Luke Workman interview Part 1: Petrolheads are missing the tarmac-tearing potential of electric vehicles

25 pictures

Luke Workman, AKA LiveforPhysics, with the Death Bike electric drag racer.(Credit: Loz Blain/Gizmag)

View gallery - 25 images

Grab life by the danglies and extract maximum joy from every minute: it's an awesome philosophy that we'd all like to live by, but there are some people that just seem born to do it. Luke Workman is one of 'em. Born into a family of hot rod street racers, Workman hustled his way through college dreaming of being a Formula One engineer, then had an epiphany and ended up as one of the world's foremost lithium battery wizards. We first met Luke at Zero Motorcycles, where tales of his epic, outrageous after hours shenanigans were already legendary. So on a cold, wet night in January, Loz Blain dropped in for a long chat and some hair-raising seat time in some of Workman's crazy home-built electric hot rods. Here's part one of a very fun chat with a very remarkable guy.

It's 2am, pitch black and raining in the hills outside Santa Cruz, California. My heart is thumping and my eyes are bulging as I wedge myself out of the bizarre electric vehicle I've just been driving.

It's a non-tilting, fully enclosed three-wheeler with two wheels at the front and one driven wheel at the rear that's still gently smoking as I get out. It looks a bit like a clog on wheels, and if I was reviewing the experience I'd give it a D minus for brakes, suspension, comfort, visibility and steering.

You'd have to go with an A plus for engine power, though. Like most electrics, the power is easy and progressive to dial in. But when I lay the boot more than halfway into the accelerator, the rear tyre spins up immediately. When I hit full throttle, there's a bang and a big electrical flash and the vague smell of ozone as the back wheel makes an effort to overtake the front.

I'm reminded of what the owner of this thing told me when he gave me the keys: "sometimes when a drift gets out of control, I just let it go and wait til I'm pointing backwards. This thing is so much more stable going backwards than forwards."

That'd be Luke Workman, who's standing there grinning through a wild bushman-style beard when I pull back up into his driveway.

Workman, formerly of Zero Motorcycles fame, is an absolutely unique and awe-inspiring character. Part NorCal surfie herbalist, part manic adrenaline-junkie street racer, part lithium wizard physics genius … He looks a bit like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, and talks a bit like Malibu from Gladiators, and seems to exist in a constant whirlwind of enthusiasm and passion, big-idea thinking and scant regard for his own personal safety.

When I first met Luke at a Zero launch, the tales of his after-hours shenanigans were already legendary. The souped-up electric "Death Bicycle" that beats Teslas down drag strips. The million-horsepower backyard science experiments. The bizarre and highly dangerous wedding ring he made for his wife. I knew immediately I wanted to spend more time with this most excellent maniac of a man.

And that's how I found myself at his home in the hills, after a midnight donut run with carbon fiber expert Craig Calfee and flying motorcycle inventor Dezso Molnar, taking a hoon in one of Workman's famous electric hot rods in the dead of the winter night, then sitting down for an hour-long chat about his crazy hobby projects, his background, and the future of electric vehicles and mobility.

What follows is part one of the very fun and inspiring conversation we had when I got back. Chatting with Luke was a privilege I'm happy I can share.

On his overclocked Corbin Sparrow:

Loz: So what exactly is this thing?

Luke Workman: It's a 170-horsepower, 300-foot pound Corbin Sparrow fitted with essentially exactly one half of John Wayland's White Zombie drivetrain. It's an advanced DC eight-inch series brushed motor fed from a Zilla 1K on a 230-volt battery system.

Loz: … Right …

Luke Workman: (laughs) Basically a thousand-amp motor current at 230 volts being fed into this eight-inch series brushed motor that's not a fan of getting a thousand amps. It was designed for like 200 or something. But because it's a series brushed motor, it kind of has to make a torque when you keep feeding it current. It has to make torque or have an arc flash event.

Loz: … Ah.

Luke Workman: You got to experience the arc flash event! The reason you're supposed to clean that whole assembly out is because the carbon dust is conductive and so once you have an arc flash and it blasts everything with carbon …

The soot you see, when you have a big electrical arc and it leaves this soot, that's carbon dioxide from the air that got broken by a plasma from the electrical energy that split that strong bond between carbon and oxygen and then just liberated free carbon that then precipitated as solids that are on the surfaces of stuff. So it's more prone to arc flash because it's wet out and it's more prone to arc flash the dirtier it is.

And I've had like two dozen or more arc flash events without ever cleaning it, because I just don't really care about brushed motors.

Each time that I touch the gas pedal after an arc flash event, and it still moves forward, I'm just like, '... Awesome.'

Loz: That just feels like a deeply unstable, unsafe, crazy thing.

Luke Workman: Oh, yeah, totally. It's totally not a "good idea" vehicle.

On the Death Bike:

Luke Workman: You know on a well-prepared drag strip, like you know how sticky they get? They pull your shoes off when you try to walk on it. On a well-prepared drag strip, Death Bike will fishtail wildly. And if you actually act so bold as to shift your leg backwards a little bit to try to get some weight on the rear wheel, you just end up looping out comically.

Loz: It's a bicycle, right?

Luke Workman: It's a bicycle. It's sitting right in front of the house here. It's ready to go, too. You should ride it. When it's not dark and wet though, ideally. I actually scratch built it in my friend Paul Somero's garage. He's a narcoleptic TIG welder.

Loz: (laughs) A friend of mine worked with a narcoleptic motorcycle courier. He just used to fall off now and then.

Luke Workman: Yeah, this dude would just fall asleep on his garage floor concrete for an hour, whatever, and just wake up and be like, "whoa." Then get back to welding. He's a great welder though, and an accomplished mechanical engineer. He designed the swingarm for the Zero bikes, among other things. He also makes beautiful BMX frames and some pretty cutting edge robotics stuff. Anyway, Death Bike's a tandem now so I can give my kid rides on the back.

Loz: So how thick are the tires?

Luke Workman: Not nearly big enough. The front actually is big enough. It's a real superbike front. From an actual GP Bike. Have you seen Death Bike versus a Tesla? You seen that video? I think you should.

Luke Workman: So that's a P85. And that's my bicycle.

Loz: Jesus Christ, you're absolutely thrashing him. That's a P85D?

Luke Workman: Yeah, no, the D didn't exist at the time this was filmed. That was the fastest Tesla made on the day this was filmed. But six months later, they released the 85D and then they released the 90D.

Loz: Do you reckon you could take a 90D on the bicycle?

Luke Workman: Yes. In that exact trim and pulling those times, I was hitting my full top speed – a gear limited 112 mph – I was hitting that at the eighth mile and then just holding 112 from the eighth mile to the quarter mile. So if I put a taller gear on, it would be substantially quicker in the quarter mile.

So yeah, just the way it sits now, it would beat them. But we actually have a dual controller setup ready to go that makes 216 foot pounds of torque and 120 horse power for this bicycle. But it gets even better, because we would reach motor saturation. I've got a line on a 250 horsepower, 500 foot-pound motor/controller system, just gotta figure out how to fund it.

Loz: Oh, Jesus.

Luke Workman: And so that's where we're going.

Loz: You're making a 250 f***ing horsepower bicycle?

Luke Workman: It should have 500 foot-pounds of torque and 250 horsepower, yeah, on a pushbike …

Loz: At least I can say I knew the guy before he exploded in a ball of flame.

Luke Workman: Well have you seen the Swiss rocket bike guy? He beat my bicycle time so substantially, like 250 horsepower and 500 foot-pounds of torque won't even get me there, believe it or not. This is just a moderate step on the path to beating that guy's bicycle.

He's been an inspiration to me since early in college, when I saw his first Swiss rocket man experiments. This is the guy who uses hydrogen peroxide rockets and silver catalysts for everything, yeah. His bicycle makes something like 500 horsepower.

Loz: Except he's not putting it through the wheels though, is he? It's a rocket.

Luke Workman: He's got 500 horsepower of thrust. With my estimation of his weight, and his trap speed in the quarter mile time, my calculations ended up that he's averaging something like 500 horsepower on that bicycle.

Loz: Say, at what point does a bicycle become a motorcycle really? Like, how is this defined as a bicycle?

Luke Workman: If you call it a motorcycle, it would become a motorcycle … I built the thing right? So as it's father and it's creator, I get to decide what I built.

And it's definitely a push bike. It's got pedals. They work. Even if you take the battery off, you can still ride it to work. I used to ride it at lunchtime with no electric power. One lunch coming back, I had this bag on my handlebar. It was a plastic bag with my lunch in it and I decided like, man, you haven't actually gone full throttle on this thing for weeks. It's time to set your purse down and man up and pin this, right?

So I'm wearing like, fortunately, a full-faced helmet but just street clothes and no gloves and just dangling my lunch bag and I was like, alright.

You'll see what it's like when you're on Death Bike. There's all parts of your reason and common sense and judgment are telling you to quit twisting the throttle back harder. Every part of your body's, like, survival instinct is telling you, "Quit twisting the throttle." But I just forced myself.

Yeah, so I hadn't reached the end of the throttle for a few weeks and I was like, "You have to reach the end of the throttle. You just have to do this. Man up and do this." And so I do, I pin it and I felt the end of the throttle hit and then my rear wheel tore every single one of the spokes off the rim and it just wadded up and the bike… I rode it out from 85 on the sprocket which was folded over on one section. It was just slapping back and forth and the rim was still trapped from the hub in the axle so that tire was just like catching and bucking randomly back there while I'm riding it up.

And I ride this thing up to a stop, next to my Zero co-workers that were also walking back from lunch. It's only a half-mile away but I still took Death Bike. But, yeah, they're walking back from lunch and I came to a stop there and I haven't even spilled my lunch and there's not a scratch on me.

Loz: And I can just imagine, that these guys, knowing you, they'd look over and go, "Hey Luke" as if it's the most normal thing in the world.

Luke Workman: Yeah, it was pretty much how it was, yeah. There was only another 20 feet I had to drag my bicycle to get into work. And I was like, "Oh, that's pretty convenient." It didn't even affect my lunch.

Loz: (laughs) You're killing me!

Luke Workman: That vehicle was like one rear wheel per race event. I mean, not per race event as in a whole day, but per race event as in per session on the track.

Loz: One rear wheel per time you held the throttle open.

Luke Workman: Yeah. In fact, I think it was Discovery Channel UK or something like that, came in to do this special on my Death Bike and I put it together. And we've just souped it up and gave it more power and then riding for them, we go to the air strip and I pin it and it shears off all the bolts that hold the drive's sprocket to the hub. So that it was just … On the honor system back there. Flailing around with this chain and a ludicrous amount of torque going into it … I rode that one out too and it turned out fine so …

Loz: So Death Bike hasn't lived up to its name yet. What's it got in there now?

Luke Workman: It has about 74 horse now.

Loz: 74 horsepower, right. So that's a little more than what a Zero SR makes.

Luke Workman: Yeah.

Loz: And how many times lighter than a zero is it?

Luke Workman: I know its weight. It's a 108 pounds, I think. Maybe it was a 118 pounds. I think it's written on the fridge actually.

On electric vehicles and their unique combination of power and efficiency:

Luke Workman: With electric, there's no reason every vehicle can't have a kilowatt per kilogram.

Loz: Well, it used to be, one horsepower per kilogram, That was the big thing when the Gixxer came out in 2005, and it's like, wow, one horsepower per kilogram, woo! But it wasn't. It was like 150 for 200, really.

Luke Workman: Yeah, they were just approaching it.

Loz: But they're doing it now, the new BMW is near as damn and those things are insane. And you're talking about a kilowatt per kilogram, which is what, 1.6 times more power to weight again.

Luke Workman: Right, so this is the way every grocery getter can be in the electric future. Because it's not a penalty to have this kind of performance with regards to efficiency.

I mean even Death Bike's drive train set-up … It's actually very efficient. As an electric bicycle, it's more efficient than a human pedaling, in the amount of energy it uses. The food energy uses way more energy to produce, per calorie. Even if you're burning coal, it's less than the food energy.

But yeah, in Death Bike's case, it's a very efficient electric bicycle. Even as far as, tiny, super weakling, low-powered bicycles go. So you don't have this penalty between economy and vehicle performance.

With electric, you can just have everything be a Ferrari-slaying monster and also be a watt-sipper grocery getter you can take your kids to school in. You don't have to choose between sports car or efficient. You can be efficient and be a devastator.

Loz: But mind you, like, no one's going to give a damn about the efficiency because they're so massively cheap to run anyway. You can have the least efficient electric …

Luke Workman: Right, the least efficient electric car is still better than the best alternative out there, yeah.

That's what electric offers for all vehicles. This is the future we'll have. People that are gearheads and into high performance shouldn't be hating electrics. They should be embracing the fact that they'll all have F1 car-like acceleration – on anything they buy, and it's all going to be using a tiny fraction of the energy.

Loz: And not only that, if you're a poser … If you're riding because you want to get noticed, then you need a loud bike, with a loud pipe.

Luke Workman: Right.

Loz: That's right. But if you're really up to no good …

Luke Workman: If you are actually into hooning every night for hours, you want the silent-est vehicle made. You want to get around without making a squeak. Yeah!

Loz: You want no policeman in the neighborhood to have any idea when you start hoisting up a wheelie on the highway.

Luke Workman: Yup.

Interviewer: You just want to sail past, silent except for a faint cackling from inside your helmet.

Luke Workman: Yeah! Electric vehicles offer asphalt tearing performance. Your tire to street interface is your performance limiter all the way up to, you know, 200 miles an hour or whatever you want. Right now, Tesla has phenomenal performance and they made a large luxury sedan saloon thing, right? This is a giant luxury car.

Loz: It's not a sports car.

Luke Workman: It's not a sports car. And it crushes all but the top two or three production sports cars in the world. But it's not a sports car.

When people start making real electric sports cars, the whole concept of what was a fast car, the whole thing is going to change just as it would change if, you know, someone makes a quantum computer and all of a sudden you can go buy them and they're just like a million times better than any computer, right?

No one's going to even care what the old computers did when you can go buy a cheap quantum computer. So this same thing is going to happen when industry starts really applying a serious effort towards motorsports driven by electric and not combustion.

Like this will actually probably ruin … You know how Group B kind of like ruined rally for a while because it was so fast and so many people died. We're going to go through the same thing with electric racing. Once there's not some terribly restrictive thing like Formula E, but once there's a real unlimited electric sports racing class, it's going to just …

Loz: Destroy lap records, too.

Luke Workman: Yeah, it's going to destroy every lap time. We're going to run into situations where tracks get chewed up by the cars finding optimal slip the entire lap, you know, and just carving grooves in the asphalt. This will be the inevitable future of motorsports.

High performance won't be a feature in a car. It will be standard in anything you buy. And if you want exceptional mind-bending performance we haven't dreamed of today, that will be a sports car.

Loz: So the kind of demonstrably insane stuff that you get up to after work, would you say the average guy working in electric vehicles is doing crazy stuff like this?

Luke Workman: You know what, unfortunately, a lot of people in the electric vehicle industry are not from the hot rodding side.

Loz: Right.

Luke Workman: And they're kind of from like … I don't know. I don't want to use the term "needle dick" but like, it's kind of needle dick dominated right now and ...

Loz: Yeah. I see. Right. Because there's a lot of people coming into it from more of a humble, save the planet kind of perspective.

Luke Workman: Right. A lot of people are coming into EVs from stepping out of their Prius towards an EV standpoint, you know.

Loz: Yeah.

Luke Workman: Rather than … Like, growing up, my dad was obsessed with supercharging V8s and like, you know, everything had to have boost or nitrous or both. So coming in to EVS, for me, it looks like a performance …

Loz: It's endless performance, yeah.

Luke Workman: Right. Endless performance opportunity and also so much low hanging fruit. EVs to me, look like an ocean of low hanging fruit for high performance, ripe for picking.

And most of the crew involved is interested in like, "How can we make the cheapest way to get from point A to point B," rather than a "It can also be the cheapest way to get to point A from point B and be a thrilling rocket to drive." I feel like every EV should be a thrilling rocket to use and also the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.

Loz: Right.

Luke Workman: These things don't need to be exclusive.

There's a lot more yet to come from this conversation. Check out part two, including Workman's million-horsepower backyard science experiments, his thoughts on multirotors and the awesome Joby S2 he's working on, as well as my harrowing ride on Death Bike. Then see part three, where we discuss the potentially deadly wedding ring he made for his wife, and how his early days as a petrol-headed street racing hustler led him down the path of electrics.

Luke wants to acknowledge the contributions of the team at Farasis Energy, which manufactures the pouch cell lithium batteries that have helped Zero create the highest energy density electric powertrains in the business: "I want to thank the crew that worked so hard to make this incredible EV progress possible. Dr. Wang is a brilliant, passionate CEO and accomplished intercalation-structure-material science leader, along with Keith and Junwei who I'm so thankful to both for teaching me so much and making the incredible EV projects happening today possible."

View gallery - 25 images

Top stories

Recommended for you

Latest in Remarkable People

Editors Choice