Categories: Features
August 24, 2016
| On 2 years ago

Skidmarks – Start Me Up

“The only real mistake is the one
from which we learn nothing.”

—Henry Ford

I just spent a pleasant but totally unredeeming Monday off, watching the movie Sausage Party before engaging in a little day drinking with my spouse. The entire day, I did absolutely nothing that either intellectually or financially enriched me, which made Sausage Party an excellent choice.

I think I can safely say, without giving away too much of what passes for a plot, that this movie is what happens when you legalize marijuana. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I did spend two hours of my life watching very intense acting from various items of processed food.

The amazing part isn’t that a theater filled with grown adults sat still while hot dogs, condiments and some feminine hygiene products made endless sexual references. The amazing part is that many hundreds of very smart people spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars making this film, and that it’s wildly profitable. Good for them. I have many ideas for movies, most of which are far worse than Sausage Party. One involves a musical remake of Schindler’s List performed by genetically modified hamsters. Another is a biography of Richard Nixon from the perspective of his arch supports.

Yes, that is a talking lavash, in case you are wondering. Movie Still: Sony Pictures.

This is why I’m not in the film industry. I’m in the motorcycle industry, an industry that does not suffer fools. Of course it doesn’t suffer fools, you may say, because motorcyclists are a hard-headed and frugal bunch, not prone to rapidly adopting crazy, whimsical notions like fuel injection, anti-lock brakes or tubeless tires.

This is a direct contrast to another industry I work in, technology. That’s right, I drive for Uber, which though it’s similar to a taxi company, calls itself a “technology” company. This is because unlike a traditional cab company, where you use a phone to call for a cab, you use your phone to call for a cab. See? The difference is obvious. You just have to have vision, man. Oh, another important difference besides being the exact same thing: Uber’s business model is to lose money to grow its market and then instantly replace all its human driver with robots, and then we’ll all be rich, because volume.

If that tech start-up idea is too obtuse for you to wrap your moto-loving mind around, haven’t you always wanted a $24,000, 100-mph, self-balancing electric scooter that can survive being T-boned by a Ford F-150? Me neither, but just in case you do, a guy named Daniel Kim has been working on such a thing for much of his adult life. About six years ago, the Lit C-1 started cropping up in the tech and general media – normal people are fascinated by the idea of self-balancing, fully enclosed motorcycles in the same way my cat can spend four hours staring at a dirty sock – with the promise of regular production in two years.

Daniel Kim, CEO of Lit Motors, driving his creation. This photo was taken two years from now, when the first customers might take delivery of their $24,000 C-1 scooter.

I met Daniel Kim a couple of years ago (when Lit actually said it would start production of the C-1 in a year) and toured his cramped facility in San Francisco’s tech-heavy South of Market neighborhood. I was impressed with the prototype I saw, which was packed with cool gadgets and gizmos, but I saw little evidence (and have yet to see any real evidence) that the scooter could do much more than balance itself and ride very slowly in a straight line. I also doubted it could go the claimed 200 miles on a full charge of its 10 kilowatt-hour battery (a Zero S with a 9.8-kWh battery goes 74 miles at 55 mph). “Aerodynamics,” said Kim, as if speaking to an idiot (in his defense, I was probably acting like an idiot). The next year was a bad one for Kim. Not only did production not start, as the market for $24,000 egg-shaped electric scooters was bad in 2015, but he also suffered a severe injury crashing his Ducati Panigale at Laguna Seca.

He’s still predicting production will start in just two years, providing he gets another big dose of venture capital money. I admire his drive and ambition, but am incredulous at how many people post things like, “I can’t wait till I get one! When will they be available?” Even though I’m not the company spokesperson, I think I can confidently answer: two years! Please send your deposit checks, made out to “cash,” care of this website.

Another intersection of tech and motos is the late, great Skully helmets. An awesome idea, Skully would have combined cameras, smartphones and a heads-up display to give riders rear-view vision as well as “augmented reality” to bombard them with data about speed, navigation and more. Over two years ago, Skully announced it was selling its first production models, but very few (if any) customers actually got one of these $1,500 helmets before the company fell apart. The CEO and his brother, also a C-something-O, skedaddled, but the remains of the company has promised they will deliver all the helmets by the end of the summer.

How do you make a $79 helmet a $1,499 helmet? Easy! Put $300 worth of electronics in it.

Interestingly, I visited Skully the same year I visited Lit. And why not? After all, the two companies were just a few blocks apart, fed by the same flows of start-up cash raging down Folsom street in what used to be called “multimedia gulch” during the last tech boom in the late ’90s. I was to meet Chief Whatever Officer Mitch Weller in the nascent company’s “incubator,” a large co-working space it shared with several other start-ups.

Stepping off the elevator into the reception area of Skully’s floor in the big, bland office building, I was greeted by a flurry of activity. Teams of what looked like high-school students labored around conference tables and white boards. Written on one were the words, “Grush! The Gaming Toothbrush for Kids,” and that’s when my heart sank, realizing I was lodged in yet another tech bubble.

Meeting with Mitch and holding the crude prototype, built into what I knew was a budget Chinese-made helmet with a thermoplastic shell, I knew Skully was as silly and unworkable a concept as Grush. I tried the helmet out (it barely worked) and politely took photos and did my interview, but I knew this was a waste of time. I’m not going to do a story about a dysfunctional product that few people would want unless I’m selling it.

Unlike Skully, Grush, the world’s first smart toothbrush, because apparently we needed that, is a real product, and it actually looks kind of cool.

So where are these founders today? Daniel Kim keeps making his time-worn two-year promises — and accepting deposit checks. He’s also sued Laguna Seca raceway for creating the alleged dangerous conditions (though they’re safe enough for MotoGP and World Superbike) that caused his injuries. The cost of defending from suits like this could shut down the track and its managing organization, which would mean that Kim wouldn’t just not add anything to our sport, he’d actually deprive it of an important and historic venue. The brothers Weller from Skully may be no less endearing, as they’re the subjects of a lawsuit alleging they behaved like douchebags of the highest order, paying themselves huge salaries, buying expensive cars and living an extravagant lifestyle instead of eating Top Ramen, living in a supply closet, and working night and day to deliver a working product to trusting fellow motorcyclists.

I’m glad I had the chance to meet Kim and Weller, because they’ve made me realize how relatively honest the motorcycle industry is. We won’t get rich, but we’re fairly insulated from con artists, hustlers and fakers. Not because we’re more discerning than the folks in other industries, but because there just isn’t that much money in here to make it worth their while. Uber, which is but one of many non-profiting start-ups, is valued at over $60 billion, 10 times (or more) the annual market value of the entire U.S. motorcycle industry. I’m happy under this rock with my fellow hermit crabs.

Are you going to eat that sandwich?

Gabe Ets-Hokin is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia, and to the east by Lake Peipus and Russia.