Daniel Kim may well become the Steve Jobs of personal transportation.
Not that he'll ever tell you that. The soft-spoken founder of Lit Motors is far too polite for such braggadocio. But the fact is, Kim -- who, like Jobs, dropped out of Oregon's Reed College -- is barreling down an iconoclastic highway whose destination is a revolution in the way we move.
"My end goal is to have a big, positive impact on the world in terms of carbon emissions and providing a safer and more enjoyable commuting experience," says Kim, 33, whose venture recently was the subject of a flattering Harvard Business School case study. "One day, I hope that anywhere I travel, I'll see a C1. I know it can happen."
The C1 is a two-wheeled, fully enclosed, all-electric vehicle that's a motorcycle in name only. Its game-changing technological leap sits under the single-passenger's seat: two powerful computer-controlled gyroscopes that keep the vehicle upright, whether stopped or in motion.
The way Kim sees it, the C1 is the perfect choice for most U.S. commuters who drive to work solo and prefer the safety of a car but lust after the advantages of a motorcycle. But his vision is global. "If my travels throughout Asia taught me anything, it's that there, the world rides on two wheels," he says. "For them, these are just a safer, better set of wheels."
Although the C1 may look like a vision from a Jetsons future -- a sleek white egg mounted on massive black tires -- Kim is aiming for the present.
He has enough funding from angel investors to spend this summer hunkered down with his staff of 15 constructing a production model for a January 2014 unveiling at the Consumer Electronics Show. So far, he says Lit Motors has pre-order commitments for three-quarters of its first 1,000 C1s, to roll out in 2014.
The initial price point will be $24,000, which, after tax credits, should drop below $20,000, Kim says. But if production numbers grow, Kim hopes he can bring the price to around $12,000 for a 200-mile-range machine capable of hitting 120 mph and rocketing from 0 to 60 mph in around 6 seconds.
Build it, and ...
Will buyers come? If they can overcome a "technical and psychological hurdle," says Bill Moore, publisher of EVWorld.com, an online magazine monitoring the electric vehicle market. "Will motorcyclists who enjoy that open-air feel be OK switching to something that has them enclosed in a cocoon? Will four-wheel people be interested in riding on two wheels that feel like four? My gut reaction is Kim is on the money, but we'll have to wait and see," says Moore, adding the lower the price, the higher the chances of success.
As for Kim's use of gyroscopes, Moore says the idea "has been around, but Kim's genius was in realizing that finally, technology and electronics had progressed to the point where the concept could work."
And how. One Lit Motors video shows the C1 tethered to a hulking Land Rover, which suddenly accelerates but fails to make the two-wheeled conveyance tip. The heavy gyroscopes constantly move, and with inputs from a sensor, counter any falling movement the C1 is experiencing. Kim says this feature extends to the driving experience itself.
"In a motorcycle, you lean to steer, but with my vehicle, you turn a steering wheel and the C1 knows to lean itself, so in that sense you just operate it as you would a car," he says.
Kim's earnest, driven nature attracted an early mentor in Robin Chase, CEO of French-based Buzzcar and a co-founder of Zipcar, a pioneer in the U.S. car-sharing space.
"Smaller, cheaper and more fuel-efficient is the future. What's more, women traditionally shy away from motorcycles. So what Danny's developing does address those gaps. He's got what it takes to make this work," she says. "Ideas are cheap, but start-ups are tough. They require persistence and tenacity, and he has both."
Such characteristics persuaded pal James Reidy to be Lit's first investor; he plunked down a five-figure sum to help Kim set up shop in the tech-centric Bay Area. "Danny is a dreamer, but he's also a very nuts-and-bolts guy," says Reidy, a Portland, Ore.-based investor. "He de-risks the company by doing a lot himself, whether that's engineering or design. With any start-up, the more you delegate, the more your burn rate goes up."
Kim is as unlikely a champion of fuel-efficient transportation as he is a candidate for pop culture success. "I'm a college drop-out," he says with a laugh. "I thought I'd go into real estate, surf, get married and have kids."
He still surfs. As for the rest, his time is consumed by Lit Motors -- a name he chose in reference to his desire to light a flame under the transportation status quo.
Born and raised in Portland, Kim quit Reed to tinker with Land Rovers, which he would strip down and rebuild with an eye toward bigger guts and improved fuel economy, "sort of the ultimate SUVs." It was while building one that he had an epiphany. He was welding beneath a car frame when it came loose and started to crush him. Pure reaction saved his life: "I stiff-armed the frame, and since I was on a creeper on rollers, I was shot out from underneath."
The event was life changing. "It just made me ask, 'Is this project literally worth my life?' I decided it wasn't, and I would find what maybe was." In 2004, his first eureka moment: applying a gyroscope to a two-wheeled vehicle. He enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, and got access to classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I realized I needed to get the engineering, business and design components together if I was going to make this idea work," says Kim, who describes himself as a very picky consumer who would rather make his own products -- his glasses, guitar and surfboard -- than buy something he doesn't see as perfect.
For nearly five years, he tinkered with his plan while doing other work to pay the bills. In 2008, he applied for a patent for the C1's inner magic, and once he got it last year, things accelerated. Family and friends provided $40,000 in seed money. Today, he has $800,000 invested in his current prototype and more dedicated to building the first road-worthy C1.
Word of his mission has spread especially among investors and more than "seven or eight automakers," a few remaining in close touch with Kim. He won't discuss the nature of the conversations, but he implies that these well-known U.S. and European brands are keen to see if the C1 could and should be part of their portfolios.
Whatever happens, the venture has given Kim invaluable insights into what it takes to effect change on a large scale. "You learn fast that you need to reduce your risk, leverage creativity and have a presentation that will unlock funding," he says. "But ultimately, you have to believe fiercely in what you're doing. The rest will fall into place."
"I realized I needed to get the engineering, business and design components together if I was going to make this idea work," Lit Motors founder Daniel Kim said of his C1.
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