Online exclusive: We query Mark Blackwell on the electric motorcycle market

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In early May, Mark Blackwell joined Zero Motorcycle's board of directors, bringing with him keen industry insight, the viewpoint of a lifelong motorcyclist, and knowledge stemming from his years as an industry exec. Blackwell currently serves as vice president-motorcycles for Polaris Industries.

Given Zero's aggressive moves in adding key industry figures to its management team — Abe Askenazi, Scot Harden and Karl Wharton — Blackwell's appointment to its board piqued the interest of many in the industry. All signs point to a company moving toward a more historical (in the powersports market) approach in building and selling electric motorcycles.

We recently talked with the AMA Hall of Famer about his interest in Zero Motorcycles and the electric motorcycle market. Blackwell had looked into the company well before it approached him about joining the board, and had even arranged for a test ride. Blackwell  recognized that Zero was bringing in such employees as Harden and Askenazi, and was improving its models based on customer feedback.

Blackwell says he believes renewable energy is a fascinating market and is something to which the United States should pay attention. With the introduction of so many hybrid and electric vehicles and the success of Toyota's Prius, he says it's only a matter of time before it reaches critical mass.

 

Dealernews: What about Zero interested you?

Blackwell: First off I need to be clear that I'm by no means an expert. I'm still in the information-gathering stage. I try to do my homework and do a lot of studying in my spare time, trying to come up to speed as a new board member to meet my responsibility.

I have had interest in this space for some time. Quite frankly, there's a lot of guys talking about electric motorcycles, but [Zero is] really the only one who has so far commercialized it. They design bikes. They're building bikes, and they're selling bikes. They're serving customers and they're trying to improve the product as quickly as they can. And grow the business. And to me, that was impressive.

I was also very impressed when I looked a little bit into the owners of the company, they're called Invus. They're a very successful and global private equity firm that operates differently than most private equity firms, which are more churn-and-burn. These folks aren't like that at all. If they believe in a space and a company and the people, they'll hold things indefinitely and try to make them as successful as possible.

 

DN: What are some of the roadblocks to the success of the electric bike market?

Blackwell: I think it's pretty well-known that consumers are concerned about range. So getting more and more range is really important, [and] of course, being able to bring the cost down to make the product affordable to a wider group of people. The performance of the product seems to be quite good, but getting more and more range is what I understand is the No. 1 customer request. And they're working very hard on that and making progress from what I understand.

 

DN: Do you see this bringing in a different category of customers?

Blackwell: I can only give you my opinion, but I believe it does. I believe there are people who really believe in alternative fuel and renewable energy, and based on my gut feel — I have no data to back this up — I believe it brings new people to the category who up until now may not have been interested in motorcycles. These are quiet. They produce zero emissions. That's very appealing to some people, and I hope it will help the category by bringing new people into the sport. I think it's something very, very new. All the automotive companies are working very hard on this space. I think what that does is, they can educate people and get people excited about alternative fuel vehicles.

 

DN: The gas spike of 2008 brought in new riders who were only interested in something quiet, cost efficient and not necessarily a motorcycle. Could this happen with electric bikes?

Blackwell: One thing I've learned when working with various products over the years is that when you make products quieter, as you eliminate sources of noise, you then hear new noises that were masked. I was really amazed when I test-rode the bikes about a year ago about how quiet they are.

It's really fun to ride, too. The acceleration is quite quick. You can have a lot of fun in the dirt with them. That's one of the things I thought was cool -- if I come home from work and I want to go riding for half an hour out in my backyard, I'm not going to be making a bunch of noise and angering the neighbors. We're in a rural area, but we have neighbors and they wouldn't want to be listening to me at 6 or 7 at night tearing around the track on a dirtbike.

 

DN: Is there one thing that will kickstart the electric market (no pun intended)?

Blackwell: I'm going to give my opinion, but based on what I know, getting more performance, getting more range and getting lower price points. That's my gut feel if you want to broaden the appeal. But I also feel that part of it is that just takes time for people to get used to the idea, and to get comfortable that the product quality is good and the experience is good and the products are reliable.

 I just think that it takes time for people to get educated, for people to spread the word. There are a lot of people who are early adopters of technology and will be the first on the block to have stuff, but there are a whole bunch people who want to wait and let someone else be the guinea pig. I think it's just going to take time.

The other issue is they're trying to figure out the right distribution model. Initially, the idea was to sell the products direct, but I think there's a number of dealers now who are interested in the products. They may end up with some kind of hybrid distribution. That's just my opinion, as a new person from the outside. If you want to reach new people, you may have to have a hybrid distribution model to reach those people who are not coming into the motorcycle market, those people who are not comfortable going into a dealership. … This is something that has to be considered.