“Building an electric motorcycle is about making a better motorcycle. The electric powertrain has great performance, and the power curve of an electric motor is actually more applicable for how motorcyclists ride than the gasoline motor.” – Gene Banman, CEO Zero Motorcycles
Zero Motorcycles is taking off with their innovative and breakthrough technology for electric motorcycles – literally. KissMyCountry had the chance to talk with Gene Banman, CEO about the company, about why their electric motorcycles are so exciting – about the best places for a meal and drinks in Scotts Valley, CA – the home of Zero Motorcycles. You’ll enjoy hearing from Gene, a computer industry veteran now leading a team dedicated to building a better and more energy efficient motorcycle. Enjoy!
KissMyCountry: Gene, since the beginning there’s been buzz, buzz and more buzz about Zero Motorcycles. In your own words, what are the most exciting features of Zero Motorcycles?
Gene: It’s the first new powertrain to be introduced to motorcycle technology in 100 years. There’ve been electric motorcycles built down through the decades. In fact the first one was in the 1890’s. But they really didn’t go very far and didn’t have much power and so they never really took off as products. One of the electric motorcycles that was put together in the 1940s ended up being the first project of the founder of ParCar which has become a major manufacturer of electric carts – golf carts and Meter Maid carts and things like that. He started with a motorcycle back in the ‘40’s. So people have been thinking about electric motorcycles ever since powered vehicles got started. But the battery technology just wasn’t up to the job until just recently and, as a result, now we really can introduce a commercial product that has this completely new powertrain.
Building an electric motorcycle is about making a better motorcycle. The electric powertrain has great performance, and the power curve of an electric motor is actually more applicable for how motorcyclists ride than the gasoline motor. The gasoline motor has this peak power at high RPM where an electric motor has maximum torque at 0 RPM. So blasting off the line you’re going to get instant torque with an electric motor that motorcyclists really get a kick out of. The motor has one moving part so it’s very low maintenance, there’s no oil changes, no tune ups, no rebuilds. It just runs, for a very long time. Very low operating costs. Four kilowatt hours gives you an average of about 40 miles of range in an urban area and it only costs 46 cents to charge up those 4 kilowatt hours here in California. So very low operating costs. What we really think is going to happen over time is that we’re going to end up with electric motorcycles being superior to gasoline motorcycles in terms of performance, cost and ease of use. We think they will go mainstream sometime in the next 5-10 years.
These motorcycles have captured peoples’ imaginations for a wide variety of reasons. For motorcyclists Zero offers great performance, low maintenance and a fun new riding experience. Those who want to improve the environment appreciate that Zero’s all electric motorcycles are highly efficient and have no tailpipe emissions.
KissMyCountry: You have Dirt, Street and Dual Sport models. You’ve said you’re a dual sport fan. Is there anything you’d like to say specifically about your Dual Sport model?
Gene: It goes 65 miles an hour so you can get it out on the Freeway. You can certainly ride it around town. The usage model is really an around town usage model. But the dual sport version has street legal off road knobby tires and bigger suspension so you can take it out on the fire roads or the dirt roads and trails that might allow you to link up between surface streets. A lot of our customers have back roads that they can take on their way into town or to work and with the dual sport it allows them to cut through these back trails and roads and through the woods to take it to work and they really enjoy that. It’s sort of a dip into nature during your normal commute. It also allows you on the weekend to go hit the trails. My own passion for motorcycles got started on my dad’s Trail 90 and there’s been a lot of back country cruising around on that Trail 90 and that was one of the early dual sport motorcycles, if you will, that allowed that kind of thing. This is our most popular model.
KissMyCountry: Gene, you came to Zero Motorcycles from Sun Microsystems, bringing years of experience, a global management background and a lifelong love of sport bikes. What skills have you used the most from your time at Sun as you’ve built the company?
Gene: The good financial controls. One of the things about Sun and Zero which are similar is that both are rapidly growing companies. The way you manage rapid growth is through good financial controls. We have a very sophisticated financial system and forecasting and tracking system that allows us to stay on top of our spending, on top of our cash, on top of our build plans and so forth that allows us to keep the company in control as it grows. That was one of the things that was key at Sun. When I joined Sun there were 700 employees. Fifteen years later when I left there were 46,000 employees. So that was a great experience on how to manage a high growth situation and we’re certainly going through that here at Zero.
KissMyCountry: And where has your passion for dual sport bikes influenced your management of the company most?
Gene: It really hasn’t influenced the management of the company but what it does provide is enthusiasm and a spirit and a kind of good feeling all through the company. Most of the company is employees that are motorcycle enthusiasts as well as being professionals of one type or another. Our director of Electrical Engineering is an AMA racer. Our VP of Sales is a lifelong dirt bike rider. A typical family vacation is to load up his trailer with a bunch of bikes and take his family out to the desert for a couple of days of bike riding. So the company has allowed a lot of people to combine their personal passion with their work experience. It just provides a lot of energy throughout the company. As a company we manage it just like any other company and the professional skills that good team members bring to the table are finance, engineering, and manufacturing. It doesn’t really change the work itself and the need to have professionals who do that work.
KissMyCountry: Has anything surprised you about running Zero Motorcycles – either good or bad? Anything you didn’t anticipate at all about building the company?
Gene: It’s a lot harder to get these bikes into production than I would have thought. My experience is with computers and while they certainly have their own complexities the technology for getting those things into manufacturing are very well honed in a large infrastructure. Mechanical devices are just inherently much more difficult and so we’ve been working hard on addressing those issues and we’re now into volume production. But I would like to see that go more smoothly. The other thing is just how regulated this industry is. Again the computer industry is very much a free market, lots of competition, lots of competitors come and go. The vehicle business is much more staid I would say and there’s a lot of regulations that are built up over the years. Some of the regulations of course make lots of sense around safety and vehicle qualification to get on the road. Those kind of regulations make a lot of sense and we worked hard to conform to them. But there are lots of business constraining regulations in the various states that allow you to sell or not sell vehicles in certain ways based on what local legislatures have put together in response to the dealer lobbies and the manufacturer lobbies. That was surprising; just how much business constraint there is in the vehicle business around the actual mechanics of doing business – who you can sell to and who you can’t, and how you can sell and how you can’t. That’s very different than the free enterprise environment of the computer business.
KissMyCountry: You and Neal Saiki seem to be a great team and a great combination of skills – critical for a startup. How is it that you came to work together, and why do you think it’s worked out so well?
Gene: I think that having a clear division of labor is really important and he’s got tremendous skills in design and analysis and understanding the vision of the company as a Founder. I’m a businessman and a manager and so he does the technical vision and investigation and I do the day to day management and it works out great. We met because Neal was pitching to a number of venture capitalists to raise money and one of them connected him up with a friend of mine to do some preliminary marketing work for him. My friend after meeting with Neal and knowing my interests called me up and said that I should go meet with this guy Neal because he’s doing something that you’d be really interested in. My friend set up a meeting between Neal and I and we immediately saw the advantages of working together and so I came on board.
KissMyCountry: What companies do you admire right now in the electric vehicle space – either cars or motorcycles?
Gene: I admire Tesla, they paved the way for startups especially the first management team that came in and got that off the ground. Of course they’ve had a complete turnover now. But the original management team at Tesla really got this whole venture capital, Silicon Valley machinery in gear to go support the Green tech space and the electric vehicle space and my hats off to those guys for doing that and getting that off the ground early on. The other company that, believe it or not, that I admire is Toyota because of the established automotive industry they’ve been working hard in this electric vehicle direction with their hybrids, with their experimental Rav 4 electric vehicle that they came out with a couple of years ago and basically put the rest of the industry on notice that they’ve got to move in this direction and that’s been very helpful. I don’t want to say too much about the motorcycle space because those are all my competitors. I think we need each other to build this industry. There’s a couple of other companies out there that have gotten into production and there’s a number of companies that have announced products and have prototypes and that’s important to get this industry going. We’ll see some of the large incumbent motorcycle companies come out with products. Honda and Yamaha have announced small electric motorcycle projects kind of replacing the 90cc kind of bike with electric powertrains. KTM has announced they’ll have an electric dirt bike coming out next year. This is all going to help the momentum of this industry.
KissMyCountry: Who’s been your most surprising customer at Zero Motorcycles?
Gene: The most surprising customer I really can’t talk about because we’re under NDA, and I can’t quite get past that one to think about the next most surprising customer. When we started selling the product we didn’t really know who would buy it. As customers identified themselves by placing orders and calling us we got to know them and got to know who was interested in these products and so then we started targeting them more closely as we got to understand them. Just as these motorcycles capture peoples’ imaginations for many reasons, people also have many reasons for why they finally become owners.
KissMyCountry: Gene, at KissMyCountry we like to ask people about the places they love. What are your favorite places to live or travel?
Gene: I’m delighted to be living here in the San Francisco Bay area. This is one of the most exciting places in the world for business. It’s beautiful with lots of places to go in just a few hours drive whether it’s Big Sur, or Yosemite or Tahoe or it’s pretty down here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s just a great place to live. A lot of fervent around business development. That’s always very interesting. This kind of situation is unique in the world I think. There’s so much start up activity and business ferment in a small area. For traveling I love to go to Europe, I love to go to Asia, I do love going back to Japan because I know a lot about it. I’d like to go to Latin America, I haven’t really spent much time there, I’ve just been there a few times but look forward to it and it’s one of the places on my agenda.
KissMyCountry: Zero Motorcycles is in Scotts Valley, California. When people come to Scott’s Valley, where do you like to take them for a meal or for drinks?
Gene: For lunch we’re very handy to a little shopping center around the corner where there’s a Cambodian restaurant call Jia Tella’s which is great. There’s also a sushi restaurant called Yamamori Sushi. For drinks down the road there’s an old hangout bar called Malone’s Grille. That was the unofficial headquarters for Seagate Technology when they were big here and that’s a great place to hang out after work.
KissMyCountry: We’re guessing that you spend a fair amount of time in San Francisco, a favorite city for many. What are your favorite things to do in San Francisco?
Gene: The city has so many great restaurants, events and beautiful locations. When I’m in San Francisco I like to take advantage of each of these. I enjoy meeting friends at everything from a hole in the wall to the St. Francis Yacht Club where I also get to enjoy sailing on the bay and singing in the choir. I have a boat in the Bay Area and we cruise over there once in a while and to have dinner. I like going to the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building. Of course the Broadway musicals in town and of course the de Young Museum is spectacular. Those kinds of things.
KissMyCountry: Gene, thank you for talking with us. It’s exciting to talk with you and exciting to hear about Zero Motorcycles. We’d like to come back and check with you in about six months to see how things are going.
Gene: Alright. Sounds great. Thank you.
Article appearing courtesy KissMyCountry
photo: Zero Motorcycles