MachinePix Weekly #42: Abe Askenazi, CTO, Zero Motorcycles

Abe Askenazi talks about building some of the fastest vehicles on the road and achieving the calming adrenaline of "electric zen" 🏍⚡️

I was very excited to talk to Abe Askenazi, the CTO of Zero Motorcycles, for this week’s interview. My personal Zero SR/F is one of my favorite products of all time and the thing that fully convinced me on EVs, even more so than Teslas.

All the qualities that make EVs awesome—precision throttle response and control, instant torque, face-melting speed—are even more apparent on a motorcycle, and Abe explains why.

The most popular post this week was a Komatsu harvester. This post drew some ire, but many readers pointed out that it was operating on a tree farm, not in a forest.

I’m always looking for interesting people to interview, have anyone in mind?

—Kane


Interview with Abe Askenazi

You spent many years at Buell before Zero; how did you find yourself in the motorcycle industry in the first place?

It’s a long story; I’ll try to make it short. I was born and grew up in Mexico City. Among me and my friends, no one rode motorcycles! But for whatever reason, when I was ten—I have no idea what possessed him—my grandfather showed up with a motorcycle for my birthday and I was hooked. I was always mechanically inclined and liked tinkering, and it’s like I was just waiting for that moment.

From then on, it was a passion. For whatever reason, I got more into the electrical side of things during high school. I thought electrical engineering would be my calling: when I applied for college I thought I would do electrical engineering. But when I applied for Berkeley it had kind of turned into CS—a lot more computers! I was in a dungeon in the basement; I would never see the light of day. So I transferred to mechanical engineering, and was lucky enough to find a professor—Professor Pisano—who also had a love for machines. Not just motorcycles, but all machines. So when I told him about my passion for motorcycles and things that moved fast and were bolted together, he sort of took me under his wing. By the time I applied for my master’s, I proposed a master’s in motorcycle dynamics, and he said “Sounds good to me!” After my master’s, I applied to one place: Buell.

Zero’s now a clear leader in the electric motorcycle category, but when you joined in 2010 it must have been a lot more unknown. What was Zero like then?

Zero was started by Neal Saiki, who was very passionate about electric vehicles and EV technology. He was also pretty passionate about mountain bikes. Santa Cruz is right next to Silicon Valley, and there’s a lot of tech here as a result. So he was able to bring in a lot of engineers. When he started his company, people were really passionate about the work, but there was really no one with motorcycle industry experience. As Neal was trying to make Zero a reality, he didn’t really have anyone that had done motorcycles before. He had people that’d worked on bicycles and EVs, but not motorcycles.

It was a stroke of fate. After the market crashed in 2008, Harley [who owned Buell] was bleeding from the ears; the entire industry was. Even though Buell fared better than Harley, Harley made the decision to shut down anything that wasn’t the Harley brand. It took 16 years or so to make Buell what it was, and in a matter of months it was completely shut down and torn apart. It was pretty traumatic. I was offered a position at Harley, which was a nice offer—but I was so traumatized by the experience that I decided to take some time off.

It so happened that as I resigned from Harley, Gene Banman, who was CEO of Zero at the time, reached out to me and said, “Hey, we need some motorcycle experience at Zero; are you interested in checking it out?” At the time, I really wanted to take a break. I knew what Zero was doing was interesting, but it wasn’t really making motorcycles yet. I thought, you know, it was worth checking out, seeing where this technology was going. But I was going just to check things out; I wasn’t interested in moving, starting something right away. I saw what they had; everything was very young. Very nascent; a lot of work would be needed to scale it. A lot of things would need to be rearchitected. It would just be a ton of work, so I said, “Nah, I don’t think so.”

But then I was offered a demo ride. And my first demo ride was just transformational. I know this has happened to a lot of employees at Zero. You're sort of interested, but then you get the demo ride. And you say, “Man, oh man, this is what motorcycling is about!'' Even with the early prototype, I knew this is where motorcycling was going.

After the demo ride, after I went back home, I told my wife, “I need to be part of this.” This is how I ended up at Zero.

I know the feeling! I had a Ducati Hypermotard SP, which I loved, but riding a Zero was incredibly transformational. Night and day.

You grow up in a culture where people tell you the vibration and the sound, the inline four or V-twin or triple [piston engines], that’s the “character.” You’re led to believe that if you take that away, it’ll just be boring. Just an appliance. But then you try it and it feels like a veil is lifted. You’re one with the machine, the road—in a way so different from a gas bike. We call it Electric Zen: thrilling, but also calming.

What was the hardest part about building Zeros in the early years?

At the beginning, it was building up a team that had motorcycle experience. One of the things you don’t want to do is reinvent the motorcycle as you’re inventing the EV technology. The EV stuff didn't exist, but reinventing the motorcycle didn’t have to happen. I brought in some industry people—people that knew how to do brake pedals, chassis, wheels, tires—so our focus could be more on the electric powertrain.

The second thing—not really a challenge but very important in the early days—was to make the team understand it couldn't be technology for technology’s sake. The reason we were in it, truly, was for this rider experience, this magic carpet ride. Everything we did had to amplify this experience, not take away from it. As competitors were playing with five, six-speed EV transmissions to make it feel like a gas motorcycle, we didn’t do any of that. We wanted it to be a pure experience. That purity was really important to us.

Something that got easier as years went by: after the trauma that we went through at Harley, that the industry went through, we thought vendors would be hungry for business and parts. What I found was actually the opposite. They were so traumatized by what had happened that they became really risk averse. I’d call my friend at Bosch or Showa, and they’d say, “Hey, we love working with you Abe, but we can’t take any risks. Call us back when you’re more established.”

Early on, we were working with companies we selected because they were willing to work with us; otherwise we wouldn't have suspension or whatever. And the press was unimpressed. They didn't realize it was because it’s all we could get! As we built our name, our brand, as the industry recovered from the trauma—we now have brands people recognize. They’re really great partners now: the collaboration we have with Showa for suspension development and tuning. With Bosch for electronics. Bosch was blown away as we started doing stability control in the SR/F, which was the first application of stability control in a motorcycle—everything was much more immediate. There’s no gas engine to work through. They put the bike in the gravel, the SR/F, and it just plowed through the gravel. They couldn't believe it. This was a sport bike. They just couldn’t believe how responsive it was. The Zero SR/F response time was four to five times faster than what they would consider comparable.

Yea the thing I noticed most about my SR/F is how visceral and immediate the throttle and traction is, compared to even the best gas bikes.

Yeah, on the first Zero, I said we had to get rid of the chain. The racket of the chain is fine when you have a gas engine, but not when you have an electric engine. It sounds terrible! And then you have the lash of any chain, which makes the throttle feel sloppy. It can’t be helped; even the best bikes deal with chain lash.

I called guys at Gates [a belt drive manufacturer], and luckily a Buell guy went to Gates, so we started a program there and it makes a world of difference. Now we have a constant tension belt. An internal combustion engine (ICE) is the size of the frame, but an electric motor is much much smaller. You can get creative. You can fit it much closer to the swingarm, so it fits inside the swingarm. The swingarm pivot can be coaxial with the rotation of the motor, so the tension on the belt never changes. In 99% of motorcycles out there, there’s a difference between the axis of the swing arm and the axis of the motor, and the tension on the chain changes as the suspension moves and you get different lash, etc. Not with us.

That’s how you get that intuitiveness, that immediacy. It helps you get that connected feeling to the tire. When I was working at Buell, I would say 25% of our effort went into meeting noise and emission regulations. At Zero, we don’t have that! Most of the work we do at Zero is going right back to improving ride dynamics and experience. We don’t have to spend so much time constraining a noisy, spewing motor.

What’s the hardest part about building Zeros now?

On the development side, I would say that we can’t rest. We’re paranoid; we always think that tomorrow Honda or KTM or BMW, someone, one of the big OEMs, will come out with something competitive. We always look for how we can be differentiated: we were the first to introduce a mobile app in 2013 to enhance the rider experience. Ever since that, we’ve continued to enhance the capabilities of the app.

If you take a look at what we’ve done year over year with batteries, it’s been consistent. We started with 20 miles of range and now we’re at 220. Same with power, torque, top speed—we’re always looking at what makes most sense for the customer. It’s not just technology for technology's sake. For instance, we realized that fast charging was more useful than marginal increases in battery size, so we developed Level 2 charging support. DC Fast Charging, while awesome, is mostly along long plain highways, so we’re keeping an eye on that, but haven’t prioritized it. Level 2 charging, though, is along more interesting roads, near supermarkets, etc. So we’ve focused on that.

Harley Livewire, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great product—but I think they took the wrong approach to charging. It’s either Level 1 or DC Fast Charging. If you’re taking a ride, and not on a highway with DC Fast Charging, you have to plug in at a restaurant and wait for hours on Level 1!

Previously I interviewed the Director of NPI for Tesla about things people may not appreciate about EV cars. What are things which people may not appreciate about designing (or riding!) electric motorcycles?

The one thing that should be highlighted, because it’s interesting and it’s the challenge we have on a daily basis: size constraints. A car is pretty large. You’re talking about size of equipment versus size of driver or rider. If you want to fit a really large battery in a car, you can! In a motorcycle, you have the space between the tires, rider and road for a battery. It’s a very small size! Riders never think “I can’t have a long-range vehicle, I can’t have a high-performance vehicle because real estate is small”—they just don’t think like that.

We’ve had to be on the forefront of energy density and power density because our riders want to ride hard. How do you do that with confined real estate? Whether it's high power density in motors and controllers or high energy density in the batteries, we think about density a lot. More so than the automotive world, where it’s less critical. If you have a 90 kWh battery in a car, you can deliver a lot of power without working each cell very hard. On a Zero, you have a 14.4 kWh battery, and you want to get 80 kW out of it, so each cell is working very hard. We can’t use the same cells as Tesla or other cars. We developed custom cells with Farasis.

It feels like EVs are at a cultural inflection point. What are you most excited about in terms of technology and capability for electric motorcycles as you look 5, 10 years ahead?

What gets me excited: energy density will continue to increase, and that’s a given, as there’s so much money being invested into the next technology. We’re still on fundamental lithium ion technology from 30 years ago, and we’ve just been optimizing that chemistry. As we advance in what the makeup of the chemistry is, or what the separator is, solid state batteries—liquid is used today—any of these technologies that are used today, as any of these come to market, come to fruition, you’re going to get to a point where you have enough range.

Range will no longer be the constraining thing, especially as charging continues to improve, but batteries will get smaller and smaller and smaller. And that’s really interesting. That doesn’t happen in internal combustion. As emissions controls get tighter and tighter, gas engines get heavier. Let’s say we could make our batteries the same capacity, 14.4 kW, and we were at double density. That’s 75 lbs. shed off the bike! And performance is so dependent on weight. It would be transformational. Then you have that extra space. What do you do with it from a design, utility perspective?

So far, our motorcycles don’t look all that different because we've had to fill that space, but as the technology continues to advance and we shrink the batteries—and now we have the space to play with, which ICE will never have—what do we do with it? That’s really interesting.

I saw that Zero’s Director of Electrical Engineering recently dominated races against ICE bikes on Zero SR/S. How has the racing community reacted to electric motorcycles?

I went to dinner with Kenyon, our Director of Electrical Engineering, yesterday, and I just asked him if he’d seen a change. He said there was a definite change: the racing community was previously mildly interested but never dismissive. The public used to be dismissive; sometimes people would attack you at tradeshows. That has changed over the years. In racing, it was never like that. We were never attacked by the racing community, but they were only sort of curious.

According to Kenyon, since last weekend, there have been a lot more inquiries about how to get into it. There was a guy who said, “Hey, my daughter is racing in this class. I think I want to get her into electric; how do I do that?” That’s pretty cool!

I think the Pikes Peak Zero SR/F is one of the coolest-looking motorcycles, bar none. What was it like to develop a dedicated electric race bike?

We did that project for two reasons. One was to see how far we could push the technology: racing was a fantastic way to learn the limits. All of our development programs go to the track, whether motocross or road racing; we take bikes out and push them. It’s one thing to go to the track by yourself; it’s another to be racing, especially against others on ICE.

The second thing is just team building. People really learn to collaborate; you get really familiar with people when you're building these race bikes. Pikes Peak is a moment in time; it’s not something where if you missed it, you can join the next race two weeks later. Having that milestone and target, it was fantastic.

Both from pushing the technology and letting people be passionate about these things they love doing, the camaraderie, it was great; it was fantastic.

What’s the coolest custom Zero you’ve seen?

The Huge Design SM, I think, is a really clean build. It was really cool to see in terms of pushing the envelope in a way that could become a little weird. That’s a great build.

There was a build by E-Racer at IMS two years ago, which I thought was really cool. He took the headlight wings on your bike, took those things, and flipped them upside down, and it was amazing. Why didn’t we think of that? It probably wouldn't have passed testing, but repurposing something we’d designed like that was awesome.

Woolies’ build of an SR/S was a super clean build. More classic. I don’t know if I have a favorite; they’re all good.

Last IMS show I got to see, the one pre-Covid, it was fun to see Zeros that had been custom built that I hadn’t heard about.

What’s your personal favorite Zero?

So I have been in love with the FX ever since we thought of it. I just think it’s such a cool bike. It doesn’t have an equivalent in the internal combustion world. When we were ideating, we wanted a little Mad Max, an urban stealth fighter—that’s what we called it. It’s not really a dual sport; it’s something for going up and down stairs if you wanted. I bought one; it’s been my bike since 2014.

The FXS which we developed a few years later—from a ride perspective, that thing is on rails. It’s so intuitive. Everything you want to do, it anticipates. It becomes an extension of you, which is what we always said about bikes: the perfect bike just disappears. You become the bike. The best embodiment of that is the FXS. I really like that bike. Of course the SR/S, SR/F are more substantive; just incredible high performance machines.

But the FX is the one I love.

What is your personal favorite historical motorcycle from an innovation and technology perspective?

The Britten V1000 was the bike that rocked me when I first saw it. Then I learned about all the passion that went into it; it was such a different approach to motorcycle architecture. The Britten has always been at the top of my list.

There are others. The first time the 916 came out. I remember the moment; I was still living in Berkeley. I went to my mailbox, looked at the issue of Cycleworld, and I was thinking “Oh my god, how did they do this?”

The Manx Norton would be the one classic bike for me if I were to spend a bunch of money on a classic bike.

Any side projects you’re working on right now?

I have the best side project right now! Unfortunately I’m not able to spend as much time on it. I bought a 1966 Mini Cooper, and I’m putting a Zero SR/S powertrain in it. I can’t wait until that thing is done.

My first project of that size, I restored a 1951 Chevy in college. That thing is so big, you can practically work inside the hood. Space was never a problem. With the Mini Cooper, everything is so tight. It’s going to be an interesting project.

Any favorite books or books you’re reading now?

Favorite of all time? A little cliched, but Call of the Wild. Foot in the future, a challenge to myself is I want to get through Moby Dick, and I’m working on that.

What’s your favorite simple (or not so simple) tool or hack that you think is underappreciated?

I don’t know what I would do without wire strippers, the one catches the wire and helps you one hand strip.


The Week in Review

MEMS always feel incredibly sci-fi to me. Another popular post in the same vein was a nanobot that moved sperm around.


I believe this was related to a crippling snow storm, since I can’t imagine this is particularly good for the rails or the claw. Many rail operators in reliably cold places just light the rails on fire.


Postscript

I’m especially interested in talking to people working on electric vehicle projects right now! If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to friends (or interesting enemies). I am always looking to connect with interesting people and learn about interesting machines—reach out.

—Kane