What’s stopping you from riding a motorcycle? Odds are you’ve dreamed of throwing your leg over the saddle, but then weighed that dream against the reality that doing so places a great deal of unearned trust in your fellow road-users. Motorcycles come with risks to match their rewards – but what if that risk was lessened?
That’s the concept behind Damon Motorcycles, a Canadian electric-motorcycle startup that stole the show at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. Not only did its Hypersport bike take one of a handful of coveted Best In Innovation awards, but it also won the top-automotive-product accolade, beating out heavyweights such as Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
The bike itself is a slick-looking product, fitted with slim LED headlights, 3D-printed details on the exterior and fat performance tires. Sport-bike jewellery peeks out from beneath the futuristic form: Brembo brakes, Ohlins suspension. Range from the 20 kWh battery is projected to be more than 300 kilometres, and with 200 horsepower of pure electric shove on offer, it’ll hit a claimed 320 km/h. Weirdly, the speed’s probably the most boring thing about the Hypersport.
“The motorcycle industry has a safety problem,” says Damon co-founder and chief executive Jay Giraud, “but nobody’s talking about it.”
Dom Kwong, Damon’s co-founder and chief technology officer, agrees.
“With a car, you can just hold on to people in a crash,” he says, “It's one of the advantages of having a cage. We need to protect without that cage.”
The motorcycle industry is in trouble right now. Part of the problem is changing millennial tastes, but a greater issue is the gap in rider ages. Riders often hang up their helmets in their early 20s, choosing not to ride again until they’re in their 50s and the children are out of the house. In the United States, the median age of riders is 50, based on demographics from 2018.
Sometimes, would-be riders never get on a bike in the first place, intimidated by the risks associated with doing so. According to a 2017 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, motorcycles, mopeds, motor scooters and motorized bicycles were the cause of 10 per cent of motor-vehicle deaths in Ontario, even though they only made up 2 per cent of vehicles on the road.
But those who don’t ride are missing out, as the quickest motorcycles handily outperform even supercars for a fraction of the cost, are easier to park and offer an unfettered experience that’s unlike pretty much any automobile. There’s just that one tiny issue about the high probability of getting clobbered by an inattentive driver in a crossover.
Damon is looking to change the perception of motorcycle riding by making it safer. That’s the revolutionary idea behind the Hypersport – not the electric power or even the bike’s unique shifting technology that allows it to change from a commuter-friendly riding position to a more intense superbike rider configuration. This motorcycle is designed to keep its riders safer.
It does so by bringing the world of advanced driving assists to the motorcycle. Damon’s bike still requires the rider to exert full control over it, but it comes with an awareness of its surroundings.
For its advanced senses, the thoroughbred Hypersport can give thanks to a somewhat lumpy-looking mule: Damon’s testbed Yamaha. It’s been fitted with various racks to contain its radar and camera systems and ridden extensively while making adjustments to physical layout and software.
Unlike most automotive driver-assists, which look primarily fore and aft, Damon’s system scans for threats in 360 degrees. Overlapping radar fields and a rear-facing camera are watching your back, but the company’s Co-Pilot system is also watching for you as you nose the bike out into an intersection.
Before coming to Damon, Kwong worked for Recon Instruments, a Canadian company that made heads-up displays (HUD) for snowboarding and the like. He says that a HUD was considered for motorcycling, but it proved to offer too many distractions.
The Hypersport includes blind-spot monitoring as well as collision warning, alerting the driver in an emergency through vibrations in the handlebars. A thin LED strip on the windscreen displays alerts in the rider’s field of view, and the rearview camera allows the rider to check behind them without moving their head. It’s all designed to enhance the rider’s perceptions and give them an extra second to react if, for instance, a car is about to collide from the rear or turn left in front of the bike at an intersection.
Along with its sensors, the Hypersport is networked in to allow Damon to develop its software by learning from any near-collisions. The bike can also be linked to an app that evaluates the rider, helping you hone your skills with real-world feedback. This feature is similar to the telemetry recorded and used by racing drivers looking to find the quickest lap times.
However, it's that added extra second or two to avoid an accident that's Damon's real appeal. It makes the prospect of heading out into traffic that much less daunting.
“We’re not looking to compete with other motorcycle companies,” Giraud says. “We’re actually looking to get people out of cars.”
The Hypersport Premier, Damon's opening salvo of twenty-five motorcycles, has sold out at $39,995 each. Damon is not yet saying how many deposits it has for the Hypersport HS, priced at $24,995, but it's in the hundreds. Consumers are buying in, and the Hypersport will be built here, with a Canadian-made VIN.
Giraud says the Hypersport is intended to appeal to the kind of people who already own Teslas. It’ll attract owners who understand that electric power comes with performance benefits and who are looking to add a layer of safety to their riding through the use of technology.
Asked if there’s anything yet to add to the Hypersport, Giraud answers instantly. “Sound,” he says. “We have to find that visceral thrill.”
Kwong disagrees, pointing out that he always wears ear plugs when he’s riding his sport bike at the track. “Noise is just a distraction.” There’s some friendly bickering over the idea.
It sounds like the kind of argument you always get between enthusiastic riders, and indeed almost everyone on Damon’s team is a passionate motorcyclist already. They’re building one incredible motorcycle, but really, they just want to make it safer for you to come for a ride.
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