Interview: The fastest woman on a motorcycle tells us why she hates going fast
It's not every day the fastest woman on a motorcycle comes to town, so when I heard land-speed record holder and "eco-activist in disguise" Eva Håkansson was coming to make a presentation at the Melbourne EV expo on the weekend, I shot her an email. Let's do an interview, I said, and heck, I've got a couple of motorcycles in the shed, if you wanna do the interview somewhere nice and twisty, we could make a ride out of it!
No dice, she wrote back. While she's ok with hitting 270 mph (434 km/h) on the salt flats in a home-made streamliner, there's too many distracted drivers on the road, so she's pretty much given up road riding. Instead, she's flying small planes and taking aerobatics lessons, having her fun in the sky where the other pilots aren't trying to update their Instagrams and do their makeup.
And where you'd expect a land speed racer to be a speed freak adrenaline junkie, Håkansson is quite the opposite. She's driven by the engineering challenge, much happier in her garage flipping down a welding mask than hitting the gas on one of her own high-speed creations and setting world records.
So instead of a road trip, we caught up at the Expo, after a very entertaining presentation in which Håkansson spoke about her childhood as a racing-obsessed science geek, her marriage to fellow electric race bike pioneer Bill Dubé, their shared mission to use speed (and a pinch of sex if necessary) to promote electric mobility, and her upcoming plans to smash her own records and a number of others besides.
What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
Loz: It seems like you've taken it as your mission to preach to the petrolheads about electric vehicles, and not to the choir. Can you talk through that decision a little bit?
Yeah, you're right. I don't know what I should add. I guess everybody's decisions have a long story behind them.
I grew up as kind of a tree-hugger, with that mentality of not wasting things, and taking care of the planet. But my dad also happened to be an old champion motorcycle racer. In 1962 he was the 50cc road racing champion in Sweden. And I like to say racing is a genetic disorder.
So I have this genetic disorder of racing, and interest in cutting edge technology, I would say. And I grew up with two older brothers, 6 and 8 years older than me. And I wanted to do the same things as they were doing, but they had a huge head start on me. So I had to work really hard to keep up. I was young, and I was behind, and I didn't like being behind.
My oldest brother won the Science Fair, and went to Germany and had a lot of fun. And so I decided "I'm also going to win the Science Fair." So I won it two or three times, depending on how you count. I went to the US and England with the other Science Fair finalists. It made me really competitive.
Loz: What were those projects?
They were all about water treatment. First one was about waste water treatment for wetlands, and the next two coming years were about water treatment in emergency situations.
Loz: And this is when you were what age?
Mmmmm, 17ish to 19ish.
Loz: So you were a high school science nerd?
High school science nerd with a genetic racing disorder, raised as a tree-hugger with an interest in technology. What really got me into electric vehicles, though … I got a bachelor's degree in business, with a focus on ecological economics. A strange combination. And I wrote my capstone project on my bachelor thesis on political incentives for low-emission vehicles.
I really started looking into the science, the well-to-wheel efficiency. And that was at a time when ethanol was big, bio-gas was big, I graduated in 2005.
Loz: So just as this wave was about to break?
Right. So electrics had not really come into the market. We had hybrid cars, and in Sweden, where I was located at that time, ethanol was the big thing. But I looked at the well-to-wheel perspective and concluded the only thing that make sense was electric.
Oh, Hydrogen was a big thing. That was the buzzword at the time. But a Hydrogen fuel cell car is just a very, very inefficient battery car.
Loz: But one that you can presumably fill up out of a hose if they ever solve the problem of how to transport and store hydrogen, which likes to sneak off in between the atoms of a metal container and all that sort of thing.
Yes, and also if you know anything about technology, you know that moving a compressed gas isn't that easy, particularly at these insanely high pressures, and the reality is that with the modern technology for batteries and fast chargers, you can fill up an electric car in about the same time as you can fill up a Hydrogen car.
Loz: Oh really? I didn't know that.
Most people don't know that. And people promoting hydrogen cars don't want to talk about that. My opinion is that hydrogen is a dead end. So my conclusion was simply that electric cars are the only thing that makes sense. And then I wanted to build an electric car. Well, I wanted an electric car, but I couldn't afford one. I didn't have the garage space to build an electric car either.
My dad suggested 'why don't we build an electric motorcycle together.' So we converted a gasoline internal combustion motorcycle to electric.
Loz: What sort of bike?
A Cagiva Freccia. That's an exotic bike. It had a seized engine, so it was really cheap, only 400 dollars or something.
Loz: And this is in, what, 2006? Where do you get an electric powertrain at that time?
My dad had one on the shelf. (laughs)
Loz: What!? What from?
Some other project. Haha! So my dad had been into electric vehicles since the first oil crisis in 1970. At the time, he worked for Monarch, the motorcycle manufacturer. And they wanted to make an electric motorcycle. But it didn't really make sense to make a motorcycle with the technology that was available, so it became an electric scooter.
The day they revealed this prototype vehicle, the oil crisis was over. So the project was over as well. Then in the 80s, he was involved with the Electrathon in Sweden and England. And the Electrathon is where you get one or two car batteries and you're supposed to drive as far as you can on that very limited energy. So he had all kinds of stuff hanging around at home.
And then we ordered batteries from Thudersky in China, and built a little electric motorcycle.
Loz: Would they have been Ni-Cad?
No, they were Lithium-ion Phosphate. We had Lithium batteries already in 2003. They were available back then if you knew where to get them.
So that's how I got into EVs. At the same time, I was asked to write a book about electric vehicles by the Green Motorists, a lobby organization I was involved in. And in that process I wanted to use a picture of what was at the time the fastest electric motorcycle in the world and the fastest electric vehicle. That was the Killacycle.
So I tracked down its owner, Bill Dubé, and sent him an email asking if I could use a picture of his motorcycle. And he said yes. And we kept in contact, and it turned out we were going to the same electric vehicle symposium … Just quietly, I think his presence may have been the reason I was going … EVS 23 in Anaheim, Los Angeles.
We met in person and the rest is pretty much history. Half a year later I moved to Colorado, and a year after that, we got married. And we're still married, 9 years later.
Loz: Just quickly, these non-conductive wedding rings, that's so you guys can weld and work on stuff in the garage without zapping yourselves?
Yeah, you can't wear conductive jewellery. My Apple Watch is just on the edge because it has a metal housing. I'd take that off if I was working on something that's live. So we wanted non-conductive wedding rings so we could work on electric vehicles.
Loz: That's actually a really pretty ring.
Thank you! There was a matching black, same cut. We're extremely nerdy. They're also cheap, so that was good too!
Loz: Woohoo! So when you met, you were both super into electric motorcycles. Did you start working together first, or did the romance blossom first?
The romance came first! Haha! I was Bill's crew for the Killacycle, and there were a couple of things that happened in parallel. In the racing programme, as you have noticed, there's only room for one person. The man and his machine, or the woman and her machine. Other people just never really get any spotlight.
You can, as a team owner, try really hard, but journalists just want one person. Man and machine, that's the story, and it's too confusing if you have more people. Do you know the name of Lewis Hamilton's Crew Chief? No! You don't! There's simply only room for one person.
In the Killacycle team, there was only room for one person. And it was really crowded, because it was Bill as the owner and builder, and Scotty Pollacheck as the rider. And that was already too many people for the story. I kind of wanted my own racing programme.
Loz: It's interesting, I remember hearing about the Killacycle at the time, I think I even wrote an article about it when Bill stacked it into a car. But I don't remember Scott Pollacheck, I just remember Bill Dubé.
Right, Scott was the rider and he didn't even get any of the spotlight. So I wanted my own project. And the Killacycle was getting old and close to retirement. And that was Bill's project, not mine. I guess we all want our own little pet project.
The other problem was, it was really hard to communicate drag racing. How do you communicate running a quarter mile. It takes seven seconds. 'Seven seconds to what, to 100?' No! In 9 out of 10 cases, the first question you get is 'how fast is it?' What do you answer if you're running the quarter mile? Finishing speed? That was never very impressive, maybe 280 kilometres per hour, 174 miles per hour, still not that impressive to most people.
We did 0-100 kmh in less than a second. 'OK… But how fast is it?' It's like agh, we can't win! We can't communicate it. It's awesome, and it's super fast, but people don't get it.
Loz: And it's funny, because speed itself is not the exciting part if you're a petrolhead. It's all about the acceleration.
Yeah, but it doesn't make headlines! Bill was racing, to a large extent, for the same reason I am: to show people that electric vehicles are fun, fast, sexy and something enviable. We just concluded after a lot of discussion that the only thing that makes headlines is speed. Nothing else. Doesn't matter if you win some formula event, whatever. The only thing you can really communicate through mainstream media is speed. Nothing else.
Loz: Do you reckon Tesla's changing that at all?
People ask the top speed of Teslas all the time!
Loz: Yeah, but now a ton of people have seen the video where the acceleration pins the phone against the seat… And a lot of people have ridden in one now, and they can all say "shit, this feels so much faster than any other car."
The difference is, in a Tesla you can have a ride, and you can take someone for a ride. In a racing vehicle, you can't do that. So we concluded that if we want to change the image for electric vehciles, we have to do something that's insanely fast. Nothing else is really worth our effort. That's where our effort will be really worth the most, let's put it that way.
So, we had to go into land speed racing. That's where you can go really fast. OK. What can we do with a limited budget? Because horsepower is the really expensive part. So if you have a limited budget for buying horsepower, it means you have to get the smallest possible vehicle. The smallest possible vehicle is a motorcycle, because the cross-sectional area of a motorcycle is the cross-sectional area of the rider.
To go really fast, it has to be a streamliner, so it has to be fully enclosed. That's the only way you can get the aerodynamic drag down. So we ended up with a motorcycle.
Loz: So how many horsepower does the Killajoule run?
Loz: That's like twice as much as the fastest electric motorcycle I ever rode, which was frickin' amazing. How long does it take you to get to full throttle on a 400-horsepower bike?
Your question is really how long does it take to get to full speed.
Loz: Well no, because surely you can't just go blap and hit the gas straight out on a 400-horsepower bike.
You can! Because that's how it's set up. The beauty with electric vehicles of a more sophisticated kind is that you can program all your parameters. You program your maximum torque, your throttle response … We don't have traction control implemented, it's our long term plan to. But you can do a crude kind of traction control by simply setting your output torque to what you think the surface can take.
So we've simply set it up so that full-throttle torque is what we think the salt surface can take before the wheel spins.
Loz: That's a big advantage over the petrol guys!
Yes! It's huge! So yeah, I can give it full throttle. Typically when you run at public events, you have different starting points you can choose from, like a mile, two miles, four miles from the measuring posts. Right now, for us, two miles is too short, and four miles is, at my current level, too long.
Loz: Why, because you use too much juice?
No, it just means I hit full throttle and I get to top speed before my measured mark. And that means I have to travel at full power for longer than necessary. Ultimately what we want is for me to hit my top speed just as I reach the measured mile. So I don't accelerate through the speed traps, but I also don't spend too much time at full speed. That's where there's maximum strain on everything. I want to minimize my time at top speed. But yes, I can just give it full throttle from the start.
Loz: I didn't realize that, I thought you'd be using throttle control to manage wheelspin the whole time.
That would just mean you've done a crappy job of the engineering or programming!
Loz: So let's say there's a point coming soon where most people understand that electric is going to be much, much faster than a petrol car. The point is coming where that message will have been made fairly conclusively, and people will understand that. What's the next challenge as you see it?
Well, people will go to the store, drive a Tesla, love it, then realize there's no need to get something so expensive, go round the corner and buy a Nissan Leaf. Haha!
And as far as Bill and I are concerned, that's mission accomplished! Because they're stuck in the same traffic jam as I am in my Nissan Leaf, spending 40 minutes or an hour getting to work, and they've spent 35 or 40,000 dollars and made a sensible decision. But it's an electric car, and thus it's sexy, and it's something my neighbours will not laugh at. Because they may be buying a Tesla, but my car is kind of equally cool and I made a much more sensible decision.
It's the old saying: you offer the Corvette to sell the Chevette. People look at the Corvette but they buy the Chevette, because they carry the same brand.
Loz: So EVs are a single brand in people's heads?
Yes. And you're a smart, responsible, clever individual driving an EV.
Loz: Moving along, how can you be setting these kinds of records and not be an adrenaline junkie? That's not a thing for you?
It isn't! I find it kind of terrifying to run for records.
Loz: So why do you do it?
Because I love the engineering, I love the challenge. My high is to build something and do something that's never been done before. It's a kind of explorer mindset. Imagine being the first to get to the North Pole. It's the same kind of idea, but in an engineering challenge.
Loz: OK, so why do you have to drive it? Why not get some adrenaline junkie, extreme sports, backflipping motocross guy and get him to do it?
For several reasons. First, I tried that! I had two riders lined up for the first event but neither of them could make it because of their obligations for other races. So I had to do it myself.
And media loved it, and sponsors loved it, and I realized I have to do this. It comes back to the storyline. There's only room for one person, the woman and her machine. It makes it much more valuable from a publicity perspective.
And I'm doing this in the spirit of eco-activism in disguise. If I don't make headlines, my work has no value. The speed records don't matter. There's a little piece of my ego that likes it …
Loz: But not the job itself, you don't like sitting in the bike and hitting top speed.
No. When it comes time to start, I just wanna go home. I try to find every excuse not to race.
Loz: That's remarkable. Or do you think that's a common mindset in land speed racing circles?
No! I think I'm the only one. In history! Haha!
Loz: Everyone else is like 'I wanna get out there and do 600!"
They live for this. I just really don't like it. It's a lot of pressure, it's really stressful. It's claustrophobic, it's really hot. My heart rate goes through the roof just thinking about it, and not in a good way! I don't enjoy it.
But I love being in the garage working on it in the evenings. That's when time just flies.
Loz: You're like some kind of super nerd.
I am Super Nerd! Setting the record is like my final exam.
Loz: You guys are moving to New Zealand. Why New Zealand? Job came up?
It's a beautiful place. Engineers are respected. University of Auckland is a great university. We have a lot of friends in New Zealand, there's a very active EV community. That really was the determining factor. So we thought 'New Zealand, sounds good! Food is good, weather is mild …
Loz: Prime Minister seems sane …
Yessss … Not to get into political discussion. Let's leave that one alone. I try not to get into that stuff because the EV community needs to appeal to people of different political opinions, different values, different ways of life. I try not to engage in political discussions at all. I'm promoting a solution I think should be great for everybody no matter what your political beliefs are.
Loz: So now that you're in NZ, and Bill's retired … You built 80 percent of the Killajoule bike yourself, and now Bill is going to build 80 percent of your next bike, Green Envy.
Yes. Bill will be my trophy husband, I will make money and he has to build me a streamliner.
Loz: Are you gonna trust Bill's motorcycle as much as you trust your own?
Absolutely. Bill is an outstanding engineer. I think he's the superior engineer, he thinks I'm the superior engineer. So I think it'll be perfect.
Loz: That's one heck of a relationship! So you're aiming for 1,000 horsepower with Green Envy for 2020.
At least a thousand. We're actually aiming for a Megawatt. 1360 horsepower.
Loz: Woo! So what are the key technological leaps you'll need to take to get that bike as fast as it needs to be?
Tires. For people without huge budgets, tires for more than 350 miles per hour are basically unobtainable. We're talking many thousands of dollars, if you can even get hold of them from Goodyear or Mickey Thompson. You basically have to team up with a manufacturer and have them make tires for you.
So instead I'm literally inventing the wheel again.
Loz: You guys are gonna make your own tires?
We'll make our own wheels, and they'll be non-pneumatic wheels. The current design is solid aluminum wheels with 3D-printed rubber tread. Because you need the rubber to get the grip with a wheel-driven vehicle.
All the jet cars run on solid wheels, but they don't need traction. I need traction. They just need directional stability.
Loz: You'll need a lot of traction.
Indeed. So that's the big development project for next year, is to re-invent the wheel. And I'm writing a proposal for that to be my research project at the University of Auckland.
Loz: Is this something you might be able to make a business out of?
Nah. I'm terrible at business. That's why I work a day job. I'm terrible at making people pay me.
Loz: So wheels are one thing. Giant electric powertrains are not such a problem?
That's just a budget problem. All the components are available commercially. So you just have to get someone to give you the money so you can buy it, or make someone give you the drivetrain. I'm a lecturer. I don't have the salary to buy a 100-200 thousand dollar drivetrain.
A drivetrain of that caliber will cost you the same as a small family home, and it has no second hand value.
Loz: That's one problem for any electric car buyer, isn't it, that you know whatever you're buying now, the car they bring out in two years will destroy it. Buying one right now is like taking some sort of heroic stance.
Well, whenever you buy a car, the money is gone. It's a depreciating asset.
Loz: So a quick rundown of the next few years. Next year, you're going to bring Killajoule out to Lake Gairdner in South Australia to have a crack at beating your own record next year.
Loz: And the new bike in 2020?
Yep. The plan is Australia as well. It's a very similar logistics cost whether we decide to run in South Australia or Utah at Bonneville. We may do both. It depends on my teaching schedule, and budget, and many other things.
Loz: And beyond that?
There's always much more beyond that. So the goal with Green Envy is to take the overall motorcycle record, which is currently at 376 miles per hour, about 605 kilometres per hour. That's goal number one.
On my long-term vision board, I have a supersonic battery powered car. It's probably not possible with existing technologies, but it's probably possible in about 10 years.
It takes about 100,000 horsepower to break the sound barrier on the ground. And being electric is a huge disadvantage. A vehicle of that speed has to be thrust powered. The new Bloodhound land speed racer is a hybrid, it has one jet engine and one rocket.
As an electric, you'd have to run, basically, fans. The only thing you can push is air. Basically a jet engine that's powered by an electric motor. I have that on my vision board. I mean why not? Nobody has ever done it.
Loz: So you'd have to deal with insane turbine speeds, and all the weird effects of air as it goes through that …
Indeed, and the strange science of working with a compressible fluid ... I heard a great saying the other month: "It's easy to get people to help you with the almost impossible parts. It's very hard to get people to help you with easy problems." If you've got a project that's completely crazy, that looks like there's a sliver of possibility in it …
Loz: Every engineering nerd from here to Timbuktu comes popping out of the woodwork smelling a chance to contribute …
Exactly! And they bring out their checkbooks. They're like 'this is the craziest freaking idea ever, and we can be first, so let's do it!' But you wanna convert your motorcycle to an electric in your garage, good luck!
Look, electric cars aren't the future, they're the present. They're already here, and the challenge is to get them more into mainstream use.
The future is electric aviation. That's the next big thing. Electric thrust power, propellers, jets and so on. A supersonic car, or even a subsonic car that's really, really fast will be thrust powered. And that will have a big overlap with the technology needed for electric aviation. So there's a very interesting area. I can definitely see a little electric plane in my own future, for my private use.
We thank Eva for a thoroughly enjoyable chat. If you'd like to read a ton more about Eva, Bill and their many past, current and future pursuits, she's got a terrific website at Eva Håkansson Racing.