Gizmag rides the electric Lightning LS-218: The world's fastest production motorcycleView gallery - 31 images
Last May, when Gizmag first featured the "truly, horrifyingly fast" Lightning LS-218, I ended by saying: "If I could take any bike in the world out for a test today, this would be the top of the list." Well, after a 17-hour flight halfway around the globe, I have now ridden the Lightning. I have also nearly fallen off it, twice, like a complete idiot. With three times the horsepower and some 70 percent more torque than the Zero SR, which is in itself an extraordinary motorcycle, the LS-218 is the king of a new breed of electric motorcycles – one designed to take on the world's best petrol bikes and beat them on performance, not just emissions figures. Riding it was one of the most extreme experiences of my young life.
The minute I saw the Lightning LS-218, I knew I had to ride it. It wasn't just the looks of the thing – although it sure is a beauty. It was the fact that this is an electric motorcycle that actually out-performs anything you can buy that burns dinosaur bones.
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It makes 200 horsepower, a ludicrous number but one we're more or less familiar with in today's modern superbikes. But, being electric, it makes an absolute mountain of torque – 70 percent more than the punchiest petrol superbike you can buy, and it can make its full 168 pound.feet of twisting force from almost a standstill.
With an aerodynamic fairing and a smaller sprocket on the rear wheel, it recorded a top speed of 218 miles per hour (351 km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats, making it the world's fastest production bike. Now, we can argue about the fact that the major motorcycle manufacturers have kept their top speeds limited to around 180 miles per hour (290 km/h) as part of a "gentleman's agreement" so as not to infuriate governments into making the decision for them, but the fact remains that when the LS-218 raced against a field of primarily petrol bikes up Pike's Peak in 2013, it demolished everything else on the mountain by more than 20 seconds. In racing terms, that's an absolute pants-down spanking. This thing is capital-F Fast.
By now, regular readers will know that I'm big-time bullish on electric motorcycles, and as of today, the LS-218 is the big daddy of them all. If I was amazed by the performance of the Zero SR, just imagine what this Lightning bike could do with three times the horsepower and two-thirds more torque. The fact that it was nearly 17 hours away from me on an aeroplane was immaterial; Mohammed would come to the mountain.
Even once I landed in the USA, it was difficult to line up a time to chat with Richard Hatfield, Lightning's founder and CEO. The company is small at the moment, there's only 10 employees in its San Carlos factory space a few blocks down from where Elon Musk started Tesla. So Hatfield is fairly hands-on with production even as he runs the business and Lightning's racing program. I was rapt and relieved when he and his wife Jojo agreed to sacrifice their Sunday afternoon to show me around the facility, sit down for an interview and throw me the keys for a ride on the LS-218.
The LS-218 is even better looking in the flesh than in photos. The bike's designer Glynn Kerr is known as well for his design critique columns as he is for actually designing motorcycles, so it's fantastic to watch him walk the walk with a totally new brand and blank slate. It's a stunner.
The bike's hand-wrapped carbon fiber bodywork shimmers in metallic blue and silver, sleek lines running back from its eight projector headlights, over the broad tank and back to the business-like Corbin seat. There's a huge bump-stop behind the seat (a visual reminder of what you're in for when you twist the throttle) and the Lightning logo pops up everywhere from the nose cone and triple clamps to the huge rear sprocket and chain adjuster – nothing is off the shelf. Mind you, that's reflected in the price of the first batch – 150 are being built, at a base price of US$38,800.
The Aim MXL dash, like the rest of this pre-production demo bike, is set up purely for racing. It's a confusion of voltages, amp-hourages and RPMs with comprehensive datalogging capabilities. The tacho is an odd inclusion on a single-speed, clutchless bike – it merely serves to remind you that even as you hit 100 mph, you're still not even half way to the LS-218's top speed.
In the interests of safety, there's two kill switches. The one on the left bar switches the bike on, the one on the right arms the throttle. Not that you'd know; even with both armed, the bike sits silently, glaring forward.
Hatfield warns me as I throw a leg over that this demo bike has an extremely narrow steering lock for racetrack use, and a throttle that's set up with strong regenerative braking at all speeds on a closed throttle. Production bikes will have much wider steering stops and the customer's choice of throttle mapping, but this one's set up for racing, and it'll be a handful at very slow speeds. He's not joking, it catches me out on my first u-turn and later in the day I come within an inch of dropping the bike as I pull up in a car park. The regen brake takes me by surprise as I'm swooping in for a stop, and next thing I know, I'm holding this gorgeous bike inches off the deck as Richard sprints over to help me save it.
Once it's moving though, the LS-218 is creamy smooth and disarmingly easy to ride. One of the great strengths of electrics is that there's really no impediment to a perfect throttle mapping; no flat spots or unwanted leaps in the power delivery, no drivetrain snatch as petrol gets squirted into dry throttle bodies. Instead, you get what you ask for at all times, and if you use the throttle like a sane, rational human being, the Lightning bike feels perfectly civilized. Lots of power, excellent delivery, piece of cake.
Of course, I'm not here to act like a sane, rational human being, I'm here to experience the wildest thing on two wheels. "We download the telemetry data after road testers ride the bike," Hatfield had told me earlier, "very few people manage to hold the throttle wide open for any length of time." So I point it up the Skyline road leading away from Alice's restaurant and let 'er rip.
The LS-218 is a single-speed, clutchless, direct drive bike, so it's effectively locked permanently in 6th gear. From a standstill, the takeoff is brisk, but not nearly as scary as pulling the trigger on full-throttle launch control on a modern superbike like the Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC. Mind you, if you're not planning to go faster than, say 180 mph, you could downgear it by changing the drive sprockets for some 10-15 percent extra acceleration off the line.
Either way, from about 30 mph, full throttle engages a heart-stopping warp drive that freezes my blood in my veins. The world just blurs as the LS-218 hurls me at the horizon, I'm hanging on for grim death and feeling my eyeballs get forced back into their sockets. I'm breathing raggedly within a few corners, my heart hammering against my chest. The acceleration is just unbelievable. I've opened the throttle on plenty of open-class superbikes, but nothing throws you into the future like this thing. Nothing.
I see what Richard meant – I can't keep the throttle wide open for more than about a second. There's just no straight piece of road long enough. My brain can't keep up with just how ferociously it builds speed, and my eyes can't bulge open wide enough to take in every piece of scenery that's hurtling towards me. In an instant I find myself on top of the next corner, thankful that the Lightning comes kitted out with superb Brembo brakes and Race Tech suspension to keep things under control.
Where other electrics are quiet, the Lightning shrieks as it unleashes its extraordinary power, loud enough to be easily heard over the rush of wind above 100 mph. In the tradition of the best sportsbikes, it's not just physically demanding, it's emotionally engaging. By the time I pull over to catch my breath, I'm well and truly peaking on adrenaline. "This bike has a real character to it," Richard grins, "it's that devil on your shoulder, always telling you to give it a bit more throttle." I can only reply with profanities.
From the reports of racers, the LS-218 is said to switch directions with the quickness of a bike far lighter than its 495 lb (225 kg) "wet" weight – that's because with the simplicity of an electric drivetrain there's vastly less gyroscopic inertia to fight when you go to tip it over. Imagine the gyroscopic effect of a spinning crank at 10,000 rpm, a flywheel, all the movement of pistons and clutch components and heavy gears – all gone. I'd love to say I noticed the difference, but if I'm totally honest I ran into corners so hot and overbraked so hard that I doubt I got the bike more than 30 degrees from vertical on my whole test ride … well, except for when I nearly dropped it at a standstill. I'd need a few days to calibrate my brain to the acceleration before I could properly experience the cornering. So I'll have to take the racers' word on it!
As with any other sportsbike, you can only really scratch the surface of the Lightning bike's performance on the road. On a racetrack, Richard says it has astonished even the most hardened racers such as ex-500cc and MotoGP rider Miguel Duhamel, who took this bike around Le Mans in 2012 and proclaimed it the fastest accelerating thing he'd ever ridden.
"One of the things you can do with an electric that you can't do with a gas bike is make your own fuel for it," Hatfield tells me, "So we have a transport van based on a Sprinter, and it has three banks of three solar panels that we can slide out when we're stationed. We can store energy in a battery pack, and most events that we go to, we fuel the bikes off the energy we harvest off of our transporter."
So, obviously, the Lightning bike has excellent green credentials. But that's not what it's all about. Internal combustion motorcycle engines have reached their current peak around 210 horsepower after more than 100 years of development. Great minds, great money, exotic materials and ingenious trickery have been employed to get the most out of gasoline – and still the annual gains are incremental. The LS-218 is Lightning's first production product, and it's making its debut right at the front of the pack, with development progressing in leaps and bounds. The petrol bikes will have to start adding even more complexity in the form of forced induction just to keep up.
To me, it's clear: electrics will offer undreamed-of performance levels, with superb efficiency, perfect throttle response and a degree of mechanical simplicity that's going to make life very tough for mechanics. The sheer adrenaline factor when you hit full throttle on the LS-218 is absolutely off the charts. I can't imagine the staunchest of petrolheads being immune to that kind of acceleration.
Hatfield's greatest dream is to head up to Alice's on a Saturday morning and see three or four Lightning bikes lined up outside. Of course, the main barriers to overcome are battery range, battery price and charging infrastructure, and if the charging infrastructure was there, the current range figures simply wouldn't be an issue. The LS-218 ships with either a 12, a 15 or a 20 kWh battery pack, getting you a maximum range of 120, 150 or 180 miles respectively. Charging time is around 30 minutes on a DC fast charger, and I don't know many sportsbike riders who don't appreciate a half-hour break after a couple of hours in the saddle.
And it could be a lot quicker than that if Tesla came to the party, says Hatfield: "Tesla, with their supercharger network, they're at about 130,000 watts, so if we plugged that in to our bike and watched it carefully, everything was optimal, we could have the bike to 80 percent full in well under 10 minutes. So that's kind of the holy grail. The technology exists right now to do it. We have our own chargers that'll charge that quickly, but we just need to see a network out there that people can use.
"We can use the J1772, we can set it up with the SAE AC/DC plug or the CHAdeMO. The problem with the CHAdeMO is the plug is just enormous and expensive. It works just fine on our bike, it's just a big expensive, huge plug. Tesla has this beautiful little plug that would fit nicely on a motorcycle. Right now you can ride right from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, or San Francisco to New York using Tesla superchargers.
"[Tesla have] opened up their patents, but … there's nothing in their patent that'll tell us what the charging algorithm is [to communicate between the bike and the charging station]. We could take one of their plugs and reverse engineer it, but that doesn't necessarily give us the right to use their supercharging network. So our top priority is to convince Tesla to share their supercharger network with us, and even build it out with public money. That more than anything else will help bridge that last gap."
Build that infrastructure out, and the LS-218 as it stands today is an electric superbike that soundly out-performs its combustion-engined cousins, goes just as far as they do on a "tank", refills almost as quickly, requires very little maintenance and looks a million dollars to boot. With the world's richest company starting to eye off the electric vehicle sector as an opportunity, it's not hard to imagine charging infrastructure appearing sooner rather than later.
Battery range is an issue Richard sees disappearing in the next few years: "Of all the battery companies that we're talking with, everyone is working on 300, 400 watt-hour per kilo batteries – that's twice the run time, twice the energy density, twice the range of the very best batteries that are available now. They're in the bench for one reason or another, maybe it needs more cycle time, maybe they need to squeeze some of the cost out … There are a variety of different issues that have to be resolved, but there's so many really bright people and so much money pursuing it that it'll be really surprising if we don't see those types of things soon."
Of course, the other bugbear is battery price, which is one of the main factors keeping electrics out of reach of most buyers. "There's a lot of effort being put into that as well," Richard tells me. "If Elon Musk and his Gigafactory are successful in bringing batteries down below $200 a kilowatt-hour, where we could put a 20 kWh battery on a 200 horsepower bike that would go 170, 180 miles and that battery would cost $4000, that's going to change things."
It's my personal belief, even as a card-carrying member of Petrolheads Anonymous, that in 50 years, we'll look at gasoline vehicles the same way we look at steam vehicles today: As dirty, noisy, quaint anachronisms ... S1000RRs and YZF-R1s being lovingly restored and maintained in the garages of moustachioed collectors who popped their first curious wheelies in the 'noughteens.
If the kids of 2065 are still into motorcycles – indeed, if they're still allowed to ride them – I'd like to think history will look back on the 2015 LS-218 as a truly significant machine, the first true electric superbike that could wallop the petrol bikes in a race and shock street riders into stunned respect. That's why I flew halfway around the world to try to experience it for myself – and it was worth every second.
We've got a full interview with Lightning CEO Richard Hatfield coming in a couple of days' time, and of course, a video review of the LS-218 which I can tell you will be a hoot to watch. So stay tuned!
More information: Lightning MotorcyclesView gallery - 31 images