Daniel Kim decided to reinvent the motorcycle eight years ago, soon after a car nearly crushed him. He was welding a Land Rover sport-utility vehicle, laying on a mechanic’s sled under its 500-pound chassis, when the chassis fell off its frame stands. Kim stuck his arm up as the chassis fell, and on contact the force pushed him and the rolling sled out from beneath the car. The near-death experience gave Kim his fill of big machines, he says: “I thought, does the world need another SUV? No.” A lifelong bike aficionado, he set out to create one as safe as a car.
Kim’s company, San Francisco-based Lit Motors, has developed a working prototype of a self-balancing motorcycle. Kim says the goal is for it to remain upright when struck by a Ford (F) F-150 truck traveling at 35 miles per hour. Lit’s bike uses two stabilizing gyroscopes, 40-pound disks 12 inches in diameter. They spin in opposite directions at up to 12,000 revolutions per minute to counter tipping forces, guided by seven sensors. While other inventors have tested gyro-stabilized vehicles with limited success, they typically used only one spinning disk. Kim, 33, says his system is more resilient: “We can defy gravity.”
Photograph by Ryan Young for Bloomberg Businessweek
Lit’s plan also calls for the bike, code-named the C-1, to be enclosed, with steel-reinforced doors, seat belts, and an airbag. “Danny describes it as driving your helmet,” says angel investor Dick James, whose son went to school with Kim.
A Vancouver (Wash.) native, Kim grew up the middle child of a teacher mother and a dentist-inventor father who holds 10 patents. “As a kid, I was always in the garage,” Kim says, “ripping apart bikes and putting them back together.” He dropped out of Reed College in his sophomore year to become a junior auto mechanic at a Land Rover Portland shop, but was laid off during a slowdown after Sept. 11. He enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to study architecture in 2003, and dropped out again. While finishing his bachelor’s degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied industrial design and sustainable transportation beginning in 2005, Kim also worked on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab electric bicycle motor project. Watching the project leaders market their work to corporations left him confident he could do the same, and in March 2010, the year after he graduated from RISD, he moved to San Francisco to launch Lit.
Kim hopes to start selling his motorcycle as early as 2014, for as low as $24,000—less with tax rebates—and is in talks with four manufacturers to license the balancing technology for use in cars and trucks. Lit has raised about $1 million from investors and is looking for an additional $5 million to $10 million. Analysts are optimistic that with its bolstered safety features, the C-1 “removes one obstacle for people using motorcycles,” says Phil Gott, senior director of long-range planning at researcher IHS Automotive (IHS). “It’s a very innovative idea,” Gott says. “Its success lies in execution.”