Canadian electric motorcycle company Damon is hoping to take the powersport world by storm with a lineup of bikes it says will redefine what it means to safely ride, race and rev
It was Jay Giraud’s 2016 bike crash in Jakarta, Indonesia that sparked the idea for a new type of motorcycle. Vancouver-based Giraud had spent his trip watching children perched on mopeds bounce off the sides of trucks, commuters veer through impossibly narrow gaps between gridlock traffic and countless near misses with frequent calamities.
It was, frankly, chaos. And with another motorcycle accident to his name, two successful automotive tech startups under his belt and decades of extreme activities behind him (snowboarding, riding and CEOing), Giraud knew he wanted to set his sights on disrupting a new frontier.
“The inspiration behind Damon is definitely safety. Virtually everyone [in Jakarta] between the ages of 10 and 90 rides a motorbike or is on two wheels. Accidents aren’t one bike, it’s an entire intersection,” says Giraud in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “That was my first inspiration: we have to solve this. We are solving a problem that people want solved.”
Giraud founded Damon with Dom Kwong, head engineer at Damon, and Derek Dorresetyn, the company’s chief technology officer. Giraud says Damon’s bikes are built with safety baked into every step of development.
“I thought about a lot of different ways — right up to, ‘How do we invent a wireless, swarm-like technology that communicates among 30-40 vehicles at once so all these two-wheel vehicles are totally autonomous and they are being controlled as one unit so that you can’t crash into each other?’,” explains Giraud, who points to staggering statistics including only eight per cent of motorcycles have anti-lock braking systems.
“Honestly, in 15 to 20 years we will probably get there. But that being pretty far out we are working our way all the way back to taking the traditional, existing motorcycle that you know, making it electric and putting a warning system on it. That’s where we’ve started.”
The big picture of Damon
Giraud’s vision is simple: he believes the world needs a motorbike that balances performance with aesthetic, technology with safety, agility with durability and, of course, it has to be electric. The result is the Damon Hypersport — a four-tier line of smart sport bikes claiming to offer unparalleled speed, agility and safety in the marketplace.
Giraud says, save for two components, every element of the physical motorbike and the software is developed in-house by Damon. Prototypes of the company’s motorcycle have been toured to various shows and events across North America over two years, gathering consumer interest along the way. Now, with enough momentum and preorders of the US$17,000 to US$40,000 priced motorbikes on the books, Damon is preparing to launch into production in 2022 with the first deliveries made in 2023. It will be, claims Giraud, a paradigm shift in the industry.
“Damon is not only going to redefine the technology and the powertrain and the stuff that makes the vehicle go, but we are also redesigning the safety systems, which are, frankly, non-existent on motorcycles and then we are going to redefine the form. It’s not a car, it’s not a motorbike — it’s motorbike-inspired.”
Risks of the road
According to best estimates, based on country-by-country registration data, there are hundreds of million motorcycles, mopeds, scooters and motorized bicycles in the world. They are part of a larger group called vulnerable road users, which also includes cyclists and pedestrians. Data from the World Health Organization estimates the global total for motor vehicle deaths is 1.35 million people per year and of that more than half are vulnerable road users.
“We look like a motorcycle company, we smell like a motorcycle company because it’s the best place to reinvent the technology actually needed to redefine a segment of transportation that is much more than that of cars. For lack of a better word the world calls it motorcycling, but really it’s light mobility,” says Giraud. “It’s this segment of a billion and a half commuters that are forgotten and we are going to meet their needs.”
But before being able to meet a need it’s critical to understand the customer. A motorcycle rider in Southeast Asia has different motivations and priorities than a pleasure rider in North America.
“There are places in the world where they ride motorcycles for purely pragmatic reasons. The fundamental use for them is to provide a personal service of transportation,” says Chris Bourque, board chair at Motorcycling Confederation of Canada. “[That’s] less so in developed countries like Canada and the United States, for example. Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of motorcycle riders in Canada ride for the pleasure of it.”
The distinction is important because it speaks to whether or not customers will be willing to shell out the big bucks for high-tech features like Damon’s integrated technology. It’s far more likely that a person already in a position to buy a pleasure vehicle will be willing to pay a premium for safety features, than a person who is looking for two wheels and a motor to get them from Point A to Point B.
First World price point
While the Damon bike may have been inspired by riding conditions in less developed parts of the world, its design and price are far more reflective of a developed country buyer.
And while Bourque applauds anyone looking to beef up safety on a motorbike — he concurs with Giraud that it’s likely the ABS feature only exists on roughly eight per cent of bikes currently on the road, but does say many of them have airbags — he has reservations that some aspects of Damon’s proposed accident-avoidant autonomous driving technology will work — or that riders will even want it.
“The technology appears to be imminent that there will be intercommunication between vehicles,” says Bourque. “It’s conceivable that in a few years two vehicles could be driving down the street and if one of those vehicles isn’t paying attention the [system] could take over and steer away from potential impact of the other vehicle. I can’t see that happening that way the motorcycle works because the steering is your shoulders. There is an exhilaration being that connected [with the motor bike].”
While Bouque himself has not ridden a Damon motorcycle, he does believe that electrification is the future of the industry and that in and of itself may be enough to launch Damon as a major force. The bells and whistles added along the way, be it increased safety, AI or V2X communication will be interesting to try out, but ultimately it’s the passionate riders that will inform the manufacturers of their needs and preferences.
“I think the switch to electric is very easy for most motorcyclists. Most people would say ‘Yeah, if I can do the same thing or something similar to what I’m doing on a gas bike, I’ll happily try one with a battery,'” says Bourque. “Because of the cost of electric motorcycles you are going to develop it in the G7 countries sooner, I think.”
Giraud knew, possibly before any other element of the Damon bike was conceived, that his vehicle was going to be electric. Essentially, Damon bikes are built from the battery up — not just for power, but also because it is literally the essence of the machine.
“Under the skin lies this one foundation that we call hyperdrive. It is the world’s only engineering platform to be any motorcycle you want. We can use this to become a sport bike, an adventure bike, a cruise bike, a commuter bike, a three-wheel bike because the battery shell is also the motorcycle’s frame. It acts as that structural load. There is no traditional frame that does that.”
Next, of course, was safety as, currently, the dangers of the road are largely invisible to riders until a catastrophe happens. Giraud set out to mitigate that risk through technology.
“You don’t know whether you have a semi behind you or a police car or another motorcycle and you often don’t know until it’s too late, which is weird to drive so blind,” says Giraud. “Imagine never having a mirror in your car.”
The answer, for Damon, lies in an advanced AI system, developed in-house and running the bike off a BlackBerry QNX operating system. The result is a bike that watches the road for the rider and “increases spatial awareness,” explains Giraud, “which leads to more relaxed, more fun, more peace of mind on the road. You’re less anxious, you don’t have these big blind spots.”
It also is an approach that is creating something novel in the world of motorcycling: data sets. The Damon bikes are constantly producing data as the technology reads the road making the systems “smarter” and more intuitive for road safety.
“There is a whole new data set that’s never been collected before,” says Giraud. “It allows us to develop a system of detection into a system of prediction, where we can see an accident potential before a human can.”
The result will be a Damon bike, in future, that can protect the rider through anticipating hazards and avoiding them. Rather than trying to keep a rider safe during an accident, Damon is aiming even higher: keep a rider safe by preventing an accident.
Building industry buzz
The Damon bike, Giraud says, was a, “exceptionally tough sell” up until January 2021.
“The [consumer] order book grew and grew and grew last year despite the lack of investor appetite. There was tons of consumer appetite and public interest, but no investor appetite. Then on January 1, that changed — just completely changed. We had a lead investor, we raised $30 million and now we are in the midst of another round of financing just because there is so much demand for Damon,” says Giraud. A press release from the company about the bridge financing milestone named “Benevolent Capital, SOL Global Investments, Zirmania, and others” as the lead investors.
“We have roughly 70 per cent more orders month over month right now,” says Giraud. So far Damon has raised over $30 million from investors and has over $24 million in pre-orders. Giraud says only 7,000 super sport bikes are sold in the U.S. per year so Damon’s market share is “a significant percentage of share [in the U.S].”
With that momentum behind it, Damon is focussed on bringing its bikes to market. Admittedly, though, this generation of costly hyper sport motorbikes will not be the answer for the safety problems that Giraud flagged as plaguing most of the world’s two-wheel riding commuters. While Damon has just announced a distribution partnership with Auteco Mobility to bring its bikes to Latin America, for now the bulk of its near-1,000 pre orders are from the United States, Canada and United Kingdom. Meanwhile, most of the world’s two-wheel commuters are in Africa, Southeast Asia, China and India where a cheap gas vehicle can be picked up for pennies on the dollar of a Damon bike.
But as electric vehicles creeps toward parity around the world, Damon is planning for the future by cloning its manufacturing process after what some electric vehicle makers are doing: microfactories. Damon’s first is in Vancouver. Ultimately the flagship facility will be able to produce 50,000 bikes per year at full scale. Production is set to commence mid-2022.
Giraud doesn’t yet know where the next Damon microfactory will be (it will depend on where the biggest buyer pool is), but given the number of backorders already logged (two to three years worth) he anticipates the company is going to be going full throttle to fulfil those for many years to come and to be scooping up many new customers along the way.
“There is a level of demand and interest. Lot’s of people used to ride, lots of people want to ride,” says Giraud. “Bikes need a big evolution. When you improve the safety problem you open the doors to people [other manufactures] can’t attract.”