Monday, October 14, 2013

The Works Electric Rover is one serious scooter

Brad Baker’s workshop looks less like the cluttered den of a crazed mechanical genius and more like an operating room. Recessed lighting beams down on a surgically clean desk in the middle. Screwdrivers and wrenches lie spaced out evenly like scalpels and forceps, at the ready. Thin sheets of foam protect colorful powdercoated chunks of aluminum resting on the concrete floor.
But he’s not amputating limbs or swapping organs. This little workshop in a Portland, Oregon suburb is the headquarters for Works Electric, where Brad builds the only electric scooter you wouldn’t be ashamed to ride.
In a weathered pair of hiking boots, ripped jeans and a pitted-out T-shirt with tattoos peeking out beneath, he looks more like a Pacific Northwestified Tim Allen than Elon Musk. But when it comes to his passion for the vehicles he builds, he’s no less ambitious in his vision.

“This bike is designed to be the best,” Baker says of his masterpiece, the Rover, which looks like a Razor scooter as imagined by Hummer. “This bike is designed with the highest level of components, the highest performance, the best batteries, everything about it is giving you something that you normally wouldn’t be able to find.”
Proclaiming yourself builder of the world’s finest electric scooter would be an eyebrow-raising assertion outside the eccentric, green-obsessed city Brad calls home. “Electric scooters” conjure up images of wannabe Vespas limping along in the right lane on crowded city streets, or worse, something you would buy at a toy store. But Baker’s company, Works Electric, has elevated the humble scooter from novelty to serious transportation.
“Scooters have a really crummy connotation,” Brad acknowledges. “I think there’s a big necessity for compact, portable transportation. But it doesn’t have to be silly.”
Take a spin on Works’ Electrics’ Rover
One hell of a scooter
At 95 pounds, the Rover has little in common with the push-scooters you’ll find putzing around college campuses and cul de sacs. For one, under the floorboard, you’ll find the same style of battery packs as you would beneath Tesla’s Model S. And a three-phase, brushless DC motor that will whisk you – quietly – to 35 miles an hour when you crack open the electronic throttle.
Standing on it feels half like riding a bicycle and half like riding a skateboard. You can stagger your feet and crouch for stability in turns, but starting and stopping is as easy as twisting a throttle and squeezing a brake lever, respectively. No engine, no clutch, no shifting.
“There’s nothing out there that even compares to it, in terms of the range, the speed, mixed with the fact that it’s still a compact electric vehicle,” explains Patrick Marzullo, the Works cofounder who helped Brad dream up the design.
He’s right. Razor’s fastest electric scooter goes half the speed. A Segway can’t match the Rover’s speed either, or its range. Gigantic Vespa-style electric scooters can, but they weigh three or four times as much. This unique combination of small size and high performance has its perks.
“It’s a really easy piece of transportation to store in a small space, whether you’re in an apartment, or a house,” Patrick says. “You can drive it to work, put it under your desk, put it just about anywhere.” That means no parking to pay for. Or vandals to worry about – or for that matter, insurance. And you can fill it up in about four hours with 18 cents worth of electricity. It’s exactly what Brad and Patrick set out to design little more than a year ago.
From humble origins
Even before was building his own vehicles from scratch, Brad has been a car guy. After getting his degree in mechanical engineering, he served a stint at a GM factory in Ohio where he got a taste of how America’s existing makers of transportation work: terribly. His sole job was to oversee the paint jobs on an assembly line of Chevy Cobalts as they rolled past. Not paint them, but press a button when something went wrong. When even that responsibility became usurped by an aggressive union boss who decided he would run the show, Brad fled the corporate life by heading West on two wheels. Bicycle wheels.
The trip led to his fateful reunion with Patrick, a high-school friend attending school in Montana. Both bound for Portland, Oregon, they became roommates – and Brad began experimenting with homemade electric vehicles.
Despite its beefy construction, the Rover’s aluminum frame keeps weight down to just 95 pounds.
He started, practically enough, by electrifying what he knew: a mountain bike. But soon enough he had moved on to a lifted Suzuki Sidekick that resembles an overgrown Power Wheels. And a homemade electric chopper, still proudly parked in his garage, that looks like a prop from the next Mad Max movie. Huge slab sides conceal an enormous bank of batteries that can fling the chopper to more than 100 mph. An enormous side cowl, seemingly ripped off a Nova at the drag strip, flushes outside air through the packs to keep them cool. As futuristic as the powertrain is, up front, a single headlight and springer suspension project old-school Hell’s Angels badass.
But an opportunity at another Portland company showed Brad the practicality of thinking small. He landed an engineering gig at Boxx Corp, a tiny company developing a tiny product: the “1-meter vehicle,” an electric scooter that basically looks like a computer case with wheels. Unlike at GM, Brad loved the product. Like at GM, business prospects looked dismal. Enamored with the idea of pint-sized electric transportation, but disillusioned with the financial ledgers at Boxx, Brad decided to break out on his own.
On the car ride back from a camping trip, Brad and Patrick hashed out plans for what they envisioned as the perfect urban electric vehicle. “It would do all the things any other scooter would do, but be more compact, faster, more fun to drive,” Patrick explains. “Pretty much the next day, he started sketching stuff, and we started meeting at least once a week and refining the sketch.”
Napkin sketches turned into CAD diagrams, which turned into aluminum skeletons in Brad’s backyard workshop. “The first one, I pretty much built by hand from the ground up,” Brad explains. “I did all the machining, all the bending, all the cutting, in this shop.”
Batteries presented the biggest design challenge. The Rover needed to be small and light enough to fit anywhere, but pack enough juice to be cover a whole day’s urban commute. The solution looks a lot less like the battery in your car and a lot more like the one in your laptop.
“It has probably the most advanced battery pack that you’re going to find in a scooter right now,” Brad boasts. “We’re using lithium-ion technology — very similar technology, if not the same as what’s going in the Tesla Model S vehicles.” A special phase-change material, or PCM, helps keep each cell cooler, extending life to likely match the life of the scooter. At 1.3 kilowatt hours, it’s also a large battery for a vehicle as small as the Rover, but not that bulky. “These particular batteries are very, very energy dense, meaning they can pack a lot of energy in a small space.”
Disc brakes help bring the Rover to a stop in a hurry, coupled with a regenerative braking system that feeds electricity back into the battery as you slow down.
This modern battery tech puts their creation in a class of its own. “The Rover weighs 95 pounds. It has a top speed of 35 miles an hour. It has a range of a little over 30 miles. This is the first time you’ve ever been able to get to that level of performance in a vehicle this size.”
To further set the Rover ahead of cheap competitors, Works sourced LED headlights and taillights, designed a custom receptacle for a seat accessory, and even built in regenerative braking, so that you recharge the battery as you slow down. A 45-degree “speed plate” over the rear wheel helps riders plant their weight where it counts and stay onboard when the torque kicks in. Brad insists the motor could pop the front wheel off the ground if he wanted – though sadly for YouTube viewers everywhere, he’s programmed the throttle controller not to. A cell-phone holder on the handlebar stem lets you mount your phone where you can see it, and Works is developing an app to display your speed and keep track of your range, among other things.
The resulting ride is incredibly intuitive, yet distinct. Grabbing the handlebars feels like piloting a bike, but the staggered foot position on the wide, long deck is more like a snowboard. The low-slung design, with the battery weight packed into the belly of the beast, makes it easy to keep upright even at rest, without the gyroscopic motion that keeps a bike upright. A pair of extra-fat tires sourced from pit bikes give it a sure-footed feel as you roll back and forth across their wide profile in curves.
“It’s a very very unique riding experience,” Brad grins. “And really really fun.”
Thanks to Brad’s programming, cranking open the throttle doesn’t threaten to snap your neck back, but the Rover whines quickly up to its top speed of 35 miles an hour, which will have you passing confused cyclists on trails and bike lanes in no time. On the flats, anyway. Without gears, the Rover chugs noticeably when you give it a hill to chew on. And though those beefcake tires won’t slip out from underneath you on rough terrain, without any real suspension, venturing offroad can turn into a knee-crunching affair as you fight the handlebars for control. But go ahead, try cruising through a quarry on your Vespa.
At its top speed of 35 miles an hour, the Rover feels right at home in cities and residential neighborhoods.
Brad’s first customers appreciate the Rover’s unique traits. “The two things they say are always how easy it is to ride – they’re always surprised – and then also how powerful it is,” Brad says.
One of them lives in a community in Baja, California where only electric vehicles are allowed – but didn’t want a golf cart like everyone else. The Rover lets him adopt an electric lifestyle without completely conceding to a bland look and performance. Another, a former helicopter pilot in Alaska, uses it to commute from his remote home into the nearest town without running out juice halfway, or buying gas. And he wouldn’t be caught dead in a golf cart.
Rolling forward
If you want to land your own Rover, be prepared to drop around $5,000 for the base model and almost $6,000 or the elite model with 30-mile range and 35mph top speed. Which really could buy you a taste of something Italian – even if it is more Vespa than Ducati. But Works isn’t apologetic about the price of its handmade machines.
“You want something cheaper, go buy something else,” Brad insists. “We’re trying to give people something they could never get with these other guys. Ours will always be the most powerful, and the fastest, and the sweetest.”

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