Alta stalks a secret $6bn market

The Alta Motors Redshift in action. Pic: Alta Motors.

The Alta Motors Redshift in action. Pic: Alta Motors.

CORRECTION: This story previously stated Alta had achieved a system cost of $300 per kilowatt-hour, “the lowest” on the market. This has since been corrected to $350.

By Jason Deign

Alta Motors, which has been called ‘the Tesla of motorcycles’, is aiming to dominate a market it believes could be worth USD$6bn within five years.

The company has been perfecting sub-15kWh lithium-ion battery packs for the light-duty vehicle sector, estimating that annual demand for such products could surpass 30GWh of capacity a year by 2022.

The market for traditional motorbikes alone is set to top $120bn next year, according to a forecast from 2014. “The segments within that market are particularly suited for electrification,” said Alta Motors CEO Marc Fenigstein.

In its survey of the market three years ago, ReportsnReports confirmed growth in electric motorbikes was outpacing that for internal combustion engine (ICE)-based versions.

“Since 2008, demand for e-bikes has climbed at double-digit annual rates in many industrialized countries (particularly Germany and the Netherlands), and this trend is expected to continue,” it said. 

E-bikes becoming more popular

“E-bikes are becoming more popular because they are a convenient alternative to bicycles, especially among older riders, and are more environmentally-friendly than ICE motorcycles.

“In addition, e-bikes generally do not require a license, cost considerably less than conventional motorcycles, and have lower operating costs.”

Fenigstein said Alta Motors decided to target the two-wheel electric vehicle segment after recognising that this potential for electrification, combined with growing global urbanisation, could lead to an explosion in motorbike demand.

The company’s first product was an off-road electric motorbike called the Redshift, powered by a 5.8kWh lithium-ion battery pack with an energy density of 185 watt-hours per kilo, delivering 40 horsepower.

While the Redshift MX may have lacked the throaty roar of a traditional off-roader, and was pricey at $14,995, it managed to wow reviewers.

“Our eyes have truly been opened”

Michael Allen and Kris Keefer of Dirt Rider said: “After spending a day of testing on the Alta Redshift, our eyes have truly been opened to the real possibility of electric bike being competitive with internal combustion bikes.”

The decision to focus on a premium product for a market segment with no immediate affinity to electric vehicles recalls Tesla’s strategy of targeting luxury car owners with the Model S.

And the similarities do not stop there, Fenigstein said. While most battery technology developers tinker with cell chemistries, “what Tesla did and what we did was focus on pack technologies,” he told Energy Storage Report.

Like Tesla, Brisbane, California-based Alta Motors uses 18650-format lithium-ion battery cells because they have “low cost and high quality and the highest energy densities out there,” said Fenigstein.

Alta Motors has managed to design packs that use these cells to deliver 185 watt-hours per kilo of energy density at a total system cost of around $350 per kilowatt-hour of capacity, he said. 

Highest energy density in transportation

This is “the highest energy density of any battery in transportation,” Fenigstein claimed.

At production levels above 100,000 units a year, he said he was confident Alta Motors could cut the cost down to about $250 per kilowatt-hour.

Selling big numbers shouldn’t be too hard: this year, more than 17 million two-wheel vehicles are expected to be sold in India alone.

For now, though, Alta Motors is still only shipping “single-thousand volumes” of the Redshift, Fenigstein said, and only within the US.

The company is looking to expand internationally next year, though, and this month beefed up its product range with a new Redshift variant, the EX.

Alta Motors has raised $40m

Alta Motors, which has raised around $40m in funding to date, is also working on the development of another drivetrain, which could be launched in a couple of years.

The drivetrain will be aimed at the scooter market, which is expected to be worth almost $39bn by 2024.

Further ahead in time, Fenigstein said Alta Motors might also consider pursuing opportunities in the nascent electric aircraft sector. “We’re an exciting enabling technology for these products,” he said.

Overall, he said: “We consider ourselves an electric drivetrain technology company.” 

Not expanding into electric cars

Despite this, though, Alta Motors is not planning on expanding into the electric car arena, he confirmed. The strategy makes sense.

Moving into the automotive sector would mean competing with powerful players such as Tesla, Renault-Nissan and Hyundai. And there is plenty to be had by focussing on two wheelers.

“The big point is that this lightweight [vehicle] space has been overlooked not just by technology companies but also by analysts,” said Fenigstein. “Even these are underestimating the pace of change.”

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