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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Damon’s 200-MPH Superbike Wants to Save Your Life

While most major car manufacturers are attempting to follow Tesla and BYD’s success to varying degrees, it’s been a far more difficult road for two-wheeled electrification. The landscape of EV motorcycle startups is riddled with many more tombstones than unicorns. For every hit like Zero Motorcycles, a dozen brands have failed. Brammo, Alta, Mission Motors, Quantya, Roehr, Lito … evocative names all now remembered only in cached copies of hyperbolic press releases, echoes of businesses that thought bringing an electric motorcycle to market would be easy.

Bikers tend to be a different breed from your average car owner. Heritage and emotional connection matter far more than comfort and practicality. Perhaps that’s why the early gains of electric motorcycle startup Damon Motors have come not on the shoulders of legacy brands, but instead by breaking out of the bike culture mold altogether. One quarter of those who have preordered a motorcycle from Damon don’t own any other bikes today.

But even with $100 million in orders and multiple rounds of funding, success is far from assured for Damon, which has delayed the release of its first motorcycle, the HyperSport, many times since first announcing it in 2019. That bike, however, is finally fit to ride, if not quite production-ready, and supposedly close to its promise of delivering an experience unlike anything else on two wheels.

Best In Show

Damon Motors properly rose to prominence at CES 2020, sneaking in just before the Covid pandemic shut down every international conference of significance. In a deluge of products being launched there from companies based all over the world, the stunning yellow motorcycle stood out.

Of course, the touted astonishing electric performance specs also helped. But more interesting was the focus on advanced safety systems and the dynamically reconfigurable riding posture. The planned use of QNX software sealed the deal—people just couldn’t get over the idea of a Blackberry-powered motorcycle.

By the end of the show, Damon had hundreds of preorders for its $39,995 HyperSport Premier electric motorcycle, which promised 200 horsepower, 200 miles of range, and a top speed of 200 mph. Those were almost unbelievable numbers, boasts that gave many at the show pause. It was, however, a different number that would prove to be by far the most unrealistic: 2021, the year that CEO Jay Giraud had hoped to build Damon’s first motorcycles.

Jay Giraud is a native of British Columbia. He gave up his former career as a professional snowboarder decades ago, but the sporting signs are still there. Trim and fit, with an aggressive fade in his hair and a constant smile on his face, he could possibly pass for a decade fewer than his 40-odd years. He speaks with the usual corporate confidence of a CEO, but it’s tempered with Canadian humility.

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While his former profession brought him to some of the best slopes all around the planet, it was a trip to Indonesia in 2016 that planted the seed for what would become Damon Motors. He was there for a friend’s wedding, riding a small, 150-cc motorcycle, just one of the millions that fill Javanese streets. Packs of riders tend to form a sort of hive-mind groupthink overwhelming formal rules of the road. When a cement truck blocked the lane, the swarm simply took to the sidewalk. Giraud followed the pack and, a moment later, was down on the asphalt.

It was a minor spill caused by a broken surface, the kind of low-speed tumble that hurts your ego more than your elbow, but the story doesn’t end there. That evening, he went for a swim in the Indian Ocean. A strong swimmer, Giraud dove under waves until he was past even the surfers. “I was paddling, treading water, and I turned around and the shore was, like, 200 feet away,” he says.

A current had swept him out to sea. He immediately turned back to shore but made no headway. Struggling to stay upright, he waved for help. His newlywed friend, a former lifeguard, grabbed him by the neck, dragged him out of the riptide, and brought him to safety.

On the seven-hour ride back to Jakarta, Giraud’s experience, and his crash, weighed on his mind. There were 125 million motorcycles in Indonesia, and nobody was trying to make them safer. “I thought that the big guys are providing a disservice to societies where people can’t afford cars,” he said. “That was the genesis of Damon.”

Safety Cycle

It’s an incongruous notion, a minor crash and a near-drowning birthing a high-end, high-performance motorcycle startup, but few experience scrapes with death that don’t lead to some core priorities being fundamentally changed. All Giraud could think about was what it would take to build smarter, safer motorcycles.

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And so, while most people focused on the performance figures of the glaring yellow Damon HyperSport in 2020, its safety features are truly the core of the brand, despite the price point being completely beyond many of those bikers in Indonesia. Sadly, vehicle safety innovation is—at least initially—rarely cheap.

The final-production Damon HyperSport will feature a system called CoPilot, which purports to be the most advanced rider-assistance system on the planet. It starts with three distance-measuring radar sensors and a pair of high-definition cameras.

Input from those sensors will be processed by software running on a custom Linux-based system, while more fundamental aspects of the bike’s software run on a more lightweight real-time OS. “That allows us to fire up our processors pretty fast,” Derek Dorresteyn, Damon Motors’ CTO, says. “The expectation of the consumer is they want their bike to start quickly.”

Dorresteyn is a little older and far more soft-spoken than Giraud as he offers perspective into the finer details of the HyperSport. Dorresteyn himself is a former motorcycle racer who also taught CAD design at the California College of the Arts for 8 years before founding the now-defunct Alta Motors in 2008.

One of the earliest electric motorcycle startups, Alta produced the Redshift, which was revolutionary for having similar power and weight to gasoline-powered race bikes. Focused mainly for off-road racing, the Redshift MX competed against, and even beat, traditional motocross machines. I rode an early prototype of this in 2012, and even then it was remarkably good.

Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 Redshifts were sold, and while customers loved them, the company abruptly folded in 2018, adding another notable tombstone to that graveyard of EV motorcycles.

The Redshift was so far ahead of its time that the remaining bikes are still prized among motocross aficionados, a level of respect that Dorresteyn carries on to Damon, now helping to supposedly make the HyperSport the safest bike on the road.

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Damon’s CoPilot system communicates to the rider through a color TFT dashboard. The edges light up to alert the rider of other cars approaching from blind spots. Should the bike detect an obstruction ahead, the system will vibrate the handlebars.

“When the Damon ECU has calculated you’re close to not having enough time to stop before you’re gonna hit that car, and you’re showing no indication of stopping, it’s going to give you this haptic signal,” Dorresteyn says. “And that’s your cue: Put on the brakes. Whether you’re looking forward or not, just put on the brakes.” Dorresteyn’s finer contributions, though, lay a little bit deeper in the heart of the bike.

Hype Machine

Somebody at Damon loves branding. Where other motorcycle companies use simple terms like “battery,” “motor,” and “drivetrain” to describe what makes their machines go, the HyperSport uses something called a HyperDrive.

Trademark assault aside, HyperDrive is genuinely different from what other companies are doing. Most electric motorcycle startups begin with a traditional frame designed to wrap around a typical internal-combustion engine. Those makers then yank the motor out, slap a battery in, and call it a day.

Similar to cell-to-chassis tech in cars, the HyperDrive system integrates the battery into the frame. Some 1,080 lithium-ion 21700 cells (the same type used by the Lucid Air and other EVs) are arranged to provide 20 kilowatt-hours of power. That’s about a quarter of what you’ll find in a Tesla Model 3 in a bike that weighs 85 percent less than that particular sedan.

HyperDrive also incorporates the motor into the structural package, a custom-designed, high-efficiency unit that, in testing, has apparently delivered 247 horsepower at over 18,000 rpm. That figure, though, will likely be limited in production to keep the battery healthy—and the rider alive.

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Integrating motor and battery into a single, structural unit lowers weight and boosts strength. It also means they can share a liquid cooling loop, a system not unlike those used in electric cars. The coolant, driven through a pair of radiators that flank the front fairing, will not only keep the battery pack and motor from overheating while riding, it’ll also maintain a steady temperature while charging. That’s important, because the HyperSport could be the first production electric motorcycle to support Level 3 fast charging: 0 to 80 percent in 20 minutes.

It could also be the first production bike with that advanced optical- and radar-based safety system, plus the first bike with a dynamically adjustable set of pegs and handlebars that raise and lower, Transformer-like, at the touch of a button, re-prioritizing the bike for sport or for comfort.

It could be a lot of things—if it ever gets to production.

Dogged Delays

Initially, production of the Damon HyperSport was to begin in 2021, what Giraud now conveniently calls a “stretch goal.” Then Covid happened and the global supply chain shut down. That initial goal was pushed to 2022, and then it slipped to 2023.

At the time of WIRED’s visit, it’s slipping once more. “We’re looking at production first quarter of next year, with an estimation of about 1,000 units by the end of next year,” Giraud says. “And we’ll probably be all HyperSport next year, because we have quite a backlog.” Right now, though, the official word from Damon is HyperSport is on track not for Q1, but Q2 2024. Here’s hoping.

Yet despite the preorders and production setbacks, Damon has already announced its second bike, the HyperFighter, a stripped-back version of the HyperSport with less bodywork and (even) more aggression, now perhaps arriving by 2025.

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While mass production of the HyperSport will happen at a dedicated factory near Damon’s headquarters outside Vancouver, British Columbia, initial production will begin at Damon’s San Rafael, California, engineering facility. The recently acquired space is currently full of placards and carts to visualize the various stages of the assembly process; polished concrete floors and pristine work surfaces wait for parts.

The assembly portion of the shop is on the other side of the wall from where Damon’s engineers churn out 3D-printed prototypes, machine the alloy components going through final development, and crimp together early wiring harnesses.

Industrial-scale stamping, machining, and casting will ultimately replace the hand-built nature of the preproduction bike you see pictured here, but it’ll still carry the bespoke components designed by and for Damon. “Every part on this [bike] is ours. We’ve developed it from scratch,” Dorresteyn claims. That’s not strictly true—industry-standard components such as wheels, brakes, and suspension are the exceptions.

The prototype Damon HyperSport we visited in the workshop isn’t yet road-legal, lacking niceties such as turn signals and functional headlights. With early production scheduled to ramp up in 2024, much of the team at Damon Motors is focused on finalizing all the various hardware prototypes so that proper manufacturing can begin on the HyperSport, which is still set to hit those initial targets of 200 horsepower, 200 mph, and 200 miles of range.

New Bike, New Bikers

The targets for the executive team are a little different during WIRED's visit. Giraud says the company is in the middle of yet another funding round, this time a $50 million raise to carry Damon through to production.

That’s a significant hurdle to overcome before the company can finally start appeasing the thousands of preorders, many of which came from interested parties who don’t fit into usual motorcycle demographics.

Indeed, some 75 percent of all Damon preorders have come via the company’s Instagram, with an average age of 37. Of the 3,700 paid deposits, a quarter are from people who don’t even own a motorcycle—expanding the market, certainly, but potentially to inexperienced riders that could well require CoPilot’s intervention sooner than they’d like.

Giraud is aiming high with the HyperSport, but he has plans to produce future models (some via partnerships) that are affordable for riders everywhere, including Indonesia, where most bikes cost around $2,000.

“Motorcycling is the largest form of motorized transportation in the world: 1.5 billion people daily. If we’re going to make motorcycling safer, a million a year sounds like maybe putting a dent in it,” Giraud says. “And, from an electrification point of view, it’s not even a drop in the bucket.”

Giraud admits it will take Damon at least a decade to hit that level of production, a timeline that seems optimistic for a company that has yet to deliver a single motorcycle to consumers. But, when you’ve faced death and lived to tell the tale, maybe everything else seems easy.

Finally, the Ride

As Damon's prototype HyperSport isn't legal, WIRED's test ride can't take place on the road. Instead, Damon loaded up the bike and trucked it out to Thunderhill Raceway Park, another two hours north of San Francisco.

Before heading out onto the track on the only functional Damon prototype motorcycle in the world, I did a few warm-up laps on something a bit more familiar. More familiar, but no less crazy: a BMW S 1000 RR. This is among the fastest sportbikes on the planet, making a tick over 200 horsepower and weighing just 440 pounds. That it'll do over 100 mph in first gear and sprint to 60 in fewer than three seconds means that this "warm-up" was pretty hot despite a cold track on a chilly, Northern California spring day.

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That BMW, as it turns out, was more than just an aperitif. It's also the bike that Damon has been using as a benchmark for the HyperSport. That's a high bar, and so expectations were equally high as I shuffled in my leather suit from the world-class BMW to Damon's unfinished HyperSport.

Not only did the lights not work on Damon's bike, but the traction control didn't either. Nor was there any kind of anti-wheelie control, the software that keeps the nose from pointing toward the heavens when you demand too much power from the twist-grip throttle.

Sure enough, when using less than half the available throttle to travel down the track's short front straight, that front tire started to inch its way off the asphalt. But, setting it back down was an easy case of unwinding the throttle a degree or two.

That precision is remarkable for a prototype with this much power. I'd expected it to be a bucking bronco, trying to kick me off the back with every twitch of the wrist. Instead, the power comes on smoothly, an instant response to every input, the kind of organic feel that few internal combustion engines achieve.

There is one thing the HyperSport can't replicate: the sound of internal combustion. Even if you're not a member of the "loud pipes save lives" crew, many motorcyclists prefer a throaty-sounding bike and lament the coming wave of silent electric motorcycles. This isn't one of those. The Damon effectively screams at full acceleration: a high-pitched shriek from the HyperDrive's electric motor and internal gear set. It sounds like nothing more or less than the future.

But, ease off the throttle, ride the HyperSport in a more relaxed way, and it does get quiet—even calm. It is deceptively easy to ride, thanks in large part to its weight. Remarkably, despite the battery pack, this prototype HyperSport weighs just 40 pounds, or 18 kilograms more than the BMW.

It rode well, far better than I'd expected. However, without the HyperSport's dynamically adjustable pegs and bars, and, indeed, without a working CoPilot system—the very core of its safety raison d'être—WIRED's prototype felt decidedly incomplete.

After all, Damon's first customer-ready ride needs not only to tick those promised performance boxes, in accordance with Giraud's Damon dream, it must keep alive that full quarter of patrons who don’t own any other motorbike, and maybe never have.

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