Mark Gardiner

Deep Dive: Brian Wismann, Zero Motorcycles

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Story by Mark Gardiner

Last month, I attended the launch of the Zero FXE in Santa Cruz. 

The FXE is a production version of the Zero SM—a concept bike created by Bill Webb of Huge Design, that was shown at the 2019 edition of Portland’s One Moto Show. Although the FXE is mechanically identical to the proven FXS Supermoto, the new machine represents a step up for Zero in terms of industrial design and visual sophistication. Most of the FXE presentation was delivered by Brian Wismann, who is Zero’s VP for Product Development. Brian studied automotive design at North Carolina State University’s College of Design, where he also collaborated with engineering school teams on Formula SAE and Mini Baja race cars. Those early racing experiences led to his designing a Le Mans-style prototype for Crawford, a race car manufacturer in North Carolina. Craig Bramscher then hired him to design a V-12 supercar. 

Brian Wismann on the podium after the 2016 Isle of Man TT Zero race. [Brian Wisman]
Brian had always been interested in motorcycles. When he was a little kid, he and his dad rebuilt a Briggs&Stratton-powered minibike. Brian crashed it on his first outing; so did his dad, and after that motorcycles were off-limits. He didn’t ride again until he tried a college pal’s CBR600F4i and... he crashed that one right away, too.  So, not the most auspicious start. But when Craig Bramscher shifted Brammo’s focus from ICE supercars to EV motorcycles, Brian became one of the OGs in that nascent category. He penned Brammo’s Enertia and Empulse models. He spent a total of 13 years at Brammo, during which time he dove into ICE sport bikes as well, attending schools and track days on a BMW S1000RR among other bikes. Along the way, he led Brammo’s (later Victory’s, after Polaris bought the company) efforts on the Isle of Man and at Pikes Peak. He still has a strong interest in racing, and has his own EV racing project called “Lightfighter”.

The Lightfighter, Brian Wismann's personal project. [Brian Wisman]
Brian became Zero Motorcycles’ VP of Product Development in 2017. He played key roles in the development of both the Zero SM concept bike and the Zero FXE. During the recent FXE intro, he did a far deeper-than-usual dive into the design process and described a whole new corporate aesthetic, dividing the motorcycle into an “essential surface” and a “machine core”—the former comprised of the bodywork and rider interface; the latter the frame, battery, motor, and cycle parts. Not all designers can articulate their process so clearly, so I circled back to learn more about his past, his process, and what he sees in the future for electric motorcycles. 

MG: How many times did you compete on the Isle of Man?

BW: After that 2009 TT, we focused on racing in North America, and we won the North American TTXGP Road Race Championship in 2011, 2012 and 2013, as well as the World Championship, which took place at Daytona International Speedway in 2012.  But we did go back to the TT—or at least, I did. I led Victory Motorcycles teams at the TT in 2015 and ’16. And, in 2016 we also raced at Pike's Peak.

Wismann with TT legend Guy Martin at the Isle of Man. [Brian Wisman]
I couldn't have anticipated then how much racing would influence my career. It was a fantastic experience; one, just to see the promise of the technology, but two, to see how a team really works together under pressure in an environment like that, and to see a team enter a flow state. Ever since then, that's been a leadership goal of mine working with with engineering teams—getting to that point where everybody knows what each individual is responsible for and best at doing. Then, the efficiency gains that you get as a team are unbelievable. 

MG: How did you come to Zero?

BW: Polaris purchased Brammo’s electric motorcycle division—the IP and the rights to the bikes. We helped them make that transition and bring the Victory Empulse TT to market.  When Polaris chose to to close down down Victory, that model died out but Brammo continued to exist as a OE [original equipment - ed.] powertrain provider. My role shifted from being to director of product development to working with OEMs on their requirements for lithium-ion batteries. When Zero expressed an interest, I jumped at the chance to do more full product development rather than just work on a single vehicle subsystem. 

MG: How does the experience of working at Zero compare with Brammo?

BW: One big difference is that Zero has a strong private equity investor that's been fantastically supportive and has been a believer in the business from the time that they got involved, which was about 10 years ago. And so the company is not really in a raising money mode, as most startups are, and as Brammo usually was.

I think Zero runs a really efficient operation here. It was impressive to see when I came down to visit. There's a lot of in-house expertise on motor magnetics, on batteries, motorcycle dynamics, FEA analysis, and all kinds of testing. So the group here is extremely gifted. And the company, since it's been putting products out into the field for 15 years, is mature in terms of their their customer service support. They have engineering staff within customer service, engineering staff within the quality group, engineering staff within production and the operations team.

The Zero FXE. [Aaron Brimhall]
MG: Your official title is Vice-President of Product Development. Does that make you the boss of engineers?

BW: I am the VP that the six functional design engineering departments [about 80 employees in total—MG] report into and then ultimately I report into our CTO, Abe Askenazi. So all of engineering reports into the CTO, and I’m the VP on the ground dealing with the day-to-day management and execution.

MG: Is it rare in the tech world for a designer to be the boss, instead of an engineer?

BW: It’s rare, but not unheard of. I think that as products shift away from just being a list of features and become more about experiences, that plays to the strength of industrial designers, given that they focus on that total customer experience. Industrial designers are trained to take a broad view, not only at the product attributes but also how it how it fits into the full customer usage case. They think more about the experience rather than just the product itself.

MG: How far out are you working right now?

BW: We are working actively on on products as far out as model year '25. So this would be things that would launch during calendar year '24.

MG: What about longer-range work?

BW: There’s always a product plan that runs out at least five years. That paints a pretty clear picture of what the engineering team is going to be working on. And I would say that once you get 10 years out, things look a little bit, you know, a little bit more fluid, a little bit murkier. But there are there are some ideas of what direction we're headed.

The Zero FXE. [Aaron Brimhall]
MG: What does it look like when you guys are looking way into the future? Is it just guys sitting around bullshitting and making little sketches on napkins? Is it lists of of of words or specifications that you would be working towards?

BW: It’s probably not not as sexy as sketches. It would be product features and technology that's being developed; stuff that you see mostly in a lab environment or hear about being discussed on our suppliers’ product roadmaps. It gets fleshed out a lot closer to realization, with input from customer surveys and the work that our industrial design team does to keep their finger on the pulse of the industry at large. And it's not only the motorcycle industry, but it can be automotive or consumer electronics or a lot of things that can influence consumer sentiment when it comes to design thinking.

MG: We're seeing kind of a blurring right now as electric bicycles become more sophisticated and more powerful. Would I be crazy to assume that Zero might someday produce other mobility solutions that would not necessarily be described as motorcycles?

BW: I don't think that that's crazy at all. I would say that the charter for Zero from the beginning has been towards more personal mobility. Right now, we're focused on electric motorcycles as that means of mobility. But there's nothing about our company that prevents us from looking at electric bicycles or electric scooters or really anything in between. The trick is that we have to understand where we'd be able to eke out a competitive advantage and put a product out there that we're really proud of.

MG: What kind of timeline is involved, taking a product from completely blue-sky thinking to production?

BW: The initial design takes roughly 12 months to get to a point where you've got a pretty good idea of what you're trying to build and what it's going to look like. The commercialization of that design will take roughly three years after that point, but if your design is using mature technology, it might happen a bit faster. [note: the typical OEM internal-combustion design process is more like 8 years (ex: BMW R9T) to 11 years (ex: Honda Africa reboot) from sketch to new model - ed.]

The Zero FXE. [Aaron Brimhall]
MG: When Zero creates a new product, is the prototyping done in-house?

BW: It depends. If it's a brand new platform altogether, then usually the first prototype we build is done in-house. But very quickly, we try to start working with our production suppliers because we’ve found that if we already know who the manufacturer is going to be, we learn faster if we work with them on initial prototypes. We have two phases. Our first phase is what we call F&D—feasibility and definition, and those would be built in-house. And then the next phase of prototypes, which we call D&R—durability and refinement; we would try to work with the production supplier on that.

MG: Zero’s newest model, the FXE, was designed in collaboration with Bill Webb at Huge Design. Is it hard for you—a designer yourself—to hand off a project like that and watch someone else do it?

BW: Not not at all. I still love picking up the pen and paper myself and doing designs on my own, and I still do that on the on the side. But I also like to give a design brief or an idea to somebody that's very creative to see what they’ll come up with. All of us is always smarter than one of us. 

MG: What drew you to Bill Webb and Huge Design in particular?

BW: Bill had done a series of designs under the brand name Huge Moto that got a lot of play on social media. I was drawn to a fresh esthetic that I hadn't really seen in the motorcycle industry before, but it was unfortunately coupled with this overly complicated gas engine powertrain that didn't do a service to the clean esthetic he’d created. I thought, “Man, if only that was an electric power train!”

That's why we started talking to Bill. And it turned out that he was also quite interested in electric power trains, he just had never worked with them before or had a partner that knew about them. It began as kind of a side project, but it really took off once he got started and shared some renderings of what he had in mind.

The Zero FXE. [Aaron Brimhall]
MG: What does the process of creating a design concept look like these days? Is he still drawing on paper or carving clay?

BW: Bill tends to start in digital. Even the 2D sketches that he does leverage Photoshop and Illustrator. That's not true of all designers, but those are really just the tools. I think you can still see design intent; you can still see a great design, whether the designer is using pen and paper or a fancier Photoshop digital toolset.

At one point, he told us he’d used Bruce Lee as his inspiration for this bike

MG: The FXE stayed close to original SM concept bike, but did Bill or Zero explore a number of very different solutions and then settle on that one? Or were you always headed in this very specific direction?

BW: This time, we were almost always headed in this direction. The original 3D sketches that Bill presented were maybe even a little bit more stark or blocky compared to what we came up with, and he came to the conclusion that he needed to provide a little bit more surface detailing and break it up a little bit because that top fuselage was just a little too monolithic and heavy feeling. 

At one point, he told us he’d used Bruce Lee as his inspiration for this bike, that he wanted it to be very strong, but also very lean. So, he went back and kind of re-sculpted it in 3D. But the idea, the breakup between that upper fuselage and the lower machine core section was always part of the design from the very beginning.

MG: What are some of the challenges of turning a one-off custom into a production motorcycle?

BW: It can be the stuff of nightmares for designers just because there's just so many examples where you've got a beautiful sketch or a beautiful concept model and then you realize, well, it didn't have turn signals or didn't have mirrors. And the way the light is positioned, it is impossible with homologation requirements. And so that required a lot of discussion here at Zero in terms of how close we thought we could actually get to the concept bike.

Luckily for us, Bill didn't go completely crazy on the original concept bike. He could have taken more liberties than he did, but he wanted the bike to look like something that was feasible and and rideable that was important to him in developing the concept. And on our side, we have some very skilled designers and surface modelers. Our digital design manager was formerly with BMW Motorrad and Audi so they’re quite skilled in manipulating surfaces digitally and they were able to kind of bridge that gap. The SM concept bike went into the design studio and was really studied and broken down in terms of what elements made made that design so successful so that we could make sure that approach translated into the production bike.

The Zero FXE. [Kevin Wing]
MG: How long was it, from the time you saw the SM concept bike sitting on a plinth in the One Moto Show to the time Zero said, “OK, let’s put it into production”?

BW: Only a couple of months. The social media response was awesome; that was our first indication that this bike was was special. But it really was the follow-on response from our dealers that cemented it, because ultimately we needed them to buy into the idea that they could sell a bike with progressive styling to the customer. From the engineering perspective, this was about a 15-month program to take it from start to volume production, which is quite quick.

MG: Bill Webb is a motorcycle guy but Huge Design is known for consumer electronics. Do you think his design sensibility will have a broader appeal at this moment because it evokes things we handle every day?

BW: I think that Bill's design sensibilities are hitting at the right time for the electric motorcycle and maybe even the broader EV industry. The features that we're experiencing in electric vehicles are similar to features and experiences we have with consumer electronics. And so there used to be more of a dividing line in the design world between cars and consumer electronics, but those lines can be blurred a little bit more now. And not only are designers willing to play with that, but consumers are willing to accept it. 

Remember the first time you saw the blanked-off grill on a Tesla? Their first cars had a big black grill in there to at least give some visual similarity to other cars’ air intakes. But now it's gone altogether and it no longer looks as strange as it did when you first saw it. So, yeah, I think consumer sensibilities are changing and this styling supports the whole concept of an electric vehicle being simpler and cleaner.

MG: You spoke of the FXE’s “essential surface” floating above the “machine core”. Do you think that is going to shape Zero’s design philosophy going forward?

BW: I hope so. I think the FXE provided a unique opportunity to define our own design language. And I think the industrial design team here, again, by leveraging what was created with the SM concept bike, has now distilled that into a design language that that we can follow on future products. So I don't think that every Zero motorcycle in the future is going to look like the FXE. But I can guarantee that you'll be able to pick out elements that are either essential surface or machine core that are consistent across the product line.

The Zero FXE. [Kevin Wing]
MG: Ever since my first ride on a Zero in 2007, I've had many, many conversations about electric motorcycles and a recurring theme has been motorcyclists telling me, “I'm waiting for batteries to improve.” But Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to batteries; in recent years Li-ion battery improvements have been marginal and most experts feel we’re approaching the maximum energy density available using the current chemistry. What do you tell those people who are waiting? 

BW: Well, I tell them I've been I've been in this industry for 15 years and it's not only about energy density increasing—although I will say that since 2009, roughly, we were looking at specific energy and batteries that were usable in a motorcycle being roughly around 100 watt-hours per kilogram. Now we're using batteries that are two hundred and twenty to two hundred and forty watt- hours per kilogram. So that's a that's a fairly significant improvement.

And our supplier, Farasis Energy has said that their Gen 4 version of its automotive cell is going to reach about 330 watt-hours per kilogram. So roughly 25-30% percent better than what we have in vehicles today. So battery development doesn’t follow Moore's Law, but clearly there are improvements coming. And I would say that incremental improvements add up to a lot when when, with each model year, designers are able to make a decision based on that increase in specific energy—whether they provide more range on the motorcycle, or they offer the existing motorcycle for a lower cost, or use the benefit from a packaging perspective to make a bike that either has more storage or handles better dynamically. 

I'm a big fan of the book “The Innovator's Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen. A major theme is that compounding incremental improvements get you to the minimal need for the customer—that is really what creates disruptions. So I think people waiting to be surprised when when they look around and see that the market has flipped. 

Legacy companies are so focused on preserving what they have that they miss what's coming in the future

MG: There's a lot of players in the four-wheel EV segment now. Some are EV-first companies like Tesla and Rivian, but many are either spinoffs like Polestar, or legacy OEMs that are pivoting to electric models. What’s holding legacy motorcycle manufacturers back?

BW: Legacy companies are so focused on preserving what they have that they miss what's coming in the future. Every motorcycle company has access to the technology; they just don't want to deploy it because they don't they don't want to cannibalize their existing market or upset their existing customer base.

The Zero FXE. [Kevin Wing]
MG: Would you like to see companies like Honda or Yamaha join Harley Davidson with a high-profile electric motorcycle?

BW: Absolutely. There is no way that a company Zero’s size can educate the whole audience. Having another big player come in and help carry that burden would be awesome. Also, it provides a point of comparison. People want to understand that their purchase represents a good value. That’s easier when you have another product you can compare it to.

MG: Last but not least—not for Zero in particular but the EV moto world in general—what’s the next big landmark moment when you’ll realize you’ve reached to the next level?

BW: First, it will be an electric motorcycle that is comparable in cost to gas motorcycles in whatever category—be it a cruiser or a sport bike—that the straight up cost is is comparable. Second, that bike also achieves a real-world 200-mile range. I think that’s going to be a tipping point. 

Having experienced electric motorcycles, nothing else is needed. I just rode a competitor’s gas bike a couple of days ago, and was reminded that there is nothing about the gas motorcycle experience that's better than electric. So once you've once you've achieved price parity and you have a bike that covers 99 percent of everybody's daily needs, then I don't I don't see any justification for continuing with internal combustion bikes.

 

Mark Gardiner is a journalist, the author of several books, a veteran motorcycle racer, and a former ad agency Creative Director.