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Daniel Kim with his enclosed two-wheel electric vehicle, the C-1.
Lit Motors’ C-1.
Mission Motors’ Mission R.
BRD Motorcycles’ Redshift.
A simulated side-impact collision shows the C-1 being T-boned—yet not tipping—at 35 mph.
The New Motor City
Why the electric vehicle of the future will not be invented in Michigan.
Daniel Duane | Photo: Gabriela Hasbun | March 27, 2013
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.