It is slate gray and rainy today in East Vancouver, the kind of day when bored commuters flick their wipers into high, children splash in puddles, and motorcycle riders die. In a nondescript building, a door rolls open. The hiss of rain on tarmac echoes across concrete, reaching two of the most advanced motorcycles on the planet, sitting on their stands. Even before they’ve braved the slick pavement outside, the bikes can hear the rain. They are aware.
Moments later, Dom Kwong, co-founder of Damon, the company behind this pair of electric bikes, twists the throttle on the yellow one. The HyperSport prototype convulses with barely contained violence, its chain drive screaming like a chop-saw blade, its stand wobbling with the torque. The HyperSport sounds like a weapon. Its designers call it the safest motorcycle ever made.
This story originally appeared in Volume 8 of Road & Track.
“Our goal is zero collision related fatalities with Damon products by 2030,” says Jay Giraud, CEO of Damon.
“Safe” and “motorcycle” are generally viewed as conflicting concepts. Riders exchange the safety of a car’s steel cage for a sense of freedom. The rewards are fraught with risk. But what if they didn’t have to be?
Taking inspiration from the driver assist technology in many modern cars, the HyperSport is fitted with fore and aft cameras and 360 degree radar. Infrared sensors track tire temperature. Microphones let the bike hear when the road is wet. G-forces and GPS location are processed. The bike knows where it is and what it’s doing.
Feedback is presented to the rider in deceptively simple forms. The HyperSport’s handlebars vibrate when a crash is imminent. A thin LED strip, mounted just at the edge of the rider’s vision, provides yellow blind-spot alert lights and red collision warnings.
The idea is simple. The execution is difficult. Building a motorcycle that can keep its riders safe is nothing like developing autonomous technology for a car. People driving cars generally need to get somewhere; motorcyclists ride by choice. They don’t want an electronic cage to replace a steel one.
Damon is forthright in approaching the issue. Near the front door of its headquarters is a closet with riding gear. The company has grown quickly over the past few years, from a dozen or so employees to 70, in multiple countries. All of them ride motorcycles. Every one. If you’re a newly hired software engineer, Damon will pay for your motorcycle instruction.
“You need to experience the plight of a rider,” Kwong says. “Understand the challenges we face on the road.”
Asked what he rides, Giraud rattles off a quiver of nine motorcycles, from the expected heavy firepower Italian machinery to a brace of 10-hp Honda Groms. Kwong learned to ride on a 1998 Yamaha R1 that he still owns, and he tracks a KTM. Giraud has put in roughly 25,000 development miles on the older of the two HyperSport prototypes. The company is a motorcycle gang.
Understanding what feedback is useful to a rider is the key to Damon’s approach. Kwong previously worked developing head-up displays for ski and snowboard helmets. He knows how easily the human brain can be overwhelmed with information. Iron Man’s helmet wouldn’t improve his reaction times, but it’s possible for a motorcycle’s feedback to get your Spidey sense tingling.
Damon calls its suite of assists CoPilot. The idea is to give riders an extra second of warning, enough to avoid a collision. The system can track up to 64 objects at once and is network linked to continually learn from each near miss. Software updates are pushed out over the air. The HyperSport will evolve as you own it.
And the HyperSport is capable of evolving its rider. By tracking data like body position, cornering forces, and even grip pressure on the handlebars, Damon’s technology can act as a riding coach. Imagine a traction-control system that becomes less restrictive as your skill grows.
If all of this technology is starting to sound like a two-wheeled Tesla, that’s because there are similarities. Despite still being in the prototype stage, Damon has secured enough deposits from potential customers to account for 15 percent of the U.S. sport-bike market. Damon customers skew far younger than the national average, in their mid-thirties as opposed to 50. And as any enthusiast will tell you, luring younger riders is the challenge that keeps legacy bike makers awake at night.
In manufacturing, Damon is doing a few things Tesla doesn’t. At the core of all future Damon bikes is the company’s HyperDrive technology, a structural battery pack that can be adapted for multiple motorcycle layouts.
The C-shaped HyperDrive pack serves as both the load-bearing frame of the Damon motorcycle and its 20-kWh energy source. The weight savings from this design mean the bike weighs roughly the same as Kwong’s beloved R1, but it has 50 more horsepower and more than double the torque.
The HyperSport’s numbers: 200 hp, 200 miles of highway range, a top speed over 200 mph. Damon has imminent plans to reveal a second model, an electric rival to the likes of the city-oriented Ducati Monster.
The planned expansion of Damon’s lineup will trend toward lighter, more affordable commuter bikes and rugged adventure machines. The South American motorcycle giant Auteco has licensed some of Damon’s CoPilot technologies for use in its Victory brand of gasoline-powered motorcycles.
In South America and Asia, motorcycling isn’t a leisure activity; it’s how you get around. Making motorcycles safer through technology will lure drivers out of their cars, on both weekday commutes and weekend adventures. It’ll ease congestion in cities—20 cars make a traffic jam, but 20 bikes is a pack of friends. Speaking of packs, Damon’s bikes are designed to be daisy-chained: You and two friends all can plug into a single charger.
In Damon’s version of the near future, on a gray and rainy West Coast day, a rider will safely commute to work instead of taking their car. A couple of friends will load up panniers and take off early for a weekend excursion, confident they’ll both arrive back home in one piece. A novice will pore over feedback on an app, resolving to work harder on smoother inputs.
Damon has set out to save lives because the people who work there are riders. As a consequence, the company’s ideas about safety and tech may just save motorcycling itself.