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The New Motor City

Daniel Duane | March 27, 2013 | Story

To understand San Francisco’s burgeoning electric-motorhead culture, all you have to do is walk around the ground-floor garage at Daniel Kim’s SoMa startup, Lit Motors. Kim’s biodiesel Land Rover, built from spare parts after he dropped out of college, crowds the center of the room. His homemade surfboards, including one that he describes as “a beginner board, for taking girls,” lie in a pile nearby. Then, parked atop a white-painted photo stage at the back, there’s a gleaming prototype of the C-1, a fully enclosed electric motorcycle that Kim dreamed up after the Land Rover slipped off a support brace and nearly killed him. To operate the C-1, a driver sits feet forward, hands on a steering wheel, trusting a gyroscope built with space station technology to keep the bike upright at a complete stop—and even during a side-impact crash with a Ford F150 at 35 miles per hour.

Kim’s garage, in other words, is where automotive cool meets world-saving technology. And, in this way, it’s emblematic of the rapidly evolving Bay Area auto industry. Palo Alto’s Tesla, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla in these parts. Its owner, PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, is ramping up his electric sports car production, taking over an auto factory in Fremont (the only one west of the Mississippi), and even launching a partnership to put Tesla batteries and electric power trains into a new version of the Toyota Rav4. But nobody embodies the region’s futurist-renegade spirit better than the tousle-haired, sleepy-eyed founder of Lit Motors.

The 33-year-old, Portland-born Kim is the kind of guy who, just for kicks, designs and builds his own guitars, gold-plated bicycles, clothing, and eyeglasses—“the necessities of life,” as he calls them. On the floor above the Lit Motors garage, Kim and his buddies from Rhode Island School of Design put together a “vehicle lab,” where they engineered the first working models of the C-1. The vehicle looks like a cross between a Smart car and a rolling white iPhone (and, true to form, Kim is creating a dedicated smartphone app that will turn the vehicle on and off remotely). Like Tesla’s roadsters, it strikes the eye with intense aesthetic appeal. And while it’s one of the more outlandish electric vehicles being dreamed up in our backyard, it’s far from the only one.

Domestic electric car sales are projected to grow 39 percent annually for the next decade, making the United States the world’s biggest market for plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, and the Bay Area its biggest laboratory. Huge transnationals like Daimler, GM, and BMW are funding Silicon Valley research projects, while the electric-car maker Coda has already begun production of an all-electric plug-in sedan at its new factory in Benicia. But the next-generation heart of this industry lies squarely inside San Francisco city limits, driven by the rare local confluence of Maker culture, DIY temples like TechShop, and a local workforce that has enough tech savvy to break down and modify advanced electronics like 1950s grease monkeys modifying hot rods.

Take 36-year-old Dunstan Orchard, a handsome young web designer who recently bought a 1971 open-top Suzuki jeep just to learn how cars work. “I was driving it up my street after I bought it,” Orchard says in his genteel English accent, standing in stockinged feet in his low-ceilinged Bernal Heights garage, “and it was so incredibly, awfully loud, and all this horrible black smoke kept coming out. I just felt so embarrassed.” A few phone calls and off-the-shelf parts later, and Orchard, despite zero engineering background, was well on his way to making that jeep into a plug-in electric. He’s doing all the work at home, combining the electric engine and power train from an old forklift with batteries bought online.

Scale that ingenuity up to the entrepreneurial level, and you get the likes of Mission Motors, over on Harrison and Eighth, which put together a prototype electric superbike that set speed records at the Laguna Seca Sears Point Raceway. (More profitably, if less sexily, the company manufactures electric power train components for larger vehicle makers.) A few blocks away in the old Hamm’s Brewery on Bryant, BRD Motorcycles has created the RedShift, arguably the world’s most advanced off-road motorcycle. It’s a plug-in electric dirt bike that’s faster than any gas-powered bike in its weight class.

Just like Lit Motors, BRD has done it with a distinctly San Francisco mix of talent. Chief technology officer Derek Dorresteyn grew up with a grandfather, uncle, father, and mother who, get this, all raced motorcycles. Dorresteyn himself raced professionally before starting a local machine shop that still makes precision components for construction and mining equipment. BRD’s chief design officer, San Francisco native Jeff Sand, was a member of the original Thrasher skateboard crew before becoming a furniture designer showcased at SFMOMA.

“There is no other city on the planet where I could build the company and the team we’re building here,” says Marc Fenigstein, BRD’s skier–climber–biker CEO. Partly, he says, it’s about the risk-friendly startup culture: “Anywhere else, you take someone who has two failed startups under his belt and is thinking of starting a third, and his friends and colleagues will tell him to take another path. But in S.F., we actually value someone with two failures more than someone with none.” Fenigstein also credits a resurgence in industrial design, citing companies like Open ROV, which makes autonomous underwater robots; Pebble, the smart-watch makers; and Boosted Board, creators of a mechanized skateboard. “We’re at a stage in product development where it isn’t just about technology anymore,” Fenigstein says. “It’s about putting technology into products that are desirable to the consumer.”

Tesla is the only one of these local vehicle concerns that’s already selling products on the mass market, but you don’t have to squint to see the others following close behind. Fenigstein himself just drove from San Francisco to New York and back again, hauling one of BRD’s dirt bike prototypes on a funding road trip (he won’t say how much was raised other than to call the tour “tremendously successful”). And Kim anticipates selling the first C-1s by the end of next year at a debut price of $24,000, with an eventual target of $11,000 once manufacturing gets up to scale. That would put the C-1 in the same price category as a Ducati Monster—only it would have a 200-mile range on a single dollar’s electricity.

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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