The First Two Months

The Arrival

My beautiful Lectra finally arrived March 8, 1999.  I had ordered it January 29, 1999 but there had been some delays due to some customizations (stiffer rear shocks and the smaller rear sprocket), and, believe it or not, the Chinese New Year (EMB gets its parts from Taiwan).

To my great vexation, however, this was right in the middle of the worst flu virus I’ve had in over ten years.  My whole family was sick with it.  I could barely open the crate; a neighbor had to help me.  After that all I could do, for days, was to creep to the garage door and peek in at it.  Longingly.  I was way too dizzy to actually ride it.

But finally the flu abated enough that I could drive it down to DMV to register it.  No problem as DMV is very near by.  The Lectra certainly turned some heads.  Sadly, even though Arizona gives a discount on the VLT (Vehicle License Tax), motorcycles are excluded.  What’s with this discrimination?  Something to write the governor about.  (NOTE:  I found out one year later that the guy I was dealing with was simply misinformed.  The Lectra does indeed qualify for the $5 VLT as well as a significant state tax credit; see the details.)  After paying the Arizona sales tax and the vehicle license tax, I got a nice motorcycle license plate to screw on the back.  Arizona does have a special “Alternative Fuel” license plate but (you guessed it) not in motorcycle size.  Hmph!

Putting It Through Its Paces

Since I’d registered my Lectra on the weekend, I still had to wait to do an official commute to and from work.  But there was nothing saying I couldn’t make a test run.  I drove it down to work and back on a single charge; in fact, there were two lights left on the SOC (State of Charge) meter upon my return.  I’m only six miles from work, but four of those miles I have to drive 45-50 mph.

Late Sunday night, with very little traffic on the road, I decided to push it a little farther:  to drive it all the way to the eastside Barnes & Noble and back.  Because there was so little traffic, I didn’t get stopped at stoplights, and so it was an almost uninterrupted cruise.  Fun, but hard on the batteries—they gave out about a mile from home and I had to hit the Reserve button to limp back the rest of the way.  Total trip:  12.9 miles.

That is a lot less than 30 miles, but I have to keep in mind that it was unusual conditions, and the batteries haven’t broken in.  Furthermore, electric vehicles don’t like long cruises— they do better with stop and go traffic, as the batteries have a change to recover and regen braking can be used.  Stay tuned for what I discover about range with a normal commute.

Running Errands From Work  3/15/1999

My first day at work with the Lectra!  The ride in is easy, only dropping one light off the SOC meter.  That’s one light, for six miles.  If it was linear (it isn’t), that would equate to a 30 mile range, even at 40 mph.  If anything the Lectra seems even peppier after its long haul the night before; I exceed 50 mph a couple of times without really trying.

Today I have to get fitted for a tux for my brother’s wedding and drive down to my insurance agent’s place so he can start the Lectra’s insurance and take a picture for his records.  This is something new for me:  using only my bike and the bus, running errands during lunch is impossible due to the travel time.

But the Lectra does great.  At a stoplight, a guy rolls down his window and says, “Say, how many cc’s…” does a double take, and says, “Is that electric?”  I assure him that it is.  He is amazed and keeps trying to crane his head back to look at it as traffic moves forward.

The people at work who see it are impressed with the styling.  “Sexy,” admits one.

After the first errand (getting fitted for a tux) I return to work, and therefore to a place to plug into.  I leave work early for the next errand, planning to stop at my agent’s and then go home from there.  To my surprise, somewhat, I don’t have quite enough juice, having to hit Reserve for the last half mile home.  What surprises me is that the Reserve mode comes on when there is one LED left on the SOC.  In other words, when I drop to two lights, I am on my “last” light.  Perhaps as the batteries break in (10-50 charges) this will improve some.

First Normal Commute 3/16/1999

This was definitely one of those days that made me buy the Lectra in the first place.  A winter storm had blown into Tucson, making it cold, windy, and overcast.  Not good bike or bus weather.  The Lectra zips into town, again (is it my imagination?) seeming even more powerful than the day before.  Absolutely no trouble at all keeping up with the inbound traffic.  Plenty of power, and when I arrive at work, six miles distant, I’ve only used one SOC light.  Nevertheless I plug it right in, as the lead-acid batteries enjoy that.

What a difference compared to biking—my head is safe and warm in a helmet and I’m wearing a leather jacket and gloves, arriving warm and unsweaty.  Perfect.

One of my “green” colleagues is also “green” with envy.  “I ride my bike to work once a week and I feel pretty good about that,” she says, “but you’re avoiding pollution every day!”  It’s true.

A few more people from work take a look at the Lectra.  One says, “It… it doesn’t even look electric!”  I suppose he expected something boxy with batteries strapped to the side.  Not my cute Lectra!  When it comes time to go (I am still fighting off the flu and leave early), several more people come down to see it and to listen to it start up and take off.  There are cheers of glee when turning on the “ignition” makes, of course, no sound at all.  A push of the PWR button and a twist of the throttle, and with a gentle buzz, I’m off, with more cheers behind me.

It’s uphill all the way home, so I’m curious as to the Lectra’s return performance.  How many SOC lights will I use?  I guess two, but—to my pleasant surprise, it’s only one.  And the Lectra seemed perfectly powerful going home, exceeding 40 even up a rather steep hill.  Gee.  Maybe the Optima batteries really are breaking in.  Its great performance going home today mystifies me, given its much weaker performance on my Sunday night “range test”.

Figuring Out My Range

After a few commutes and other range tests it is becoming clear to me that the batteries’ performance is less mysterious than I have been thinking.  I’m already familiar with the way other battery-operated appliances behave; this is just another one.

The batteries prefer repeated drain-and-rest cycles to a continuous drain.  This is why driving 13 miles continuously at top speed exhausts it, but driving 6 miles at top speed, waiting an hour, and driving 6 miles back (top speed) uses only slightly more than half the charge.

Also, when it is all charged up, the whole performance curve feels different than when it’s almost drained.  It accelerates faster, seems to get farther on a single SOC light (but this is probably due to the rest it has had during a charge), and so forth.  Another important reason to keep it charged all the time.

Being able to charge up at work is ideal:  I commute in, then recapture my lost charge in about an hour.  During lunch, if I go to a restaurant or on an errand, it’s all charged up for me, and I recharge upon return, so that for the commute home, I am also working off a full charge.  Perfect!

The Lectra Continues to Shine  3/25/1999

A lot of people from work have asked to see my Lectra.  They are always impressed by the sleek styling, and one guy (today) who owns a motorcycle took it for a spin around the parking lot.  Afterward, he said, “That is a beautiful machine!  It’s really a motorcycle!”

It’s so fun to watch the Lectra demolish the preconceptions of electric vehicles that people evidently have in their heads.  I guess they assume they’ll be wimpy and ugly.  Nope!

My commute has become my favorite part of the day.  Now that I’m getting the feel of the Lectra and its weight distribution, I really lean into those curves.  Zeem!  The Lectra has good pickup all the way to 30 mph; then it drops off a little.  At a light today, I was at the front of the line, with a Ford Thunderbird next to me.  When the light changed, I stayed ahead of it until about 30 mph, when it began to pull ahead.  Of course, I eventually got up to over 50, but not as fast as the Thunderbird.

Those Excellent Electric Motors  3/29/1999

One of the things which continues to please me is the way that people on the street, or next to me at traffic lights, will figure out that the Lectra is electric and ask me about it before the light changes.  I’m starting to lose track of how often it’s happened.

Today I’m at a light (22nd & Pantano, heading east) when the guy in the car next to me asks, “Is that electric?”  He’s smoking a cigarette, leaning out of a beat-up Chevy sedan.

”Sure is,” I say.  I point to the electric motor.  “That’s the whole motor,” I continue.  “The rest is mainly batteries.”

”Pound for pound, it’s the most efficient kind of motor,” he agrees.  He sounds jealous.  “How far can you get?”

”About 15 miles max,” I say, “but it’s got all the speed I need… goes just over 50.  Plenty of power, too.”

”Cool!”  he says.  “Really cool!”  The light turns green, and, perhaps testing my “plenty of power” boast, drags me a little.  As usual, I can compete up to about 25-30 mph, but then he pulls easily ahead.  Well, heck.  He’s got an eight-banger.  I can hear its racket for quite a while.  Got to watch that big mouth of mine.

The comment about efficiency is quite true.  No matter how hard I ride, after I get home I can always put my hand on the motor and it only feels as warm as it might if it had been sitting in direct sun.  Try that with your gas engines.  Afterward, while nursing your second-degree burn, you can reflect on the tremendous amount of waste heat that a gas engine produces, something we have all come to take for granted.

More Range Experiments  3/30/1999

I’d noticed that my Lectra seemed to only take one SOC meter dot to get into work, but this week I saw that this dot disappeared about halfway to work.  In other words, it was taking me less than two dots (less than half a full charge), but that’s not the same as one dot (exactly one quarter charge).

So during lunch yesterday I decided to drive down 5th Avenue to the University of Arizona.  This is a nice size trip but I’d never measured it.  Most importantly, 5th Ave. has a speed limit of 30 mph all the way to the U of A, so I would be testing the “normal” operation of the Lectra.

I kept an eye on the SOC meter and my odometer, taking note of exactly when each light extinguished.  To my surprise, each SOC light came out to exactly 3 miles.  This is the same kind of range I had noted in my earlier range test, driving at near-maximum speed, steady cruising.

Evidently the speed at which I ride is not a major determinant of the range.  And I had done another range test over the weekend, where I rode 45 mph, without stopping, all uphill to the Saguaro National Monument East.  The steady uphill did reduce the range a little, but since the return trip was downhill, it averaged out to the same 3 miles per SOC light.

The nice part about this is that I know exactly what my range is, under almost any conditions.  The bad part, of course, is that I can’t seem to improve the range by varying my driving habits.

The Charge Time Mystery

But there’s a mystery here.  After my run to the U of A, the Lectra recharged in only 2.5 hours, not the 4.5 suggested by the manual.  This seems to indicate that the battery capacity is not what it should be, yet.  The manual does say that the batteries need 10-50 charge cycles to reach their full capacity, but it doesn’t indicate how much increase in capacity I should expect.

I ask Mr. Scott Cronk about this and he responds that after about 50 charge cycles (roughly 300 miles) I should see a 20-25% increase in capacity, and therefore, range.  This would bring me up to about 15 miles, not 12, which is better.  (And the Reserve capacity will increase as well.)  The solution to the charge time mystery is that the charger can quickly bring the batteries to 90%, causing all 5 lights on the SOC meter to light, but another 2 hours are required for that last 10%.

The Scary Temperature Light  3/31/1999

I’d read in the manual about the “T” light that would light up if the motor was overheating, and I’d heard the cooling fan come on before.  The cooling fan is a sign that the motor is getting hot and the “T” light, a sign that it’s got to back off a little.  The “T” light has teeth in it, as it will reduce the Lectra’s top speed until the motor cools.

Now, I’d never seen that “T” light, although I’d heard the fan.  Today I saw that light.  It was a very windy day, with gusts up to 35 mph.  A winter storm was blowing in (see the next entry), but today it was warm and very windy.  After work I jumped on the Lectra to go meet my wife for supper while a babysitter watched the kids.  Going to the restaurant, I was headed into this extremely powerful wind.  The good ol’ Lectra was able to make just over 40 mph, even though I had to wrap the throttle all the way out.

Afterward, I had a slightly longer than usual ride home, and in heavy rush-hour traffic.  I had a tailwind, which should have helped… when the wind would gust, there were times when I was traveling exactly the same speed as the wind.  Strange feeling, to be riding along at 40 mph with NO wind resistance for a few seconds.

Anyway, this heavy rush-hour traffic required rapid acceleration and braking.  Thinking to increase my range, I used regen braking liberally, and at high speeds.  Imagine my shock when, climbing the last hill home, the “T” light shows up and the Lectra slows a bit!  Argh!  Not the “T” light!  Given the tailwind, I was expecting the Lectra to have an easier time of it.

However, I reflected afterward that I’d really heard the motor scream during the regen braking.  I’d be flying along at 50+ and then regen-brake all the way down.  When the regen brake is engaged, the Lectra makes a very science-fictional sound, and is louder than when it is running normally.  Kind of a “VVVRRRREEEeeeewwwwwnnn…”  If you know what I mean.  Ahem.

Perhaps, I thought, pushing the regen braking was heating the motor more than normal operation.  I asked Scott Cronk and he replied that yes, this was exactly the case:  regen braking is markedly less efficient than running the motor forward, and consequently heats the motor more.  The lower the battery charge and the higher the speed, the greater the excess heat.  They are working on a way around the problem, and a fix may be available someday as a software upgrade (!!!).  For now, for me, he suggests reserving regen for speeds of less than 15 mph, to keep the motor cool.  This is a very useful piece of information, especially as the summer approaches. I’ve been really leaning on it, thinking that I was saving the brakes and battery charge by braking more when the speed was higher.  But that extra-loud sound should have clued me in.

A Cold, Wet Day In Tucson  4/1/1999

A very belated winter storm blew into town, bringing snow to the mountains and cold rain all day to Tucson.  Well, now my commitment to motorcycle transportation would be tested.  Could I stand it?  I wore my good leather jacket and some good leather gloves and set off through the very light sprinkle.

Not bad.  I do notice that the wind chill is nicely manageable at 30 mph, but when I get into main traffic and get up to 45-50, it gets REALLY COLD!!  Next time I’ll put a sweater under that leather jacket.  At work a motorcycling colleague says, “These are the days that separate the men from the boys, huh?”  I agree, being (so far) in the “Man” category.

An hour after I’m at work, the rain comes down more steadily.  When it’s time to go, it’s still raining.  Not a downpour, but I’ll definitely get wet.  A co-worker who rides her bicycle all the time helps me make a quick poncho out of a garbage bag, which I appreciate.

Boy, if I thought it was cold going in… going home at 40-45 in that rain educates me.  My head is warmest, snug and dry inside my helmet; my upper body is also doing OK under the garbage-bag poncho and leather jacket.  But through my jeans… Augh!  Very very cold!

Another motorcycling colleague (yes, another!) has a yellow rain suit that he wears on days like this—jacket and pants both with a flap on the back to cover a backpack. Tucson has 300 cloudless days a year, but for those remaining 65, a rain suit like that might be nice.

4/22/1999  Amazingly Short Charge Time

A bit of poor planning on my part tonight demonstrates to me just how quickly the Lectra recovers most of its charge.  I had a presentation to give the next morning, at work, which I hadn’t finished yet.  I figured I would go in tonight and finish it, rather than wait until early the next morning.

Well, when I arrive at work, I have to get into a place with a combination lock.  The combination has changed and I don’t know the new one.  Short trip!  I’m there for maybe all of 15 minutes discovering this.  I tramp back downstairs to where my Lectra is waiting.  I’d plugged it in upon arriving, figuring that I’d be at work an hour or two, instead of a quarter hour.

Imagine my shock when ALL FIVE SOC LIGHTS are lit.  What?!?  It takes me 15 minutes of hard driving to deplete almost two.  After a short bit of figuring, I realize that it’s only taken 15 minutes to recharge what has to be at least 2.5 miles of travel.  Reason:  I’ve got into the habit of noticing exactly where on my journeys into work the SOC lights extinguish.  I happen to know that at this point in the batteries’ life, I get about 3.5 miles per SOC light.  It’s 6 miles to work, so for all 5 lights to be on, it means that the charger has made up almost half of my trip in 15 minutes, and maybe more.

The consequence seems to be how hot the charger cord (and presumably the rest of the charging circuit) get.  When I unplug the Lectra for the trip home, the cord is quite noticeably warm.  But what good news for the Lectra’s total range!  It means that if the juice were available, even plugging it in for 15 minutes on a short errand would be worthwhile.

Read on to see how the Lectra fares under punishing Tucson summer conditions.