They are on very stable ground now, but the long (and winding) road that got them here has been a wild ride. I don’t want to leave out anything important, so…I’ll put the tech info (the part that I like the most) in a separate article, so this one doesn’t end up being too long.
The story begins with one guy, Neal Saiki (SY-kee). He is an engineer who worked for NASA for a while, which shows that he is a pretty smart guy, and also why he was always up to date on new tech developments.
Before starting Zero, he worked at Santa Cruz mountain bicycles, and it seems he has always been developing new products (either full-time or on the side). The early articles about him seem to indicate that he was most interested in the new battery developments that were blossoming just before he started Zero in 2006. In fact, he continues to work to this day with an electric bicycle company he and his wife Lisa formed called “NTS Works“. The interesting part of the NTS ebike is the innovative battery case, which can easily be re-filled with new cells by the owner when the original pack is worn out.
This very much endeared me to Neal, because…when a manufacturer produces a proprietary interface, you can only buy the replacement batteries from their catalog. But…Neal’s battery case design allows the customer to source 18650-format cylindrical-cells from anyone (found in laptops and cordless tools), and easily swap them out in their own garage. Also, when the cells are worn enough that the owner is only getting about 80% of the range compared to when they were new? The old cells still have 80% of their capacity. There is a growing movement of home-tinkerers who are using near-free “used” lithium cells to make a power back-up battery pack for their home, so…this is not as kooky as it may at first sound. Now…let’s get back to Zero motorcycles…
I know this article is about Zero, but nothing happens in a vacuum, and it’s useful to remember that the Tesla car company was started in 2003, so…by 2006, Tesla had quite a bit of buzz about how the new batteries that were then available were actually making EV’s viable. Tesla had been showing their Roadster prototypes to investors, and it was clear that they were aimed at competing with FUN cars, rather than “being green” (like the failed GM EV1).
Neal is a brilliant guy, so it wasn’t a big leap for him to realize that motorcycles were a much smaller investment risk, compared to an electric car. If investors were excited in 2006 about electric vehicles that were fun and performed well, then…the time was ripe for someone to start a company that could show the world about everything that an electric motorcycle could be.
He was right, of course. The booming US economy of 2006-07 meant that it was the best possible time for investment and risk-taking on Wall Street. However…apparently nobody could see the devastation of 2008 that was looming just around the corner. Opportunity is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. By accepting venture capital to fuel growth, Zero now had the money to produce a high-quality production prototype, and scale-up some type of manufacturing facility. However…by accepting that money? he now had to answer to a corporate board of directors, and…it was just at a time when the economy was about to take a huge dump…
The stakes were high, and Zero appeared to be the first company that would produce a viable mass-produced electric motorcycle. Anyone involved was swimming in “buzz”, and as far as anyone knew, Zero was going to be the next Tesla. However, the severe recession of 2008 let the air out of the bubble and even established companies were suddenly struggling. During this difficult time, Zero managed to produce its first production model in 2010, using the Agni-Lynch motor and the very safe LiFePO4 chemistry cylindrical-cells from Molicel.
Having “buzz” doesn’t always translate into actual profits right away, so…in February of 2011, the Board of Directors (BoD) appointed Gene Banman as the new CEO. Neal Saiki stayed on as Chief Technical Officer / CTO. Remember when I mentioned some turmoil? Just a few *months* after Banman became CEO, he stepped down (but stayed on as a member of the BoD). One encouraging note is that at the same time, Mark Blackwell joined the BoD, and he had previously been VP of motorcycles at the global Polaris company. Polaris is best known for its snowmobiles and “Indian” motorcycles.
For a while, the leadership gaps in Zero’s history were managed by their Chief Operations Officer / COO, Karl Wharton.
In July of 2012 (amid various start-up production and design glitches, plus a few recalls), Richard Walker became the CEO. The entirely revamped 2013 lineup was already being designed, so…it looks like he took over just as Zero had found its stride. Walker did a good job, and it appears he held onto the leadership of Zero until July of 2016 when he was replaced by Sam Paschel. Walker is now part of a venture capital investment group for new tech companies.
Were these guys fired? Did they quit? Whenever a BoD is involved (coupled with a huge investment funding firm lurking in the background, occasionally twisting arms), it’s almost impossible to find the truth about who is responsible for the good decisions, and who is to blame for the decisions that simply didn’t pan out. Maybe they really did just want to…” spend more time with my family”.
2013, the breakout year
Every year at Zero, the product was improving in a variety of ways. However, there was a distinct change in the 2013 models. The 2010 models had used the Agni axial-flux brushed motor. By using brushes, the controller could be more simple and robust, along with being less expensive. However, in spite of the efforts to make choices that enhanced reliability and kept the price affordable, there were enough problems with design issues and quality…Zero needed to consider big changes.
Potential customers seemed to really like Zero’s, but…customers wanted more power and range, and Zero needed to fix all of the reliability issues, or…recalls would bankrupt them. The system voltage was doubled from 14 cells in series 14S / 52V, to…28S / 104V. And. In 2013, the motor was now a radial-flux inrunner brushless PMAC / IPM design.
The higher voltage and new motor provided a BIG bump in power, and the new battery using Farasis flat foil cells provided much more range and much longer pack life. Although the early QC issues were painful to their reputation (and investor confidence), it forced Zero to improve quality much more than they might have done otherwise.
In 2015, Zero got Showa suspension parts, Bosch anti-lock brakes (ABS), and an optional battery range of 186 miles…this shows that the large global suppliers of motorcycle parts now wanted to be associated with Zero, rather than being afraid of taking that risk with them.
Sam Paschel, CEO since 2017
I am very encouraged about Zero motorcycles today for several reasons. Sam Paschel has been there for a couple of years, and it appears he is likely to be staying on for the near future. That alone retains the stability that they achieved under Richard Walker at a very important crossroads in Zero’s growth. Plus, there are several things I really like about Paschel…
In the business world, many power brokers truly believe that a good manager can guide a company to growth and diversification, no matter what the product is. Case in point…when Steve Jobs stepped down from Apple Computers to start a different company in 1983, he persuaded the head of Pepsi Cola (John Sculley) to take over Apple. High-end computers are not soda, and…it did not go well.
How does this relate to Sam? He is an engineer (Swarthmore), and…he has been riding motorcycles ever since his dad had gotten him a Suzuki RM80 (and didn’t tell his mom), and…that happened when he was 8 years old. He spent several years after college trying to get a used Honda CB550 to run, and also to stop shedding parts all over the highway.
This executive rides.
Before Zero, Paschel worked at Burton snowboards, and Skullcandy headphones. This may not seem relevant (see: John Sculley, two paragraphs above), but…it does give Paschel a keen perspective on products that are appealing to the snowboard generation. He’s not really a marketing guy, but…he understands marketing, and he also understands the kind of customers that are the most enthusiastic about electric motorcycles. Do electric cars appeal to a much wider variety of customers, even people going to the store with their kid to get groceries, but…motorcycles? Not many baby seats on electric motorcycles. Snowboards, rock music headphones, and now…Zero electric motorcycles…
But, Paschel still has a BoD to wrestle with, along with the New York private investment firm “Invus”, who is involved to the tune of $86-Million USD so far, and yet…it’s looking pretty good right now.
Here is a link to a 1.8-hour “Motorcycles and Misfits” podcast where they interview Paschel. Sam starts talking at 18:00, and they get into Zero motorcycles at 40:00…If the link doesn’t work in the future, it is the M&M podcast #206
Two honorable mentions
This research for this article started out going in one direction and then veered off into another. Once I started reading about the fascinating story of the people behind this milestone company, I also found a couple of behind-the-scenes guys who played a part in the Zero motorcycle evolution…Abe Ashkenazi, and also Luke Workman.
Abe worked at Buell Motorcycles from 1995-2009, so…in in spite of his recent success being in charge of the tech used in Zero motorcycles, he is a motorcycle guy from way back. The fact that he has been at Zero from 2010 to the present day shows that he is one of the people who has seen the entire transformation of Zero from its beginnings into the successful company that we see today. The steady series of promotions on his record tells me that he played a crucial part in the successes of this company during that time.
Next up is Luke Workman. Luke is a “true believer” in the electric vehicle movement, and his personality is an infectiously positive attitude that absolutely radiates everywhere that he goes. Luke was an old hand at wrenching and riding superbikes, and also turbo Honda cars. Somewhere along the line, he became fascinated by electric vehicles, and…Luke isn’t the kind of guy to do anything “halfway”…he dives in with both feet.
Luke is listed as Zero’s Sr. Engineer Battery Specialist from 2010 to 2016. He is currently an EV technology consultant. I don’t think Luke has been tested, so…I can’t legally call him a genius, but…he is definitely a “Polymath”. He is the type of new-tech Renaissance man that this current age needs.
Zero motorcycle tech
I actually am the most interested in the tech differences between the various manufacturer designs, and why they made the choices that they did. If you clicked on this article to find out about the specs of Zero’s current line-up, or to find out about the guts that make them what they are?… I will add a link here in a couple of months when I finish up my research into that.