Crashing the Electric Motorcycle

by Ben N on June 30, 2012

It was a sunny spring afternoon, when I tested the limits of electric vehicle design, physics, and human flesh….

It’s summer already, and you may not have seen me around the usual web forums as much lately. I definately haven’t been quite as busy working on clean transportation projects. If it feels like I’ve been hiding a bit maybe I have.

You see, I CRASHED my electric motorcycle.

This March, we had some particulary nice weather. Wisconsin is known for long winters that drag on, so when the weather does get nice, the motorcycles quickly flock back to the roads. We had about two weeks of HIGHLY unusual summer weather (85 degrees F every day) in the middle of March. I wanted to get my electric motorcycle back on the road, but was busy with work.

One of my YouTube subscribers had sent me a request to make a video showing off how the motorcycle sounds WITHOUT any background music. I finally was able to get off work early one afternoon and pulled out the cycle. Coming out of winter storage is easy with an electric cycle – are the batteries charged? Yes. Is there air in the tires? Yes – great, let’s ride!

(The last video I made…..)

I have a very compact video camera with a swivel mount that can attach to nearly anywhere on a motorcycle – the handlebars, foot-pegs, whatever. It’s been great for perspective shots, car interiors, and trick angles. I’ve used it extensively in my BUILD YOUR OWN ELECTRIC MOTORCYCLE instructional video and many of my web videos. The swivel mount is very solid – all metal, and super-durable. Little did I know how dangerous that would be…

I spent the afternoon zipping around my neighborhood and through the local city, trying different camera angles, and talking up the merits of DIY electric transportation to the camera as I went. I filmed with the camera on the handlebars, facing forward and backwards and on the side of the cycle, showing off the front tire and other moving components. I wanted to get a low-angle shot, so I attached the camera to the frame of the cycle, low on the left, near the back. In my driveway, I stood next to the cycle, and leaned it over in a simulated turn to check ground clearance. With that, I hit record, and made a right turn out of my driveway.

Just up a block, I was to turn left onto a side street, when the world turned black.

No, it wasn’t some sort of strange slow-motion, if anything, it was the exact opposite – time sped up to impossibly fast speeds, not allowing for any thought or action.

I was laying on the ground, in the middle of the road, my left leg pinned-down under four-hundred pounds of steel and lead.

It took me a few moments to realize what had happened. In a nut-shell, I screwed up. On the left-hand turn onto the side road, the cycle leaned farther than I expected it would when I did a test-lean in my driveway. As I made the left-hand turn, the camera scraped the ground. Instead of using a nice cheap plastic camera mount, which might snap or shear off, my solid steel mount instead became a lever, lifting the rear tire off the ground. Once that happened, I was no longer obeying the laws of physics and two-wheeled vehicles. Nature put the smack down with a full serving of gravity and inertia.

I ended up in a “High Side” fall position. That is, I went “over the top” – the more dangerous way to leave a cycle. But rather than being thrown clear of the cycle, I ended up under it. Did the bike go down and then just spin 180? I didn’t see any indication of that.

What was clear, was that I was under a motorcycle, in the middle of the road, and had no way to get up.

All I needed to do was stand up and then I could lift the motorcycle and get it out of the way. But the motorcycle was on me. I’ve always been a fan of history and science. For whatever reason a quote from Archimedes came to mind “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”

But I couldn’t stand, so I had NO leverage.

All I had going for me was an ant’s eye view of the road and the tail-grab bar of the cycle. I grabbed the tail- bar with one hand, and pushed.

The other trick to moving heavy objects is just to not let them push back. In a gym, the leg-press machine lets you lift heavy weights, not just because you are using your legs, the biggest muscles in your body, but because all the weight is transferred through you to the weight bench, and into the ground. Laying on the road, I had no place to go. No matter how hard I pushed, I wasn’t going anywhere. With one’s back against the wall (on flat on the road!) it’s amazing what one person can do.

Grabbing the tail-bar with one hand, I pushed. Like Mr. Furious in MYSTERY MEN lifting the bus, the cycle slowly rose off of me.
Once off, I kicked down the stand with my right foot. and rested the cycle in its upright position.

My jeans were torn, and I was bleeding from my left knee and elbow. My left ankle had a dull ache.

I pushed the cycle off the road, into the nearest driveway.

“Are you OK?” came a voice from the screen door of the modest duplex. I wasn’t sure what to say. I don’t remember what I did say. Probably something like “Uh, maybe if I could just sit down for a minute..”. I was invited inside, and I limped towards the door. Inside, the work-from-home mom offered me the Lazy-Boy, an ice pack, and some ibuprofen.

After resting for a few minutes, I decided to head back home. I kindly asked to leave the cycle in the driveway, and come get it later.

Then I walked home.

Ow….step…. Ow. Step. Ow… Step…

No, the pain in my foot was not the worst part. Knowing that my wife was at home was. Well, that and I knowing that I screwed up. That what had happened was completely preventable, and totally my fault. But also thinking about what my wife might say. Please baby, don’t take my motorcycle away. I promise to be good!

Walking in to the front door, I couldn’t have looked that good. I mean, it’s not like blood was running down my body or anything, but shredded clothing and limping is never a good sign. I was probably pale too. She looked concerned. I explained what had happened and that I would be fine.

She was just about on her way out the door anyways. “Go, go, don’t worry about me!” I insisted.

I put up my foot with a bag of ice on it. I had had sprains before and knew the good old R.I.C.E. techniques of Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. But nobody ever told me how much it would hurt when the swelling hit.

By another half hour, I was pretty much cursing at the top of my lungs from the pain. And I don’t curse lightly, but this was full-on drunken sailor cursing in every language I could summon. My foot had swollen to double its normal size. Maybe it was more than just a sprain…

I made a call, and a few minutes later, my brother was on his way over to pick me up and take me to the emergency room. I was carted in to the care area, and they casually lined up an X-ray for me. “Yep. It’s broken.” stated the ER doc as he wrapped my foot in a surprisingly low-tech splint. Stay off of it, and make an appointment with the bone doctor.

Oh Goody. Can’t wait for that one. Of course the soonest I could get an appointment was the following Monday, five days after the accident.

At the bone doctor, the specialist found the OTHER fracture. There were two. One was the left Fibula – at the very end of the leg bone. The other was a foot bone. There was a hairline break all the way through a large trapazoidical bone dead in the center of the foot.

I was given an “Air-Cast”, a modern plastic cast, held on by Velcro, and inflated with a hand-pump to pressurize around the foot, ankle, and leg. Unlike a plaster cast, this one would be removable as needed for bathing, etc. But as the foot doctor noted, “Don’t worry about the bones. Those will heal fine. It’s the “Crush-Wound” that will take a while. ¬†Ouch. Crush Wound. Bones heal quick, it’s the nerves, tendons, tissue, and blood vessels that would really take time to heal.

The Nearly Indestructible Mr. Nelson

So, what’s the first question everyone asks me after hearing that I was in a motorcycle accident? To a tee, every single person inquired “How’s the bike?”.

So, here’s the good news. It’s fine. Hardly a scratch on her. I found out the hard way what thing sticks out farthest from the motorcycle – me. So, after the bike tipped, I was the thing that broke its fall. Yep, leave it to me to be the energy-absorbing object between an unstoppable force, and an unmovable object! My ankle happened to be EXACTLY where one of the frame members lined up, concentrating the force of the cycle, through me, into the ground.

Both left turn signals took minor dings. The rear stalk got bent a little. The plastic of the front turn signal cracked a bit. Other than that, the bike is fine.

If anything, that’s the true heart of the story – how completely unremarkable this whole thing was.

In all the YouTube videos I’ve made, in all of the web posts, I’ve heard hundreds of comments of how my projects will explode, burst into flames, spray acid, and are all aparrently doomsday devices JUST WAITING to go wrong! But of course they aren’t. The motorcycle was designed as practical around town transportation. You don’t HOPE for the worst to happen, but you do plan for basic safety. I had an emergency kill switch (which worked fine.) All the batteries are sealed, and designed for any orientation. The batteries were well protected by their cage, and nothing short circuited.

I actually crash tested the electric motorcycle, and everything worked flawless! It’s just that I also happened to be the dummy on it at the time.

So there you go, how many other people have crash-tested their own electric motorcycle? Not that I would recommend it…

Having gone through this does make think more seriously about safety design. I would like to add a “tilt-sensor” to the cycle. In event of being sideways, the tilt-switch would simply turn everything off, and need to be manually re-set before being able to turn power back on.

So, after three months now, I’m recovering. My cast is finally off, but my foot still hurts, and I’m still limping a bit.

Ben's broken leg, hiding behind a Brammo motorcycle

The broken ankle didn’t stop me from “hopping back on that horse” though. As soon as I could put enough weight on my foot to lift a cycle off its kickstand, I had borrowed somebody else’s Brammo to show off at Earth Day. While I couldn’t drive my manual transmission truck (clutching uses the left foot!) I COULD ride a clutchless electric motorcycle. After hobbling around on one foot and two crutches, riding a cycle was as close to true flight as could be imagined!

So there you have it. If in the last few months, you’ve peeked a bit of a cast in a photo, or heard coded references to injury, now you know why. I was very proud of building my own electric motorcycle, and very ashamed of crashing it. And don’t take this the wrong way – motorcycles are NOT dangerous – dragging video-cameras across the pavement is.

So, until next time, I’ll keep building, teaching, and experimenting!

Take care,

-Ben

PS – Did you wonder what happened to the footage that I was shooting when the accident happened? It took me three days to get up the guts to view it. When I did, it was hardly worth the wait. It was just a great looking low-angle shot of the road, INSTANTLY followed by black, as the camera got buried in the pavement. The camera was running at 60 frames-per-second, DOUBLE regular speed, and there still wasn’t a SINGLE frame of the cycle going down – road one moment, black the next, the same way I remembered it.

Broken bones can't keep me from taking the little girl to see the Wienermobile!

 

{ 3 trackbacks }

Crashes the Electric Motorcycle! - Fuel Economy, Hypermiling, EcoModding News and Forum - EcoModder.com
June 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm
CRASH! DIY Vehicle Safety
November 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm
Flooded Mitsubishi i-MiEV
February 17, 2013 at 9:41 am

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark in OKC June 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Hey Ben,

You missed a very valuable detail…

Since the electric bike doesn’t have gasoline, a hot engine or exhaust pipes, you didn’t have to worry about getting burned or catching on fire.

Thanks for sharing your story and the need for cheap break-a-way camera mounts :)

Mark

2 Ben N June 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Yep, no burns, no fuel leaks, no fires, no explosions.

3 Kirk July 1, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Ben,

Glad you’re back on your feet and back on the bike. This might be a good time to consider going ATGATT. Actually, before the crash would have been a better time, but no time like the present.

Kirk

4 Dave September 6, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Every motorcyclist has to go down sometime; glad yours was at low speed and with relatively little damage, and glad to see you got back on the horse. I can relate to the broken ankle business also, except mine happened in a much more humble manner; riding my son’s Razr scooter. :hides_face_in_shame: Mine required surgery and extra hardware too. No fun.

BTW, I found my way to your site from Instructables; your trains of thought parallel my own. I haven’t built anything bigger than an electric bicycle, yet, but hope to convert a motorcycle and a pickup to electric power. Just need to work on sourcing parts that don’t threaten to break the bank! Thanks for all the inspiration!

5 Ben N September 6, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Thanks for your story.
The fact that you could do the same on a Razor scooter suddenly makes me feel much more manly!

Make sure to take a look at my MOTORCYCLE DVD and my YouTube cycle playlist.
-Ben

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