SAN FRANCISCO — Zipping around on a motorcycle can be fun, but being in a downpour or an accident on one is not. Driving a car is safer and more comfortable, but traffic and parking can be annoying.
What if you got rid of the bad parts of both?
You might end up with something like the C-1, an electric motorcycle that looks as if it came out of the movie “Tron.”
For protection, the bike is encased in a metal shell, and it is controlled like a car, with a steering wheel and foot pedals. Two big gyroscopes under the floor are designed to keep the bike from tipping over, even when a car hits it from the side.
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The C-1’s top speed is 120 mph, and it can travel 200 miles on a full charge.
Lit Motors is the small startup developing the C-1 in a three-story warehouse here. Its 33-year-old chief executive, Daniel Kim, was tinkering with a biodiesel SUV eight years ago when a 500-pound chassis nearly crushed him. The experience got him thinking about cutting out the bulk.
“Most people drive alone,” Kim said. “Why not cut the car in half? I was really into bicycles at that time and I thought, why can’t we have the efficiency of a bicycle and motorcycle but all the amenities of a car?”
Fully electric vehicles have long been a dream among environmentalists and technologists, but companies have found it hard to deliver affordable and practical vehicles to the mass market.
One of the biggest names in this field is Tesla Motors, which makes expensive sports cars and has had trouble ramping up manufacturing.
But Lit Motors, which has a staff of 10, thinks it can bring the benefits of an electric vehicle even to those who aren’t rich. Kim says his motorcycle will be money-saving, safe to drive and simple to build.
The main culprit in the high price of electric vehicles is the battery, said Dan Sperling, a professor of civil engineering and environmental science at the University of California, Davis, and director of its Institute of Transportation Studies.
Unlike computer chips and digital storage, which have improved rapidly while dropping in price, battery technology has made slow progress, he said, so vehicle batteries are still bulky and pricey.
Sperling said the other challenge is that most people are not ready to embrace electric vehicles. Consumers could be nervous about the reliability and maintenance of such an expensive purchase — buggy software, for example, could lead to more serious consequences than it would on something like a smartphone.
That’s why many auto companies have stuck with hybrid vehicles, which use both gas and electricity and are more affordable, easier to produce and more familiar to drivers.
“It’s not like when you buy an iPhone and you throw it out or don’t use it as much when it gets old,” Sperling said. “Unlike an iPhone or Windows system, it can’t crash; it has to perform with high reliability all the time.”
Kim, who dropped out of Reed College and the University of California, Berkeley and later studied industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, plans to overcome those obstacles.
The motorcycle is lighter than a car so its batteries can be smaller and cheaper. And to improve reliability, the system is equipped with more components than it needs, Kim said.
The secret weapons are the gyroscopes that allow the C-1 to balance itself, similar to the approach used in the Segway scooter.
In a video, the company shows the bike remaining upright as a car yanks it from the side.
Only one gyroscope is needed to maintain balance, but there are always two running. Each has redundant computer chips, controllers and sensors, so if any one of those fails, there are extras to back it up.
The bike is made up of 2,200 parts, or one-tenth the number in the average car, which should make it easier to mass-produce, Kim said. He plans to start manufacturing it in the United States.
There are two main target markets, said Ryan James, chief marketing officer for Lit Motors: motorcyclists 45-60 years old who are concerned about safety but don’t want to give up their two-wheeler; and young commuters in urban or suburban areas.
Each motorcycle will cost $24,000 for the first production run of 1,000 in 2014, Kim said. He hopes to lower the price to $14,000 by around 2016, putting it in the range of a nice Ducati motorcycle or an entry-level car like a Honda Fit.
The company is taking early orders and down payments on its website. About 250 peopl e have signed up.