April 5, 2010: Challenges of a new power plant
April 5, 2010
Filed under Features
By Jeff Hemmel
Rumors of electric-powered PWC have been swirling for some time now, but one recent effort has been getting equal attention for the people behind it — freeride champion Ross Champion and Kommander Industries owner Steve Webster.
Together, the pair is the brain trust behind CWEcoSport. In mid-March, the pair sat down and offered Powersports Business these exclusive insights into the project.
It was Champion who had that first “light bulb” moment well more than a year ago. Noting that the electric-powered motorcycle was gaining in popularity, and continually reminded that internal combustion engines weren’t always welcome in the surf environments he preferred, Champion began looking into electric vehicle (EV) and battery technology. “There was some new technology on the horizon that was making this possible,”?he said. “And I don’t think I was the only one thinking that. If you look now, pretty much every major car manufacturer has a full electric or hybrid coming along. The time was just kind of right for it.”
Seeing EV technology as a good opportunity to help the sport advance, Champion contacted Webster, a former Kawasaki, Yamaha and
Sea-Doo dealer, who had recently sold his business and opened Kommander. Webster’s tuning skills are legendary in performance circles. He’s built engines for some of the sport’s top names, and was ideally suited for such a project. After hearing what Champion shared, Webster was in.
“As a dealer, I’ve always dealt with the political issues regarding internal combustion engines,” he said. “Even after the arrival of the four-strokes, there was still somewhat of a black cloud. There’s a tremendous amount of bad science out there. But no matter if it’s true or not true, people believe what they see on television and read in the news.”
Webster has always liked electric motorcycles. After Champion shared what he knew, Webster did some research of his own. “It became very clear that it was absolutely plausible and that we should do something,” said Webster, “create a product that I think people could really appreciate.
“I have young kids. Ultimately I would love for them to be able to experience the sport of PWC 10-15 years down the road. The way things are going now, they may still exist but I don’t know if people are going to be able to ride them in the places we do now.”
Champion is the first to acknowledge an obvious environmental positive of an electric vehicle — zero emissions. He also, however, notes there are some really unique benefits to running an electric drive system in a marine environment. First and foremost is the simple fact that the engine no longer needs continuous airflow. As any PWC rider knows, especially if they ride in the surf, air inlets also allow in water. Ingest water into an internal combustion engine and it puts a quick end to the day, something that surf freeriders like Champion experience all too often.
Webster, however, notes that from a mechanical standpoint, the engines also have obvious advantages. Namely they feature one basic moving part, and a track record of reliability. Webster said, “If you can create something that has less moving parts, your reliability factor goes up exponentially.”
Still, the pair is quick to admit they’re in the learning stages.
“The electric motor makes a completely different type of power than the internal combustion engine does,” said Webster. “So there was definitely some learning curve to determine how we were going to transfer the type of power the electric motor makes, how we were going to convert that into speed and power through a jet pump. Quite honestly we’re still working and making it better, increasing the efficiency of the whole system.
“But the electric motors make a tremendous amount of torque immediately, whereas the gasoline engine has to create a certain amount of horsepower before they begin to create torque, and typically that’s at a much higher horsepower than a gasoline engine. Most electric motors will create the majority of their torque almost instantly. So you kind of have to go back to the drawing board of how you think of the relationship between the pump, the impeller and the compression nozzle, and how you’re going to make all that work to reach the goals you’re trying to achieve.”
EV, however, is hot right now, and as a result the technology is rapidly improving. Webster points out lots of money is being poured into motors and battery technology at the moment, and the result is often seen not on a yearly basis, but almost monthly, even weekly.
“The technology is moving so rapidly,” he noted. “People have always been able to create tremendous power with electric, but now weight is coming down. There’s a big push globally. It’s pretty exciting to see when you embed yourself into that industry.”
Proof Of Concept
Is it feasible to think the pair, or any electric PWC visionary in the wings, can produce an actual, viable vehicle, one that can both hit a decent top speed and run for an acceptable amount of time? Yes, says Webster.
“Those challenges aren’t any different than they are in an internal combustion engine,” he said. “With the current race stuff we’re building, it’s a real fine balancing act between how much power you want to make, and how much fuel you can carry. Those challenges are no different in the electric world than they are in the internal combustion world. It’s always a compromise.”
“That’s certainly a hurdle, but with the electric motor you have a lot of control over how it makes power, you have options of a full power mode or range-extending mode,” added Champion. “Everything’s very customizable as far as power delivery, so you can tailor it to what you want to do.”
As for now, the pair is getting back to work. As previously mentioned, they did produce a first vehicle, a glimpse of which is circulating on YouTube. Its performance, however, isn’t important…at least to Champion and Webster.
“I don’t want to make claims that we can’t back up,” Champion said. “What we’ve built now, this isn’t a product we want to sell. It’s built as a proof of concept, really to prove to ourselves if it worked. And because it did work, and worked well, we decided to pursue it.”