Back to the future in the 657kW electric shed

In the suburbs of Newcastle is a shed boasting three of the most cutting edge production electric motorcycles in the world, plus a DeLorean. The array is a reminder of where the world is heading.

Some days I have to pinch myself, stop for a minute and take in the radical changes that are happening in my own back yard.

Wednesday last week was just such a day.

What started out as a long-range test of my new Zero electric motorcycle had become a small but significant moment in history.

Nick Lake and I had travelled to Newcastle to visit what must be one of the world's coolest sheds (if you are into cutting edge battery storage, high powered chargers and some of the coolest electric vehicles in Australia). Tucked away in an innocuous industrial estate is the home of Elmofo, a business established by solar pioneer Brett Sutherland to develop high performance, emission-free electric vehicles.

His highly successful race car (Elmofo Radical) has already demonstrated that electric race cars can beat very high performance petrol equivalents, and recently took set a new lap record in the class. And it’s all happening right here in Australia.

Arriving at Elmofo HQ, you are greeted by a fleet of suitably emblazoned transport vehicles and signage. Peering into the world's coolest shed the first thing you’ll notice is a DeLorean – made famous in Back to the Future – but careful inspection reveals that this is not just a beautifully restored example of a somewhat quirky and rare car. Befitting the all-electric nature of the business’ aims, it is powered by an astounding 167kW high torque electric drivetrain. It's a test bed for technology and a pretty slick work car, if you don’t mind being constantly stopped, gawked at and asked “where’s the hover board?”.

Step inside and you will notice not one, but three electric motorcycles, in this case the Brammo brand. Like Zero, Brammo are a US based company who have been building all-electric motorcycles for some years now and Elmofo recently picked up a dealership. Their first shipment arrived the day before we dropped in and includes a 2013 model, a prototype 2014 model and, just to keep it interesting, one of the company's official team race bikes.

Between them all, we were looking at a historical first with almost 700kW of 100 per cent electric vehicle power, all-performance machines suited to different tasks and all in one shed (and all but one was road registered). For a moment, we all looked at each and just quietly smiled while we absorbed the importance of the change we were witnessing before us.

By the time we wheeled my Zero in for a recharge, I had to stand back and take in the fact that I was looking at something all new, a portal into the future when sheds all around the country would have not just one electric bike, but fleets of them. Mates will get together, drink beer and talk about “Amps” and “software upgrades”. Whether you like motorcycles or not, seeing four production electric motorcycles together is a pretty damn exciting picture of what the world is going to look like shortly.

As you do in sheds, we talked crap, did a lot of backslapping and ogled at “stuff”. But not carburettors or hi-lift cams; in our case if was actively cooled lithium battery packs in extraordinary billet aluminium cases, boggling software that enables cell level monitoring in minute detail, and so on. We saw portable 12kW HV DC charging systems for ride days, and 100kW DC fast chargers for race cars.

The star of the show for us was of course the Brammo race bike. Previously raced by US motorcycle racing legend Eric Bostrom, Brett brought it to Australia as part of his efforts to develop electric motorsport and machines in Australia. Dripping with a blend of traditional motorcycle race bling and the latest electronic exotica it is quite sight to behold and was raced in earnest for the first time at Eastern Creek last weekend by Simon Gallaway who posted some good times and got to know the bike on his first time out. While I’m a massive fan of Zero’s bikes I admire anything that is trying to reach the same end-goal and Brammo have their own unique take on how to jam maximum performance and range into a thrilling machine. As one fan at Eastern Creek said “We all know that bikes will eventually all end up going electric ... but if they look like that, then bring it on!”

My first impression is that I do love the look of the bike; it's a genuinely good looking machine with a slightly racier edge than Zero. The fit and finish is good and one of the bikes Brett has is oozing with gorgeous carbon fibre. Both were fitted with J-series input sockets on the “tank” where a petrol filler cap would normally sit and, to their credit, they have almost double the capacity of onboard charging (3kW), which is an excellent move on Brammo’s part.

It didn’t take long to wrestle the keys out of Brett and before long I was on the road on the 2013 Brammo. First impression was that it felt very much like the compact Zero S in size and weight, but the fatter and sportier front end was immediately noticeable. Where Zero have gone for mid range forks and brakes in the interest of affordability, Brammo have gone high end with dual radial mounted Brembo brakes, huge forks and a fatter low profile front tyre. “It feels more like a race bike” was the best way I could describe it with a taughter sensation and a different feel to the steering that seemed like it would feel more at home being driven hard into turn one, rather than navigating potholes. Not better or worse (although I loved the brakes) just different.

I did a short ride (followed by Brett and Nick soon afterwards) and came away impressed. The Brammo pulls really well, stops great and just felt like a nice medium sized sports bike to me.

The second and most idiosyncratic thing about Brammo is that they have a clutch and a gearbox. Now personally I don’t get this. Zero can get to 180kmh without all the complexity, maintenance issues and mechanical losses (2-6 per cent) using direct single speed drive and indeed most electric race bikes are gearbox-less too. This is part of the reason the comparable Zero delivers slightly more power and range. I admit, it felt familiar to use and might help optimise performance on the Brammo motor but after riding my direct drive it felt like a clunky distraction. They also use liquid cooling on some of their electronics adding additional complexity and motion sapping weight.

Having said this, the combination of gearbox optimised performance, chain drive (allowing more gearing flexibility), liquid cooling and superior suspension really defines where Brammo is aiming (to me, anyway) – this is a slightly harder edged potential race bike that looks and feels sporty. Frankly, I think it's fantastic because Australian riders now have choices.

The Zero is silky smooth, a simpler machine, easy to ride and quieter with great power and looks good. The Brammo looks awesome, handles sharply and has a bit more flexibility potential for performance use.

Ladies and gentlemen, choose your weapon.

We reluctantly left after several hours and I have to hand it to Brett and his team; they have established a new business at the very cutting edge of electromotive force. They have invested huge amounts of money and have a prodigious depth of knowledge on batteries, control systems and how to manage the special characteristics of electrically delivered torque. They are testing their concepts in the incredibly unforgiving world of motorsport and by all accounts are just getting started.

All too often Australia overlooks and underestimates the incredible talent, innovation and investment that guys like Brett contribute. He’s not alone of course; there are a growing horde of very clever people who can see that the most exciting developments in motoring are starting now and will continue to be electric.

Nigel Morris is director of Solar Business Services

*Interested in supporting electric racing? ELMOFO is looking for sponsors for its Radical and Brammo racing efforts. If you would like to support Australian innovation and electric motorsport you can contact them here.