Honda Numa Hybrid Scooter Prototype

The Shape of Things To Come?

Photos by Lorella Borri

Fancy a peek into a truly functional crystal ball? Hop on this new ground-breaking scooter made by America-based Vectrix Company and have a taste of what may become the shape of things to come: electric-powered bikes.

Instead the Vectrix runs solely on electric power, and after a few days of commuting on it, I have to admit I was in a slight state of future shock. Nothing to do with the actual riding, mind you. On many levels the Vectrix feels and behaves just like a current big scooter.

Think more about new mindsets: personal energy management, carrying all sorts of extension cords and pacing yourself to make it to the next socket.

But before we get all too philosophical about the Vectrix, here’s the story behind the innovative vehicle that goes where the Big Four fear to tread, at least for now.

Seems like around 1995, good old Lockheed Martin was looking for some nice projects to bite on outside the military field. Together with entrepreneur Andrew MacGowan, they soon enough came to realize that a zero-emissions urban vehicle that runs purely on electricity could be a swell idea. Bam!

Fifty million dollars and 11 years later we have a mass produced scooter that delivers the goods. Okay, okay, it’s been a bit more complex than that to be sure.

Big hitters like Parker Hannifin, ALCOA, Gold Peak batteries and others had to pool their engineering resources, and a new facility was established in New Bradford, MA, but by 1997 a first prototype was up and running. The scooter was unveiled at the Bologna show of 2000.

The Italian connection is not casual. With close to 300,000 scooters per year sold in Italy alone, this is the most commuting-aware two-wheeled market in the West and a fertile ground to introduce the Vectrix. Just to make sure the message didn’t get lost on the spaghetti eaters, Carlo Di Biagio, former CEO of Ducati Motor Holding, was brought into the board.

Technically speaking, the story looks misleadingly simple. A brushless DC motor that sits next to the rear wheel and drives it though planetary gear powers the Vectrix. The huge space between the rider legs, basically the scooter’s bottom spine, is filled with NiMH batteries rechargeable batteries. Easier said than done.

With no similar vehicle using the technology things like motor and batteries, controllers had to be developed from scratch. The weighty batteries required a sizable weight reduction in other areas, which could only be achieved by going for a unique all-aluminum frame under the injected ABS body parts.

By 2005, the project was mature enough to win Vectrix the Frost Sullivan Award for “Technology Innovation Leadership of the Year,” while in far away Poland an assembly line was being constructed. When you consider the kind of media noise that some small manufacturers of Big Twin choppers are able to create around their low-tech creatures, you have to take your hat off in front of Vectrix’s quiet yet amazingly profound way of doing things. Behind the Vectrix’s production there’s a complex logistic chain that brings together electric parts from the USA, cycle parts from Italy, batteries from Hong Kong and who knows what else.

What she’ll do you ask? Okay, here it starts to get tricky. Remember the different mind-set thing? So forget about cc’s, valves per cylinder and such. If it’s any consolation, then you might be happy to know that the 3-phase, permanent magnets, brushless, 12-pole, 16-slot motor manages to develop a healthy 25 hp, about equal to a current 250-300cc gas-powered scooter.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story because being electric, the motor can develop huge torque from nil revs and has a peak torque of 45 foot-pounds.

Give the Vectrix a good handful and indeed, even if top speed is limited electronically to 60 mph in order to preserve battery power, the Vectrix gets there in a real hurry, leaving most cars in its wake. Between 30 to 50 mph the Vectrix is truly impressive, gaining speed during roll-ons with some serious oomph.

But that’s telling half the story because the way the electric motor responds to throttle inputs is simply unlike nothing else I’ve tried. First there’s the uncanny silence, a quite soft wooosh magically accompanies you. Then, remember when journos used the term electric motor response to describe a healthy gas engine?

Well, a true electric motor feels even nicer, the sheer fluidity of the drive is fun, fun, fun, and when the time comes to tip-toe in traffic, you can really dole out the drive in what feels like fractions of foot-pounds. The control is simply amazing.

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