In October 2011, electric motorcycle maker Brammo closed its $28 million B round (technically, the final tranche of a $28 million round).

What jumps out of the news is the lead investor: Polaris, the $1.99-billion snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) leader. And that five days after the funding announcement, the Hong Kong police adopted Brammo electrics.

The Ashland, Oregon startup was founded with a string of gasoline supercar projects before switching to electric motorbikes. CEO Craig Bramscher and his team have been tested a bit, but the last year saw major improvements and a string of wins. 

The firm has its share of challenges -- beyond the generic electric vehicle (EV) issues of range anxiety, cost/volume, and battery issues -- that it must identify to reach a new market.

The marketing questions: Is an electric motorcycle a niche product, and if so, how large is the niche and what is the cost of sales to reach it? The market slices up by age, wallet, application, range, nationality, and most of all. culture. A private EV investor said, “When I looked at the space, I walked into a motorcycle shop, saw the culture, and never went back.” Brammo's Product Development Director Brian Wismann responded, “We find the motorcycle market is increasingly broad, with a number of different cultural elements.”

Another marketing challenge is that while electric motorcycles might be extreme carbon savers, baby-boomer green adopters are increasingly over age 55.

Unlike earlier (and unsuccessful) market entrant Vectrix, Brammo has been competently using lithium batteries from day one. The Empulse model production is being built to customer “reservations” (not prepaid, but a deposit schedule), with 1,800 already taken at a $9995 base list price before subsidy).

Mostly riders themselves, the Brammo team engaged the market head-on, releasing motocross bikes (the Encite and Engage), as well as cruiser/commuters (the original Enertia). Plus, Team Brammo races them. Racing is a traditional product-builder, and electrics can have scary acceleration. Also, Brian Wismann told me, “We’d rather compete with specialty machines than scooters that can cost a few hundred dollars from China.”

The TTXGP electric motorcycle racing circuit matured in the last year, and in September 2011, Brammo won the overall TTXGP eGrand Prix. One wonders about racing adding to the cost of sales; however, Best Buy initially sponsored the team.

With the Empulse, Brammo sprang for an Italian 6-speed gearbox. Gearstep-less operation (by contrast) is elegant and simplifies the transmission, but imposes all kinds of torque/speed/voltage constraints (see “Saving Rare-Earth Metals With Vehicle System Design”). There’s a new, internally developed inverter, liquid cooling, and a higher density lithium-ion battery. Wismann showed me the circuit board -- and as a working battery designer, I was impressed.

The production lines went to Hungary. Vectrix did something superficially similar in Poland. What’s different here is that Brammo's partner is Flextronics, a global electronic contract assembler. “This is disruptive manufacturing,” said Wismann. “We realized that the high electronic content of the bike made it pay to bypass traditional vehicle assembly.”

Back to the Polaris investment: Polaris decided to get electrification into its snowmobile/ATV product line (ATVs will become practical first). Polaris plans to buy drivetrains from Brammo.

There is a potential regulatory boon for Brammo. The access battles for offroaders and snowmobilers might be quelled with fleets of electrified recreational vehicles -- advanced electrics could trigger a regulatory evolution. Regulation has proved more durable than subsidies.

Electrics could bring peace to the woods but increase collision hazards to wildlife. Electric four-wheelers tear up the ground just as much as gas ones (but snowmobiles are better if you manage the access for defined routes with enough snow). Polaris may face conflicts with its own gasoline machines.

The Hong Kong police use the vehicle in a high-rate urban setting which yields a per-vehicle benefit multiplier resembling a hybrid taxi (bonus for tactical silence/instant start, penalty for charging needs). Marketing Director Adrian Stewart reports that testing revealed a “lower total cost of ownership.”  Many noisy, polluted cities -- in developing and emerging nations alike -- could be candidates for Brammo.

Time will tell how this all plays out. But a market indicator of another kind happened while I waited in the Ashland lobby. An order for a single bike came in by phone. Unsolicited. Prepaid. From Chile. A staffer told me, “We get more and more of these, from the most unexpected corners of the world.”  

Doug Widney is a San Francisco-based energy consultant with a diverse electric greentech practice. In addition to strategic advising and writing, he remains an active circuit designer.