If you have ever read Jules Verne, you’re likely aware of one of his most famous works – Around the World in Eighty Days. For many is served as a means of escapism, but for Bas Verkaik it was the inspiration behind a journey that he and an ambitious team of students undertook to ride around the world on an electric motorcycle of their own design.
The journey itself happened in 2016, and since then Verkaik and co. have been talking about their experiences during that trip. What they learned from a scientific perspective, as well as the lessons gleaned during times of failure or adversity.
He has since started a company called SPIKE Technologies which specialises in the creation of batteries for similar kinds of vehicles and projects, and last week was in Johannesburg for this year’s SingularityU South Africa Summit.
During his presentation, Verkaik not only touched on significant landmarks during his journey, but also focused heavily on failure, as it was in those times that he learned the most.
We got the chance to speak with Verkaik and find out why failure is so important, his plans for the immediate future, and the choice not to add any sound to his silent electric motorcycle, among other things.
Hypertext: During your presentation you spoke about Jules Verne’s famous book. Are you looking to undergo any other ambitious journeys with this electric motorcycle?
Bas Verkaik: Not at the moment. That specific project ended a couple of years ago, and it was more focused on showing people what is possible with a battery powered vehicle, so it achieved its mission. The motorbike still travels the world and is a part when we attend events, so it’s still a part of spreading our vision.
We did however create a company called SPIKE Technologies, and with SPIKE we’ve been able to expand and continue with our research, development and collaboration around the tech we created with our bike project.
Hypertext: So collaboration is a big focus for SPIKE at the moment?
BV: Yes, very much so. Our belief is that everything that moves in future will have a battery, and we’re trying to supply the battery.
Hypertext: Shifting to SA’s EV landscape, a big hurdle is infrastructure. Is that the only thing holding us back in your opinion?
BV: Yeah I think there are two main hurdles.
The first is cost, as it requires more up front investment, but the thing is you can win it back over time. This is because electric vehicles generally have a lower total cost of ownership, so they become cheaper over their lifetime.
That’s why I think there are a lot of opportunities for investment companies operating in Africa, as they are able to shift the initial investment and spread it over the entire lifetime of the vehicle.
It’s still a little tricky at this stage though, as investment companies are still not convinced by the quality of electric vehicles.
The availability of charging points is the other hurdle, especially as you move out of the city.
A first step to take though is ensuring there are enough charging points in the city, and the African climate also makes solar-powered solutions highly feasible. There’s also a lot of micro grids that are coming up right now, which could potentially help farmers who are having to travel long distances to and from cities.
I’d say that having enough charging points is the biggest hurdle, but it can definitely be overcome.
Hypertext: You touched on a Kenyan company you helped develop its own electric motorcycle during your presentation. Are you engaging with more companies on the continent?
BV: Not yet. Our company has not been around that long, but we are looking at some African companies. There is one in Nigeria for example, that is doing very similar work to us, and trying to electrify a taxi fleet of motorbikes.
With the Kenyan company, we helped them develop a prototype, and we’re now in discussions for the next phase of the project.
Hypertext: We’ve seen far more car companies electrify its vehicles compared to motorcycle companies. Is it more difficult to electrify these kinds of vehicles than people realise?
BV: Yes it is, because you require a lot more power from the motorcycle with less batteries. In that respect a car is a relatively simple thing to design for, and you’re able to get a large battery pack inside of it that can produce power that is comparable to a motorbike.
The size of the battery pack plays a crucial role here. So in a motorbike you need to supercharge in order to get the power and performance required and that needs to be done from a relatively small battery pack.
That’s why it is more challenging working to electrify bikes.
Hypertext: Lastly, from a philosophical standpoint you spoke quite a bit about the challenges you faced during this journey. Did that kind of adversity help to forge a better company?
BV: Yes, I truly believe that it does. We should definitely look to embrace failure. As a society we often only celebrate success, but we should celebrate failure too, because people fail also learn. And it’s those people who learn that innovate.
That’s why it is so important to learn, and I think that the fastest way to learn is to fail.
That’s what we did with out first prototype which was a complete failure. If we had created a “perfect” bike from the beginning, it would not have been perfect, because it would not have included anything from the lessons we learned from failure.