This week’s Church feature is an interesting look back at the 2008 Vectrix Electric Scooter. It’s interesting because electric vehicle technology has come a long way since Yossef Schvetz rode the Vectrix. For one, NiMH batteries have given way to lithium-ion. What hasn’t changed is the reaction first-timers like Schvetz get when they turn the e-throttle for an electric for the first time. Instant, massive acceleration blows people away each time. Read on to see the rest of Yossef’s thoughts about what is becoming the propulsion method of the future.
Sep. 19, 2007
Photos by Lorella Borri
Fancy a peek into a truly functional crystal ball? Hop on this new ground-breaking scooter made by America-based Vectrix Company and have a taste of what may become the shape of things to come: electric-powered bikes.
With our non-renewable fossil fuel supplies running short, there’s little doubt that alternative power two wheelers such as the Vectrix will crowd our streets one day, whether we like it or not. Car makers have been at it for a while, but none has really offered a fully zero-emissions vehicle. The Vectrix, on the other hand, is no hybrid thing – there’s no internal combustion engine charging batteries for a mixed cycle.
Instead the Vectrix runs solely on electric power, and after a few days of commuting on it, I have to admit I was in a slight state of future shock. Nothing to do with the actual riding, mind you. On many levels the Vectrix feels and behaves just like a current big scooter. Think more about new mindsets: personal energy management, carrying all sorts of extension cords and pacing yourself to make it to the next socket.
But before we get all too philosophical about the Vectrix, here’s the story behind the innovative vehicle that goes where the Big Four fear to tread, at least for now.
Seems like around 1995, good old Lockheed Martin was looking for some nice projects to bite on outside the military field. Together with entrepreneur Andrew MacGowan, they soon enough came to realize that a zero-emissions urban vehicle that runs purely on electricity could be a swell idea. Bam!
Fifty million dollars and 11 years later we have a mass produced scooter that delivers the goods. Okay, okay, it’s been a bit more complex than that to be sure.
Big hitters like Parker Hannifin, ALCOA, Gold Peak batteries and others had to pool their engineering resources, and a new facility was established in New Bradford, MA, but by 1997 a first prototype was up and running. The scooter was unveiled at the Bologna show of 2000.
The Italian connection is not casual. With close to 300,000 scooters per year sold in Italy alone, this is the most commuting-aware two-wheeled market in the West and a fertile ground to introduce the Vectrix. Just to make sure the message didn’t get lost on the spaghetti eaters, Carlo Di Biagio, former CEO of Ducati Motor Holding, was brought into the board.
Technically speaking, the story looks misleadingly simple. A brushless DC motor that sits next to the rear wheel and drives it through planetary gear powers the Vectrix. The huge space between the rider legs, basically the scooter’s bottom spine, is filled with NiMH batteries rechargeable batteries. Easier said than done. With no similar vehicle using the technology things like motor and batteries, controllers had to be developed from scratch. The weighty batteries required a sizable weight reduction in other areas, which could only be achieved by going for a unique all-aluminum frame under the injected ABS body parts.
By 2005, the project was mature enough to win Vectrix the Frost & Sullivan Award for “Technology Innovation & Leadership of the Year,” while in far away Poland an assembly line was being constructed. When you consider the kind of media noise that some small manufacturers of Big Twin choppers are able to create around their low-tech creatures, you have to take your hat off in front of Vectrix’s quiet yet amazingly profound way of doing things. Behind the Vectrix’s production there’s a complex logistic chain that brings together electric parts from the USA, cycle parts from Italy, batteries from Hong Kong and who knows what else.
What she’ll do you ask? Okay, here it starts to get tricky. Remember the different mind-set thing? So forget about cc’s, valves per cylinder and such. If it’s any consolation, then you might be happy to know that the “3-phase, permanent magnets, brushless, 12-pole, 16-slot” motor manages to develop a healthy 25 hp, about equal to a current 250-300cc gas-powered scooter. But that doesn’t tell the whole story because being electric, the motor can develop huge torque from nil revs and has a peak torque of 45 foot-pounds.
Give the Vectrix a good handful and indeed, even if top speed is limited electronically to 60 mph in order to preserve battery power, the Vectrix gets there in a real hurry, leaving most cars in its wake. Between 30 to 50 mph the Vectrix is truly impressive, gaining speed during roll-ons with some serious oomph.
But that’s telling half the story because the way the electric motor responds to throttle inputs is simply unlike nothing else I’ve tried. First there’s the uncanny silence, a quite soft wooosh magically accompanies you. Then, remember when journos used the term “electric motor response” to describe a healthy gas engine? Well, a true electric motor feels even nicer, the sheer fluidity of the drive is fun, fun, fun, and when the time comes to tip-toe in traffic, you can really dole out the drive in what feels like fractions of foot-pounds. The control is simply amazing.
Need to slow down? Don’t bother touching the excellent Brembos at both ends. Vectrix has patented an ingenious energy regenerating system, and if you roll the throttle backwards, the motor starts acting like a generator, slowing down the vehicle and transforming the kinetic energy back into electricity that can be stored in the battery for later use. The braking force ranges from mild to pretty serious, and just like the throttle; it can be finely adjusted by how far you twist the throttle in reverse. As if that wasn’t enough, in parking maneuvers from a standstill, rolling the throttle backwards results in backward motion, nice touch.
The only problems I find so far are that if you do touch the rear brake while using the throttle braking at the same time, the rear wheel tends to lock too easy. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to cutoff the regenerative braking when the real brakes are used. More to the point, the regenerative braking system is so much fun to use that you tend to forget all about normal braking, but in an emergency case, you will have to use those good levers but might not be so accustomed to them anymore. My last complaint is not braking related. Although the riding posture looked at first normal enough, on my longer runs the too-close handlebars induced some mid-back pain that was a bit annoying. A bit of a shame because the seat is actually Gold-Wing plush.
Considering the hefty dry weight of 460 lbs., the Vectrix actually responds nicely to handlebar inputs and is quite agile. The low center of gravity of the battery and motor unit do their part while the stiff aluminum frame keeps the whole plot very steady while leaned over. The sporty calibrated suspension was a bit harsh over speed bumps, but other than that, the cycle side of things is really well sorted out.
And this is when we reach at last the mother of all questions: battery life. Vectrix claims that in an urban riding cycle, the 3.7 kW-h rated nickel-metal hydride batteries can supply up to 60 miles of range. Thing is that my 20-mile ride to work happens mostly on the not-so-urban Milano ring road and the technician that handed me the scooter warned me about getting too throttle happy. On top of that, the scooter was brought to me only 70% charged, and I had to get to work, no time for a recharge.
My ride begins with caution, and as I hit the busy highway, I settle on a 45-mph cruise rather going “berserk” at 60. The heavy morning traffic isn’t going much faster anyway. The most useful tool you have in order to judge your range is the backwards mile counter that tells you how many more miles you have left in the batteries. As I am getting nearer and nearer to my office, I am relieved to still have a good 20 miles of charge.
Then traffic thins – time to gas it! It might go up only to 60 mph, but all of the sudden this mindset of managing your energy to the mile starts looking like fun. Not surprisingly, my spirited last miles at 60 mph decimate the last Ah in the batteries. At my work’s parking there’s a power outlet which I can plug into, but it’s only then that I realize that I’ll need an extension cable. Welcome to the new tools of the electric trade – forget everything you knew about funnels and jerrycans.
With the first ride’s anxiety gone, it all starts to make sense. For my normal home-work-home cycle of 40 miles per day, a 2.5-hour charge by night in the garage is enough. Have some extra errands to do during the day? Better plan ahead where can you have a mid-day charge. Obviously, the Vectrix was planned around a steady, daily commuting cycle, but if these guys will manage to go forward with a self-contained fuel cell to recharge, then it’ll be really game over on this front too.
Which brings us of course to the whole price vs. benefits questions. Better sit down before you go on reading, because at $11,000, the Vectrix is certainly not cheap. Far from it, at least in face value. It’s only when you calculate running costs over a few years of daily commuting that the Vectrix starts making sense and actually saves you money in earnest. I guess that when you reach that turnover point you really start feeling smug about going electric, practically running your scoot at a tenth of what it would cost in fossil fuel.
How will the Vectrix fare? That’s a biggie too. The initial price is shocking indeed, but only when you look at it short term. On the other hand, very few people believed that Toyota’s Prius would sell as good as it did, so go figure.
|62 mph / 100 km/h|
|Acceleration:||0-31 mph (50 km/h) in 3.6 seconds 0-50 mph (80 km/h) in 6.8 seconds|
|68 miles (110 km) @ 25 mph (40 km/h)Simulated urban driving – 5 hours|
|Patented multi-function throttle (DAaRT) provides regenerative braking and slow-speed reverse; Front and rear Brembo disc brakes|
|Pirelli GTS23 120/70-14 (Front); GTS24 140/60-13 (Rear)|
|Suspension:||Sachs Twin Shocks|
|Battery:||Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH)|
|Rated Battery Capacity:||30 Ah, 3.7 kW-h|
|Rated Battery Voltage:||125V|
|Charger:||1.5kW on-board battery charger|
|Recharge Requirements:||110V-220V (50/60Hz)|
|Recharge Time:||2 hours (80% charge)|
|Battery Discharge Cycles:||1,700 (80% charge)|
|Estimated Battery Life:||10 years or 50,000 miles / 80,000 km|
|Motor Type:||Brushless DC, radial air-gap motor|
|Peak Power:||20 kW at 3000 rpm|
|Max Current:||275 Amps|
|Max Torque:||65 Nm|
|Gearbox:||Integrated rear-wheel mounted planetary gear drive|
|Electronics:||DSP & IGBT based all-digital electronic control and motor drive system|
|Instrumentation:||LCD display speed, odometer, battery charge,, estimated range, and system status|
|Communications:||Controller Area Network (CAN); Bluetooth wireless systems diagnostics and communication|
|Weight:||462 lbs (210 kg)|
|Wheelbase:||60 inches (1525 mm)|
|Seat Height:||30 inches (770 mm)|
|Storage Capacity:||Underseat storage for a full-faced helmet; glove compartment|
|Retail Price:||$11,000, not including tax, registration, freight or delivery charges.|