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Interview: Erik Buell Reveals Origins of FUELL E-Moto Brand

Our resident electric motorcycle expert, Nick Schoeps, sits down with FUELL’s CTO, the legendary Erik Buell, and CEO, François-Xavier Terny, to see what the electric motorcycle company has in the works.

FUELL Fllow electric motorcycle(Photo/FUELL Motorcycles)
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Erik Buell is defiant. He’s taken far more blows than he’s landed in both business and racing, but the man stands. He lives for the noble fights to create, innovate, and propel us on two wheels. Now he’s at it again with the modern fuel of choice: electrons.

Erik forged a globally beloved brand, but Buell Motorcycles has gone the way of Bultaco — but also found a new life recently. Is his latest all-electric brand “FUELL” history repeating?

The more bets you make, the higher your likelihood of a win. Erik isn’t the 33-year-old gunner who built Buell Motorcycles. He’s 40 years wiser, has accumulated an immensely tolerant wife and grandkids, and now plays guitar. He’s still betting that two wheels are better than four, and his new brand, FUELL, is more “funnest” and less “fastest.” 

I sat down with the legend himself, currently FUELL’s CTO, as well as the company’s CEO, François-Xavier Terny, to learn more.

FUELL Motorcycles team
FUELL team; (photo/FUELL Motorcycles)

FUELL CTO & CEO Interview

I heard that you rode one of your Flluid e-bikes across the state of Wisconsin. Is that true?

Erik Buell Wisconsin bike packing on FUELL e-bike
Erik Buell bike-packing across Wisconsin; (photo/FUELL Motorcycles)

Buell: I did! I actually wanted to ride across America, but couldn’t budget the time. Riding across Wisconsin in November is epic enough. It was freaking cold, and I didn’t use hotels.

I bikepacked about 95 miles per day on a FUELL e-bike loaded with 75 pounds of camping gear, food, and extra batteries. I wanted to prove that these bikes can replace your car — the fun is not limited to weekend outings.

FUELL Flluid 2s and 3s e-bikes
FUELL Flluid 2s and 3s e-bikes; (photo/Nick Schoeps)

When did you get bitten by the “electric” bug? When did it click for you?

Buell: I consider myself a bit of a futurist. At Buell, I had a 200-year plan, and electric was part of that vision. This was 2006 and we were part of Harley-Davidson. I’d ridden Brammo, Zero, and Mission motorcycles. They were good products, but when you run the numbers, the tech didn’t support an electric Harley. 

If you take a first principles view, our only real source of energy comes from the sun. Some of that is stored in fossil fuels of long-dead dinosaurs, which is a wonderfully dense fuel, but we’re going to run out eventually. At the time, batteries were 1/9 as energy-dense as gasoline. There’s no way you could ride to Sturgis with that technology, and you can’t dilute a brand like Harley with an urban bike. 

But, Buell would be the perfect brand to introduce an urban e-moped kind of product. That was the first step of that futurist vision, taking the product to where the market was going. Well, Harley quickly put the kibosh on that idea. 

Fast forward to EBR (Erik Buell Racing) I found a new way to execute on that vision, working with HERO motors. HERO was worried about range anxiety, so we delivered a hyper-efficient 350 mpg serial hybrid moped! We engineered a single-cylinder generator that was far better than any conventional motor because it only ran at one very efficient rpm. The generator would kick on and recharge the battery as needed. It never made it to production, but it was a feat of engineering efficiency.

Thinking about the future, I’d ask myself — Is motorcycling a thing that’s going to die? I don’t think so. There’s always going to be a place for lean, clean, simple vehicles.

For electric, urban is the way to go because it’s no longer a compromise to go electric. When you can make a product and say that it’s better than its gasoline equivalent — now you’ve really got something. 

FUELL Fllow electric motorcycle
(Photo/FUELL Motorcycles)

OK, let’s talk more about the upcoming Fllow motorcycle. Do you expect to switch to the upcoming “North American Charging Standard” (Tesla-style) plug?

Buell: The fact that NACS is becoming the standard is just wonderful, I’ve always believed that Tesla has the best quality and most widely available network. We designed the receptacle on the FUELL to be swappable from day one, because the chargers in Europe and North America didn’t have the same standard. The bike will be adaptable to future changes this way.

FUELL Fllow electric motorcycle
(Photo/FUELL Motorcycles)

The rear wheel is fully enclosed, which seems like it wouldn’t fit motorcycle tire change machines. Will the rear tire be serviceable using standard equipment?

Buell: The wheel comes out without the motor, but we don’t show that on the prototype. There’s a cover over the rear hub on the prototype to conceal proprietary designs. We’ve invested a lot in this assembly and think we have some very novel ideas. 

I’m sure you have grand plans to expand your motorcycle lineup as FUELL grows. What style bike would be the next addition to the stable?

Buell: Certainly we have a few rough ideas, but the Fllow is the right product for us. It solves a problem we’re passionate about, and it’s the type of bike that is better for being electric.

Higher-power bikes don’t offer the range you want for long trips. On the lower end, a small company can’t be competitive in the high-volume, low-margin scooter market.

Your drive for innovation and performance is legendary, and your mark on motorcycling will stand the test of time. Many of your creations are still enjoyed the world over, but the businesses that support them have shuttered.

The Fllow is a software-controlled product with a digital key. How can FUELL ensure that customer products will not become “bricked” if FUELL were to become insolvent? This fate has recently become a reality for customers of VanMoof and Faraday e-bikes.

Buell: Fundamentally, the vehicle has self-contained internal software. Not in some remote building or up in the cloud. In the future we’ll provide firmware updates, but at no time does the Fllow require a phone or an internet connection to work. There may be optional functions that can be enabled from an app, but we’re building a vehicle — not a connected appliance.

35kW should make the Fllow very capable, and it’s 7x the power of Kawasaki’s recently released models. Are you worried about this competition, or does this only validate the market for e-motos?

Buell: I think that it’s validation that electric motorcycles are coming. Is the Kawasaki a commuter? No, it’ll be slow and range-limited. If I was 16, I might want one. If I’ve got a job and luggage, it doesn’t get the job done. The massive storage we’ve built into the tank area on the Fllow is a game-changer. 

When we were first spec’ing the Fllow, we had a pop-up shop to get reactions and brought in both the Harley and Ducati riders. “I can commute through the tunnels without my legs being melted off by exhaust pipes!” they said. I don’t want to sell it just on fun; I want to sell utility. These guys see it as an addition, not a replacement. And we don’t want to sell just to existing riders; I want to bring new folks into motorcycling.

FUELL Fllow electric motorcycle
(Photo/FUELL Motorcycles)

The world knows that you’re a racer at heart. Do you envision a future spec racing series for FUELL Fllow?

Buell: I don’t think so. You know racing is a tool for brand building — you don’t make money racing. We have a strong starting point as a brand and we’re deeply experienced already at building motorcycles. Our goal is to build a profitable and sustainable business that is known for making the best products for cities, not for racing. 

What are all the people commuting in European cities going to do when internal combustion is banned? What we’re building is for cities like Paris that have 250,000 two-wheeled motorists. That’s what motivates me. I’ve got six kids and grandkids, and I want them to live in a future that isn’t dull and boring government-mandated “green.” I believe we can make it fun.

There are two areas of the Fllow that — based on initial images — appear to be out of compliance with FMVSS standards:

Buell: The lights do meet the requirements for production. I’ve lived in that world in gasoline motorcycles and the same rules apply to electric — we know these rules absolutely. It will pass.

The first question regards the rear indicator lights. Standards mandate a minimum turn-signal separation distance of 9 inches from centerline. They also mandate a separation of no fewer than 4 inches from the taillamp to the stop lamp (brake light). I love the integrated aesthetic in the model you show — but it doesn’t seem to satisfy these standards. Will the design change before production, or is there another way the Fllow satisfies FMVSS?

The second question regards braking requirements. When I worked with Bultaco Motors in Spain and again with Arcimoto here in Oregon, we also tried to get by with only regen braking on the rear. In the end, it doesn’t seem to satisfy the FMVSS rules. If the battery is full, you lose the ability to regen brake. Additionally, in the event of a power loss, the rider would lose rear brakes entirely. What is the FUELL team doing differently to safely brake with only the motor?

Buell: We have a proprietary solution here and believe we know how to handle this. It took a lot of work to figure out how to do it and we’re really proud of the solution. This rear hub motor is different than anything on the market. This is the type of thing I never could have done at Harley. It’s really exciting.

FUELL Fllow electric motorcycle
(Photo/FUELL Motorcycles)

My impression from reading the fine print is that all preorders for the Fllow are non-refundable, but you aren’t promising a delivery date. Are customers entitled to a refund if development (as it often does) takes longer than one would hope? If FUELL is unable to bring the bike to market, will these deposits be returned?

Terny: We’re losing an awful lot of money on each preorder, but it was immensely valuable to understand the true demand from those core early adopters. The response was nothing short of phenomenal.

The price that these early adopters got, including a matching $1,100 helmet — the lightest in the world — and a home charger is an incredible bargain. For us, it’s inspiring proof to ourselves and investors that several hundred people believe in us and want to be a part of the journey. It’s not just a deposit, it’s a connection to our community. 

We had to be stringent on the refundability — 100% within 2 weeks, 50% within 3 months. And after that, we’re putting the money to work to purchase infrastructure and parts. This isn’t going into anyone’s pockets. In the future, we may open up a waiting list with a smaller down payment.

Buell: It’s concrete validation, how wonderful that these people will do this! For us, it’s expensive money in a way, but look at the upside it brings for both us and our most loved user base. They get a phenomenal discount and a special part of the FUELL journey. And, our team gets the runway to make a product that doesn’t require as much venture investment.

FUELL Fllow electric motorcycle
(Photo/FUELL Motorcycles)

How long until I can come out to the Midwest and ride a pre-production model?

Buell: A while yet — 18 months or more. First impression is everything and we’re not releasing anything that isn’t polished and ready. Building bikes is what we know — we’ve lived this before — and when we offer first rides, they must be without compromise.

Thanks, Erik and François, for a great conversation!

To dive deeper into all things FUELL Motorcycles, check out the company’s website.

FUELL Fllow electric motorcycle

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