Categories: Features
3 years ago | Updated 3 years ago

The Life Electric – High-Tech Escape + Video

Silicon Valley is home to some of the brightest tech minds in the world, many of whom are working tirelessly to develop answers to questions most of us haven’t even thought of yet. Take Cloud computing, for instance. The invisible hard drive in the sky has transformed how we compute and communicate. You may not know it, but chances are if you spend any time on the internet, you already have some connection to the Cloud. But who’s making sure the Cloud is evolving and advancing like the rest of the devices we own? This is what folks like Curtis Schwebke think about all day long.

As you can imagine as Executive Director and Chief Technology Officer of Cloud Client Strategy at Dell, Schwebke’s role can involve products bordering on science fiction. Actually, this wouldn’t be too far from the truth: his job is to create what others say can’t be done. “I don’t accept it when others say ‘That’s impossible.’ My job is to make the impossible, possible,” he says. That’s when he brought out a device that looks like your typical external hard drive – thin, small and compact. Except it wasn’t a hard drive – it was an entire computer, all of its applications stored in the Cloud. He then brought out another device, just slightly larger than a jump drive. It, too, was a computer, apps also stored in the Cloud, only without the peripheral ports for monitors, keyboards, etc. It plugs into an HDMI port on a monitor, and the usual peripherals connect wirelessly.

Curt Schwebke isn’t about conforming to norms. From his motorcycle choice to the geodesic dome house he lives in, nothing about Schwebke screams “normal.”

Your typical computer features moving parts like drives which produce heat. Heat is the enemy of performance and longevity in computers, just as it is with motorcycles. What Schwebke and his team have done is use the Cloud as a drive, eliminating the need for moving parts, thus drastically reducing the size and significantly increasing the shelf life for the next generation of computing.

“Seven years ago people thought something like this wasn’t possible. I refused to believe it. You know the term Planned Obsolescence? I think that’s bullshit. I don’t believe in it. I design our products to last at least 10 years, if not longer.”

With the increasing number of devices all being able to connect to each other, The Internet of Things, as it’s known, places a high demand for security among users. How do we know you are really you? This is but another hurdle Schwebke is working on. Multi-layer authenticity is an obvious first step, with passwords, facial recognition and retina scans all currently employed to help ensure the user is who they say they are. But one of the many technologies Schwebke is working on next is synaptic authorization – recognizing a user based on the specific way they type on a keyboard.

“Our studies and trials and research has shown that no two people type exactly the same way,” he says. “From where they place their fingers and palms, to the pressure and duration with which they press certain keys, it creates a unique signature we can use to identify you.”

Working in the tech industry can be a stressful gig, but commutes involving roads like this make it much easier to handle.

Being a CTO in Silicon Valley is no doubt a high-pressure job, and as the world we live in becomes increasingly digitally connected, making sure the digital sphere remains protected looms high on Schwebke’s list of priorities. Ensuring the world is safe can take its toll on a person. So, it might seem odd that, for a man surrounded by cutting-edge technology 24/7, Schwebke chooses his electric motorcycle, a 2014 Zero DS, as his escape from the ones and zeros.

“The Zero’s programming is just spectacular,” he says. “When I’m on it, I’m completely disconnected from the tech world, even though it’s one of the most high-tech things I own. And I don’t have to worry about hackers somehow shutting down my motorcycle, either, since it’s entirely self-contained.”

A lifelong speed freak and all-around adrenaline junkie, Schwebke relishes high-risk, high-reward situations. Having spent his formative years in Minnesota, skiing and snowmobiling were his hobbies. In his early 20s, a job at Intel set the wheels in motion for Schwebke to achieve his goal of establishing himself in Silicon Valley. A move to the West Coast meant he could pursue his career while also finding time to hike and scuba dive.

Schwebke originally wanted a Zero FX, but the longer range of the DS eventually won him over. He says he loves being able to explore the numerous fire roads surrounding his Los Gatos dome house.

It was at Intel in the late 1970s that his motorcycling passion developed, after some coworkers convinced him to come ride with them. Curt learned on a new Kawasaki KZ650, loved it so much he sold his cars, then picked up a new Z1-R and modified it to the brim. “It would keep pulling, even at redline,” he recalls, “but I was too scared to go there.”

When he wasn’t riding motorcycles, his free time was spent flying airplanes, jumping out of said airplanes, and even flying hang gliders. A failed parachute and an up-close-and-personal encounter with the side of a cliff ended the last two endeavors, so you would think something equally as dramatic would be the cause for him selling all his motorcycles. The truth, unfortunately, is much less exciting: he started a family.

With a wife and two daughters, suddenly life’s priorities became very different and the motorcycles collected dust. Eventually, they were sold. All the while, Schwebke’s desire to ride never wavered. Fast forward two decades – the kids grown, the nest empty – and Schwebke was now at a place in life where he could pick up motorcycling again. “But nothing really caught my attention,” he says. “I felt like all the new bikes were fundamentally very similar to the Kawasakis I used to ride.”

A self-proclaimed speed freak, Schwebke admits he’s had a few close calls. He also says that riding on these tight roads with blind corners helps him keep his reflexes sharp in case he ever needs to take evasive action.

That’s when a coworker had an idea. One of his friends worked at Zero, and word got around that Zero was holding demo rides at their headquarters. Intrigued, Schwebke and his coworker went. “I hopped on the FX,” Curt said, “and once I twisted the throttle the front tire went right in the air. I knew right then and there I had to have one.” He tested a DS model, too, and though it was significantly heavier than the FX, Curt gravitated towards it because of its increased range compared to the FX, and its marginal off-road capability. “I tried to buy the DS right after my demo ride, but couldn’t!” Schwebke explains. “They wanted me to buy from a dealer instead.” The very next day, Zero had arranged with Mission Motorcycles, the closest dealer, to deliver a Power Tank-equipped DS to Schwebke. The love affair has blossomed ever since. “I love how instantaneous the power comes on when I ask it to,” he says.

Schwebke grew up Catholic, but gave up religion after moving to California. “This is my church now,” he says, pointing to his Zero. He also has the benefit of living in a geodesic dome house, nestled in the middle of the Los Gatos mountains, meaning twisty roads are literally at the end of his driveway.

Schwebke says the calm tranquility that comes from riding an electric motorcycle reminds him of the peace he finds from being near the ocean.

“I ride every weekend, religiously, as a way to disconnect from technology – using technology. I silently explore the mountains, beaches and trails, witnessing beauty that is hard to describe other than flying while totally immersed in nature.” He then recalls a story of a time he found himself riding, all alone, and inched closer to a bird in flight, gliding along the same path. “He had no idea I was there, because I was so quiet,” he says. “It was beautiful to be so close to that bird, in complete harmony.”

In addition to letting Schwebke explore the wilderness around him, he occasionally commutes with his DS. The trip to Dell is a short one, and Dell provides free EV charging for employees, but at times he’s needed in San Francisco, 75 miles away. “With the route I take and the way I ride, I can make it there and back all on one charge,” he says. “The regenerative charging system definitely helps.”

Then again, getting lost, all alone, in the woods brings Schwebke an equal feeling of tranquility. He’s convinced that range anxiety is no longer a concern for him, even for the longest of his weekend rides.

It’s fair to say Curt Schwebke is a lifer when it comes to electric motorcycles. He still keeps his Volvo around because he does travel long distances at times, but he’s bought a trailer to take the Zero with him if he wants, which he does often. That’s how strong the love affair is with Schwebke and his DS. It’s the kind of love many of us can relate to when it comes to our own motorcycles. Currently, Schwebke is in the process of building a solar power array on his property, which will power a Tesla Powerwall, allowing him to charge his Zero while being fully off the grid. As the self-proclaimed “worst person when it comes to maintenance,” the lack of said maintenance is yet another reason Schwebke loves his DS. “I love not having to think about filling it up with gas or checking the oil,” he says.

Nobody knows better than Schwebke that the purpose of technology is to make our lives easier. Perhaps that’s the underlying reason behind his affection.

“The technology inside this bike is remarkable and very complex,” he says. “But when I’m on it, all I have to do is twist and go. I’m so impressed by it.”

The DS already satisfies Curt’s need for power, speed and adventure. Future electric motorcycles will certainly advance, but as far as Schwebke is concerned, his DS isn’t going anywhere.

How impressed? In the customer feedback forum, “I told the Zero team their machine is my favorite product of all-time,” he says. “Better than my iPhone and any other device or machine I have ever owned. That’s a strong statement coming from a CTO, but the bike gives me a remarkable feeling each and every ride. I consider this a lifetime motorcycle, and I plan on riding it for many years to come.”