On paper, the Ziesel simply sounds like a well-conceived alternative mobility solution, something like an off-road version of Professor Xavier's wheelchair. But the rugged electric vehicle is more than just a mere conveyance: The Ziesel can also be used for recreation and industrial purposes and was designed expressly to strike a balance between sustainability and performance without compromising on either count. Designer Jan Dornig offered detailed insight into the thinking behind the Ziesel.
Core77: What was the original project brief or inspiration for the Ziesel? And what does the name mean?
Jan Dornig: Our company, Mattro Mobility Revolutions, was involved in a research project that focused on developing an automated battery exchange system for vehicles and one of our tasks was to build test vehicles. We basically took the battery system, two electric motors and some tracks we had from another project to build the first prototype. Some friends noted that an easily drivable vehicle that can conquer difficult terrain would be great for wheelchair users, which got us seriously interested in developing the Ziesel further. Thus, the innovation of the Ziesel is rooted firmly in its technology. From the beginning, we used powerful, high quality components. While it is a great use to enable people to do more, we always wanted to do more as well and create the Ziesel as an electric, compact and powerful ATV.
"Ziesel" is the German name for a species of ground squirrel—a very agile little thing, which is why we thought it fitting. This use of animal names originated from my first vehicle project, the design of the vehicle while I was at the FH Salzburg, the Steinbock [alpine ibex, a species of mountain goat]. At the time, I was still a student at the university and that was how I got involved with the company. (The final decision was between the wolf and the steinbock, by the way.)
The website notes that the Ziesel is intended to be an alternative to a snowmobile or ATV—besides the electric motor, what advantages does it have over other vehicle typologies?
The Ziesel is build around electric driving technologies. We didn't simply exchange one drivetrain for the other, like so many do these days, but designed it completely from scratch. Compared to traditional vehicles, the Ziesel offers extremely simple steering. All you need is one hand. If you think of other vehicles, most need at least two limbs or even more. Another thing we are doing here is providing different users different driving/power modes. If you are pulling heavy loads on the Ziesel-trailer, we can prepare different setting for you than if you mainly use it for personal transport on ski slopes. With the press of a button, the operator can switch between race mode and a mode that is safe enough for children to drive safely, if that's what you want.
Another major factor is the possibility of year-round use. There are many ski resorts and other commercial users that operate in nature all year round, but ATVs and snowmobiles are often both used [during different times of year], while the Ziesel is, again, made for all-season use on almost every surface. The tread might seem like overkill, but when you take a closer look, you will see that the low pressure per inch is better in terms of protecting the the area you are driving on while still offering perfect traction.
Another aspect we focus on is the materials. We are trying to use easily recyclable materials wherever possible. You see, Mattro is a company that focuses on electric mobility because we not only think that it is the future, but also it is a seriously necessary development for us as a society depending on nature to live with. We are using nine layers of pressed and laminated wood for the track covers, and the armrests are CNC'd from a single piece of wood. The main parts are all either steel or aluminum. And actually with our production numbers, these techniques make economical sense too.
When you say "beside the electric motor," you might be thinking of main arguments like almost no noise, no exhaust fumes and the big advantage of cheap energy, but something that our customers find very interesting is that this kind of drivetrain needs almost no maintenance. It has far fewer moving parts than conventional engines and does not require oil changes or such. The motors are directly mounted on the wheels with only the planetary gears in between. One customer asked us to send him all the parts he might need to keep it running perfectly for at least five years. We actually had to take a moment to think that over and in the end it was clear that with normal use, only the treads themselves and their power wheels that are going to show serious wear after heavy use for years.
Conversely, if a snowmobile is more analogous to a motorcycle, the Ziesel seems more like an electric scooter, which has a different audience/appeal. Was this a consideration for the design, which features upright seating (as opposed to the more aggressive aero position of other vehicles)?
We thought about changing the seating position, but it would have immediately resulted in more length. Actually, quite a lot of people with a disability would have liked a more laid back, car-like seat, but we wanted to keep the overall measurements tight. Right now, if you turn the Ziesel at his position, you know, like only tanks and segways can do, you can easily guess what space you need since its measurements are almost a square. Also, this way, the center of gravity is positioned in a way that makes it incredibly hard to tip the machine over. Now we are at a point where you can't roll over as long as you are driving on a even surface and the theoretical tipping point is at more than 100% pitch/incline.
Of course, we drew the same comparisons, and I myself did the research on what our actual market and competitors look like. Since we are quite different from the norm, you basically have to decide what you are competing with. You don't decide based on the class of vehicle, or look, but on the person you want as a buyer. In our case, the person who wants a fast vehicle—something to drive 50-60 mph for hours—is not our buyer. We know that and we never tried to become something for that person. There are limitations that we have to work with, but also opportunities. For example, a person that like to drive an ATV/snowmobile out in the open, at speeds up to 60 mph, is also likely to enjoy driving a go-kart on a track. Now, the normal go-karts you ride on those public tracks are not made for any speed records, which is something we can not only do, but where we are in a position to offer new experiences.
For example, we were recently on Schlag den Raab ["Beat the Raab," a German game show], which has about 3.19 million viewers. The feedback is quite amazing, people enjoy this and because of the context, forget the association with any aiding equipment. We are going to open a similar race track but on snow within the next weeks and it looks like there are some more to come. If you want to draw a comparison, I like to say, "Think of it as a snow go-kart or off-road go-kart."
Besides the electric motor, what other factors the Ziesel more sustainable than other options?
Adding to what I said before, this depends a lot on the application. We are looking at different markets and have not fully explored those where we see opportunities (we are shipping the first Ziesels to our customers right now).
The missing noise is one important factor for applications in public areas and or nature reserves. There are quite some ski resorts in Europe and around the world that are very close to "nature reserve areas." We learned that these resorts have restrictions for the use of fuel engine powered vehicles, which wouldn't apply to us.
Or, imagine a person who is not at his best health anymore but still wants to enjoy nature. I'm talking about a demographic that has been hailed as the next economic boom market. And this person would like to go for a hike with his friends. You are not going to enjoy driving something burning gas next to a company of people while trying to enjoy a hike through nature, and the existing solutions are not powerful enough to give you real freedom in difficult terrain.
We had eco-farmers calling us, asking for the Ziesel because they don't want to drive something that spits toxic gases between their plants and food that will later end up on theirs and their customers plates. This is especially interesting for wine/grape producers since the Ziesel has the previously mentioned low per-inch ground pressure. This way, the earth doesn't get compressed too much, which is bad for the plants.
Can you elaborate on the work/industrial or other commercial applications of the Ziesel? What is its battery life, towing capacity, range, etc. (I see the specs on the website but it would be useful to put it in terms of "two-hour battery life at 10mph" for example)?
We have had a trailer made for the Ziesel, which is only slighter bigger than the Ziesel itself. This way, you can tow the Ziesel with your car, drive the Ziesel off of it, then turn it around and hook the trailer to the Ziesel.
We had the Ziesel towing another vehicle with about a ton (1000kg) of weight on an even surface with no problem.
The range and endurance depends a lot on the surface you are driving on. Wet and heavy snow eats more power than driving on a normal street. The time the Ziesel can be used is going to be between two hours and four hours. But this means continuous driving. 2 hours is the mentioned heavy snow with full speed.
As for its potential, I think I have mentioned most areas. Those that we list are as follows:
Fun and Action, Tourism, Agriculture, Patrol and Rescue, Hunt and Forest Control, Transport, Municipal Use.
Do you happen to know where this falls in terms of vehicle class / licensing? For example ATVs are not street legal in the United States, but I do see urban applications for this type of vehicle given the snowy weather we've had here in NYC lately...
The problem with licensing the Ziesel is rooted in the "uniqueness." For most vehicles, you can easily look at the given guidelines and simply fulfill the requirements. Actually most requirements can be easily met with the Ziesel. We used many different norms to make it as street legal as possible in terms of safety. But the main problem is that we don't fit in a single vehicle class. They are categorized by "two wheels in driving direction," or "two axis" and these basic definitions simply don't apply to us. We are working on it and it looks like there are good chances to get individual single licenses, especially for municipal use, but general street legalization still needs some work.
What kind of feedback have you received? What's next for the Ziesel?
The feedback is very positive. Especially those that have actually tried and driven it are very enthusiastic. The "newness" of the driving experience and the very surprising power is something that quickly fascinate. Of course we hear a lot of "weird wheelchair thing," but once we are able to show context, this subsides. We know now that the Ziesel has a market and we also got to know new markets which might need some other altered solutions or different vehicles all together. We are ready to go ahead and push electric mobility forward.
The next steps are more on the logistical side. We are always going to optimize it, software- and hardware-wise, which is one of the great things of having small production runs, but right now we are building the brand and different sales models for different markets, including the race track solutions, leasing, renting and such and building a distributor network.