Mission Motors’ Road to a Cheaper Electric Motorcycle

Electric motorcycle startup Mission Motors vaulted itself into the spotlight last year with the unveiling and road racing of a crazy fast and eerily quiet superbike — the Mission One. But if 2009 was largely about drumming up attention among possible investors, partners and media, the next few years hold a different kind of race for Mission Motors: to start commercially selling bikes, and to develop a lower cost, more mainstream electric motorcycle.

Interim CEO Jit Bhattacharya told us last week that Mission Motors is working on getting a limited run of 50 Mission One bikes into customer hands next year, with deliveries beginning in the second quarter of 2011. But Mission One is also in the process of building pre-production prototypes of a lower cost electric motorcycle scheduled for unveiling this year, according to Bhattacharya. Before the end of 2011, the startup hopes to build and deliver “hundreds” of units of that second-gen model.

Having gotten its start in the Cleantech Open back in 2007 (under the name Hum Cycles), Mission Motors launched publicly at the TED conference in February 2009, “right before Bill Gates came on stage,” Bhattacharya said at the recent Berkeley-Stanford Cleantech Conference in San Francisco. The timing wasn’t entirely fortuitous, as Bhattacharya remarked, for a “high end, high performance electric motorcycle company trying to sell a $68,000 motorcycle in an economy where nobody was buying luxury goods and nobody was investing.”

But now Mission Motors is hoping to set up its own facility in California for final assembly of the second-gen electric motorcycles in 2011 (using components sourced from a variety of global suppliers). Bhattacharya said the startup will need to raise additional capital to get the plant up and running and is looking to raise significantly less than $50 million to finance the assembly plant.

Gearing up for a time when it has a sizable fleet of bikes on the road, Mission is now also looking to hire software engineers to help build a system for collecting large amounts of data from vehicles, which Bhattacharya said the startup will use to help tweak and refine its tech. This is one of the projects that the Mission team is most excited about at this point he said, because “with intelligence, data, feedback systems, the more we know, the more we can optimize.”

Echoing the game plan of so many electric vehicle startups in a time of unprecedented government support for this country’s nascent EV sector, Mission Motors hopes to get some state and federal aid to help carry out its manufacturing plans. According to Bhattacharya, there’s just too many incentives available for electric vehicle manufacturing to pass up the opportunity.

Mission Motors is looking to generate initial revenue through licensing or sales of its core powertrain tech to industry giants (a common strategy among tech-focused EV startups). As Bhattacharya explained during a panel at the Berkeley-Stanford event, that would include the battery pack, motor, control system and “the software that ties those three together and integrates them to the grid.” He told us that the company is now working with two automakers to integrate its tech into their vehicles at pilot scale.

Separately, Mission Motors has been trying to work its way into the Chinese market. The company has signed a memorandum of understanding with China-based motorcycle maker Zongshen Power Machinery to collaborate on development of electrical engine systems, and possibly secure investment for the startup.

But the memorandum amounted to a road map of how the pair would proceed if talks went well, rather than a sealed deal. Three months after Chinese media first reported the agreement, Bhattacharya tells us Zongshen actually remains a “potential partner.” The startup has provided a 3-year development plan to Zongshen, and the idea is for Mission Motors to optimize its powertrain tech for use in lower power, lower cost electric models from Zongshen. That would open the door to a massive market for the tiny San Francisco startup, since as Bhattacharya commented at the Berkeley-Stanford event, “The electric vehicle market started years ago — in China, on two wheels.”

For more research on electric vehicles check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Report: IT Opportunities in Electric Vehicle Management

How to Break Into the Energy Storage Market