The Structure of Breakthrough Technology Adoption

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Every once in a while, the fact that I studied Philosophy leaks through the seams.  Normally it’ll take some encouragement in the form of recreational chemistry, but sometimes, well, it just comes.  This is such a post.  Forgive me, it’s been a long winter.  I’m not comfortable with it, hell, I had a hard time back in 1978 going from saying “Philosophy Major” to saying “Philosopher”, and I still do.  But what I studied a lot, and was fascinated by, was how we understand science and technology, and one of the key books I read at the time was The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn.  You may have heard people talk about “paradigms” when they talk about science?  Tom was the guy who made that up.

I started this blog back in when, 2009? …to keep track of information I found on the internet as I started trying to learn about electric motorcycles.  Zero started up in ’07, and Brammo in ’08.  I think I joined elmoto.net and electricmotorcycleforum.com both in ’09 or so.  Back then, if you wanted to try out an electric motorcycle, you had to build one.  So I did.  The community I found was a small group of hardcore enthusiasts with vastly different bases of experience.  Some of us were hardcore bikers, some of us had never been on a bike.  Some of us were mechanics, some of us were trying to learn how to cut a thread.  Some were electrical engineers, some were just learning the business end of a soldering iron. It wasn’t all smooth sailing and happiness, but we were all trying to get to a common goal – build a bike – for whatever reason, and everybody was in it to help.  It was, without a doubt, a crap-ton of fun, and a great experience to be a part of it.

The Bushwhackers

We were all electric motorcycle enthusiasts.  It didn’t matter where it came from or who made it, if it had two wheels and batteries, it was good.  A lot of us expanded that into being electric vehicle enthusiasts as well, though to actually own or build an electric car, you actually had to spend some money.

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Richard230 on his Native

Not everyone was building a bike.  I should add a nod here to some of my friends, Richard230 in particular, who were the “early adopters”.  Not a builder, but a dyed-in-the-wool biker, Richard decided long before it was prudent to start riding electric motorcycles in spite of a resume of probably over 40 gas bikes over the course of his riding career.  With no more desire to work on the bike than my wife has to fill her own gas tank, he dove in with one of the first Native bikes, and hasn’t looked back.  He now owns a 2014. He loves his Zero.  Richard is an enthusiast.  Richard is not a fanboy.  More about that later. I’d also be hugely remiss if I didn’t point out the fairly incredible work of several guys who haven’t built bikes, I don’t even think they work on their own bikes, but have unparalleled and tireless internet research skills, along with immeasurable curiosity..  If I said I hadn’t learned a boatload from several of them (you) I’d be a lying liar.  But yeah.  Enthusiasts, and hard-core ones at that.

Over the last few weeks it’s dawning on me that the landscape has changed profoundly, and it’s confirmed by several friends who I’ve talked to about it.  It seems to me that in the next year or two, the change is going to be even more profound.  That’s what got me going on this subject.

Breaking Trail

First, we saw a couple manufacturers slowly gather steam and get actual models on the market.  These ranged from Mission, Roehr, Lightning, Quantya, Native and a whole lot of others who made a whole lot of noise, some of them gathering a fair amount of investor dollars, and never producing a product, to Zero, plodding along making improvements every year, and Brammo, somewhere in the middle, depending on where your perceptions sit.  We saw a lot of guys who were backyard mechanics putting together bikes that were rough at best, and some guys putting together increasingly polished machines. As the technology progressed, just like what I saw in digital photography, things started actually working.  When I wrote From Fossils to Flux, it was because up until then there was a lot of hacking and adapting going on, with a lot of confusing and conflicting information.  The book was an effort to sort through that, now that stuff had settled down.

As things started actually working, the community started changing.  Again, just like digital photography, people just diving into it could see an opportunity to try to do some new things with some new tools, and accomplish quite a lot.  You saw some guys becoming instant “experts”, in some cases with nods to a lot of the work that had gone on before, but in some cases not so much.  Some people saw an opportunity to try to make some money off of either building, designing, or consulting in this new market.  Some of them were very well qualified, some not, and some were straight-out scammers.  In my case, with digital photo, I taught workshops and wrote a series of digital photo books as I tried to find my way from a career in commercial photo to this new world of digital photography, and did pretty well for a time.  (I just noticed you can pick up the books on Amazon now for 60¢.  How awesome is that?  But it speaks to the point I’m getting to…)

A lot of us saw the electric motorcycle revolution, and the bigger EV explosion, as a chance to break into a new market.  Again, there were some who were good, and some who made a go of it, and some who moved from what they’d learned in our tight little group to bigger and better things, but there was also a huge instance of what I’ll call “boomtown scammers”…  sort of the kind of thing we’re seeing in the solar industry now, where people are simply trying to cull as much off the boom as possible.  Think in terms of the aluminum siding salesmen of the ’60s.  What was that movie with Danny DeVito?  Tin Men?  I’d characterize this group as ranging anywhere from battery scammers to some of the guys who are still around, going from grant to grant and investor to investor, with no product but one thing that’s consistent – a healthy personal salary.

OK, time for a break.  Take a look at the trailer for Tin Men, and stretch your legs.

Building Roads

So, where are we now?  A lot of the dreams, efforts, vaporware and scamming seems to have run it’s course.  Zero is still looking consistent and healthy, though the bikes they’re making are expensive and still fall into the category of “early adopter” products.  Brammo’s motorcycle business has been bought by Polaris.  If you want to try an electric bike, you no longer have to build your own, and Energica is looking like they’re going to deliver with an actual “superbike” level commercial product this year.  Where does that leave the community?

That’s where it gets interesting.  We’re still seeing some real basic garage builders taking old bikes and converting them, having a blast, and learning a ton along the way.  We’re now seeing some very sophisticated machines coming out of guys like Bell Custom Cycles, for one, who are actively building bikes, and were just “one of the guys on elmoto” only a few years ago.  We’re also seeing what I’m increasingly calling the “fanboy” mentality, and this doesn’t look any different than what you can see on any day of the week, on any motorcycle, car, or for that matter digital photography group – guys who went out and bought a product and are instant experts.  To be fair, just going out and buying an off-the-shelf product doesn’t make you a fanboy. Setting yourself up as some sort of experienced authority, simply by virtue of making a purchase is what I’m talking about, and the associated product loyalty – the “my product is the best, because, mine” thing.  Yeah.  That’s a fanboy.

The community expands, fairly explodes, you get a lot of new enthusiasts who have vastly different levels of expertise and commitment to the community, but – and here’s the point – you have a profoundly different perspective of a “consumer”, than a “builder”.  Sum that up by a tens-of-thousands of dollar pricetag on a purchase, and the expectations that kind of dollar value brings along with it – you now have two distinct communities.  Guys who build stuff, and guys who buy stuff.  Even in the last few months it’s become more apparent on the online groups with very little builder-buyer crosstalk. Instead, you see groups that are “owners groups”, and you see essentially “hacker”, “maker” or “builder” groups.

Highways…

But where’s it going?  Here’s where we can look at the recent electric car market and learn some lessons, and I’ll pull off of the experience of my friends at InsideEVs.  Jay Cole, the guy who runs the site, made the comment that electric motorcycles are where electric cars were at in about 2007.  That is, pretty well capped out, and limited to what I describe as the fringe of a fringe.  Not only are you in the subset of motorcycles, but you’re in a very small subset of “electric motorcycles”.  Jay looks at the thing from the perspective of the traffic numbers on InsideEVs, and said when the Chevy Volt launched, within a month the traffic on the site started going through the roof, and continues even to this day.  The site gets over a million hits a month, now, but before the Volt launch, was pretty much capped regardless of what they did or tried to get traffic.

The Chevy Volt.  Not Tesla, or any other of the amazing, astounding “badass” electric vehicles being produced. Why?  Simple:  Chevy.

Take a look at the fact that Harley Davidson, with the Livewire Project, won the Readers Choice Award on Motorycle.com for “Best Electric Motorcycle”.  Why?  Because: Harley Davidson.  Jay’s contention is that when a major manufacturer enters the market, you’ll see the market explode.

Of course, we’ve been saying that for years, but the implications of that are just dawning on me.  Suddenly, and we’ve talked about this forever, Zero will be completely dwarfed, and what that means we can only guess.  Will they just be buried?  Bought?  Is that Zero’s end-game?  Who knows.

The fanboy result will completely change the complexion of the entire community.  Just look at any motorcycle discussion group for a taste of what that will look like, but add to it the reality that this is still developing technology.  In a world where Honda, Yamaha, Polaris, Harley Davidson and others are offering an electric motorcycle, you’re no longer looking at a small community of devoted enthusiasts.  You’re looking at a mainstream (albeit small) market with mainstream consumers looking for mainstream things, like washing a 120V electric drive system with a garden hose and expecting it will perform flawlessly.  They don’t want to hear that you have a 50/50 shot of doing the same thing to a Harley and having it sputter for a few miles until it drys out.  They paid their money, they want what they want. …just to use one example I’ve seen recently.

So many words.  Here.  Here’s a picture.

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Yeah, that was inspired by Terry’s impressions of the “washing off my bike with a hose” discussion.  There’s not a man alive who’s spent more time on a wet electric motorcycle than Terry Hershner.

…and Shopping Malls

So how do I think this is going to go?  I think this is going to go exactly how the world of motorcycles is going.  You have your vast majority of people who walk into a dealership and plop down their hard earned money or their high-interest loan contract on a very expensive product that can probably only honestly be described as a toy, and have all the associated expectations of that.  They may act normal, or they may dress up in outfits on the weekends to fit into whatever “tribe” they feel they want to belong to.  Chance are they won’t ever pick up a wrench within twenty feet of their new “precious”, except to get the cap off the polish bottle.

No doubt there’s a smaller subset of that group that will work on their own bikes, whether out of enjoyment or necessity (remember: emerging product, limited dealer support).  You’ll see an interesting group also emerge – guys who buy used bikes, and work on them.  Maybe they’re working on them to fix them, or maybe they’re working on them to customize, improve or modify them.  That’s starting to sound interesting.  For years now I’ve had daydreams there was some way I could get my hands on a Zero or Brammo and set it up properly.  I know Hollywood Electric has done a few interesting builds along those lines.

Here’s some more eye-candy.  Yeah, that’s a Zero, and it was actually built.

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The Artists

And then, you have the cool stuff.  Remember Shinya Kimura?  Here’s a guy working in his garage, building some of the most amazing, sculptural, amazing, one-off amazing motorcycles in the history of the world.  I could point at dozens of gas-bike builders who do what he does, in one form or another, but I don’t think I could find more of an artist than Shinya.  And this is where I think electric motorcycles – the part that I care about anyway – is going.  You’re going to see some remarkable work coming out of, not the community, but garages and shops from all over the world.  And those guys aren’t going to be on any forums.  They’re busy building stuff.  It’s going to be some of the most awesome stuff you’ve ever seen, and nothing like anything you’ve imagined.

And that, my friends, is exciting.

Take another look at The Electric Garage for what I’m feeling is a glimpse into the future of custom electric builds.  Or sit down and watch this film short again…  or both.

Now go out into your garage and build something awesome.

 

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8 responses to “The Structure of Breakthrough Technology Adoption

  1. Great post… yes I think the shift is occurring more people are aware of electric motorcycles, more motorbike enthusiast are saying they want to own one (along with the 3 or 4 they already have), and the custom build community is getting very interested.

    Over the next 5 years I think the shift will be seismic.

  2. It’s an interesting situation. I honestly thought the household names of electric bike makers would be further along by now. I still talk to bikers at the track who have never even entertained the idea that a bike can run on something other than premium unleaded. But I guess until Honda comes out with an electric CBR, electric motorbikes will effectively ‘not exist’ in the eyes of Joe biker. As you say, we’re already on the fringe of a fringe.

  3. In 2006 I built the custom dual sport trike (2 wheels in front) that earned me the screen name “trikester”. In 2013 I took on the project of converting from gas power to Zero’s 2013 FX / MX electric drive system. In one year I put more miles (mostly dirt) on the electric version than in the total of 7 years it was ICE powered. That’s how much I enjoy one form of propulsion over another in the same exact machine. Now I’m trying to find an excuse to build another.
    My conversion project, step by step, was posted on the Zero forum.
    Trikester

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