testing on their motorcycle for liability's sake.
The team is also hard at work developing additional applications for their technology and products beyond motocross. "An off-road platform is actually great for an on-road bike," says Marc. "Taller handles better than performance [Kawasaki] Ninja-style bikes." This revelation has led to a design for a police variant perfect for city patrolling. "We're becoming more urbanized as a species," Marc continues, "but you have manufacturers building bikes for the open road, for Route 66."
BRD is now taking pre-orders for their first two bikes, the RedShift MX and RedShift SM, each costing around $15,000. Anyone who has had the chance to see the RedShift for themselves has had much the same reaction Marc did when he first laid eyes on the bike."You know you have a good product," says Marc, "when someone who knows nothing about motorcycles wants to ride it."
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.