The C-1: Building a Space-Age Motorcycle

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Photograph by Cody Pickens

The San Francisco headquarters of Lit Motors seems, from the outside, to be abandoned, another vacant light-industrial building without a sign or even a mailbox. Black electrician’s tape covers one of the two old-fashioned doorbells, and nobody answers when you press the other. When Daniel Kim finally does open the door, he apologizes, looking like he’s just awakened from a hard night of partying.

Picking mail off the floor, Kim walks through what might best be described as a three-story man-cave, metal shop, R&D Skunk Works, office space, and art gallery littered with his creations: handmade surfboards, eyeglasses, electric guitars, a roofless biodiesel Land Rover, and, most important, his gleaming-white two-wheeled masterpiece. The C-1 is a fully enclosed electric motorcycle that can balance on its own at a standstill, hit speeds in excess of 100 mph, split lanes in traffic (if you’re driving in a state where that’s legal), park anywhere, and roam up to 200 miles on a $1 electrical charge, all while looking like a cross between a first-generation iPod and a personal spaceship. “It’s a safe, accessible motorcycle that’s fun as hell to drive,” says Kim.

The word motorcycle hardly does justice to the C-1. Better to think of it as the next step in a car-motorcycle hybrid concept that designers have been tinkering with since at least the late 1970s. Some past models have made it into production, like the Swiss Peraves MonoTracer, which doubled as Kate Beckinsale’s futuristic police vehicle in the 2012 remaked of ‘Total Recall.’  But the challenge with these hybrids has always been keeping them upright at a stop. Solutions vary, but like the MonoTracer’s – with its stabilizer wheels affixed to goofy little poles poking out from the vehicle’s sides – none has been elegant.

Until the C-1. Kim’s design relies on electronic sensors similar to those used by Segways or smartphones, which track the vehicle’s pitch, roll, yaw, and rate of acceleration. C-1 software keeps tabs on the sensors, as well as the driver’s weight and intended direction, communicating to Kim’s greatest innovation, gyroscopes that keep the vehicle standing erect. Encased in aircraft aluminum and built entirely from tempered steel, Kim’s 40-pound gyros generate 1,500 foot-pounds of torque, enough to lean the C-1 in and out of turns, let it drift on ice like a car, and even keep it upright during a full T-bone side-impact from a Ford F-150 pickup going 35 mph.

Kim got the idea for the C-1, he says, while living in Portland, Oregon, in his mid twenties. He’d dropped out of college, worked in an auto shop, traveled the world for a year (“106 cities, 20 countries, four continents; learned a lot, met a lot of women, came back understanding my place in the world”), and then decided to build a biodiesel Land Rover entirely from spare parts. He was welding underneath the beast’s 500-pound frame one day when it slipped off a support jack and slammed onto the concrete floor, inches from crushing him. That got Kim thinking about vehicle designs that might be, you know, lighter.

He then put himself through the Rhode Island School of Design to acquire the necessary background in manufacturing, industrial design, and entrepreneurship needed to build what would become the C-1.

“Now we’re here, and there’s a full-scale working prototype, with gadgets and doodads up the yin-yang,” Kim says with pride. Center-hub steering means that the C-1 handles like a motorcycle and drives like a car. Step on the brakes and 20-kilowatt electric motors in both wheel hubs switch to power-regeneration mode, slowing the vehicle by absorbing its momentum and converting that kinetic energy into an electrical charge that powers the gyro. Press on the accelerator and that energy, now stored in the gyro, transfers back to the motors, making the C-1 three times as energy-efficient as your typical automobile.

It’s one thing to knock out prototypes, of course, and quite another to create a profitable automotive company. Adrian Stewart, of Brammo, an Oregon-based electric-motorcycle manufacturer (you may have seen the Brammo Enertia at Best Buy), says it typically takes “tens of millions” of dollars to bring production online. Kim has raised less than one. Stewart also says Americans buy motorcycles for the “thrill of the ride and the promise of what’s possible – whether that’s riding your BMW across the Kalahari or riding to Sturgis on your Harley.”

But Kim, when asked if he’s targeting the C-1 to weekend warriors or city commuters, just says, “Both. Why not? You can pull off the roof panel and get the wind in your hair. You can drag your hand along the pavement during a turn, and you can also chop 55 percent off the cost of your commute.” Judging the C-1 by conventional interpretations of the motorcycle market, in other words, is likely beside the point. It isn’t going to replace the need for a car in all situations. But 77 percent of us commute alone, and for those moments when only an automobile will do, rental options like Zipcar abound in every major American city. The C-1 won’t come cheap – $24,000 to start; $12,500 when it reaches full production, about the same as a Ducati Monster – and the need for four-hour charging times rules out long road trips. But nothing even close to the C-1 has ever been released in the United States, and Kim may be edging toward his ultimate sales pitch when he describes it as “driving around on a Tron Light Cycle,” the perfect digital ride for an idealized future.

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