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Hood River engineers unveil their “human utility vehicle” – UPDATED

Posted by on March 22nd, 2010 at 4:33 pm

The Hauler by Senkai Motor Works-16

The Hauler is solar, electric and leg-powered.
Full gallery
(Photos © J. Maus)

Introducing the Hauler — a solar, sweat and electric powered vehicle its designers hope will bridge the gap between bicycle and car and bring a new level of utility and affordable mobility to millions in the process.

The Hauler is a product of Hood River-based Senkai Motor Works (Senkai is “revolution” in Japanese). The three men behind it are Aaron Blake, 29, Adam Kravetz, 30, and Tris Tarantino, 28. I caught up with Blake and Kravetz between meetings with potential investors during a recent visit to Portland.

“We’re trying to obviate the internal combustion engine market before car makers can push it even further downmarket.”
— Aaron Blake, Senkai Motor Works

From nearly the moment Blake started talking, I knew he wasn’t your average bike tinkerer with a big idea. Blake isn’t looking to get the Hauler into a few bike shops or make them one at a time from his shop in Hood River, and he’s more likely to base business decisions on what he reads in The Economist rather than Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.

The Hauler by Senkai Motor Works-7 The Hauler by Senkai Motor Works-20 The Hauler by Senkai Motor Works-10 The Hauler by Senkai Motor Works-6

This guy wants to go global:

“We’re looking at demographic trends in China and our goal is to make this available for the millions that make less than $5,000 a year…. they will never buy a Tata [the low-priced car from India].”

Blake and Kravetz refer to the Hauler as a “human utility vehicle.” “Legally it’s an electric bike,” says Kravetz, “and that’s how we describe it to people, but it’s significantly different from a bicycle. It’s between the scale of a bicycle and a car.”

The Hauler by Senkai Motor Works-22

Aaron Blake (L) and Adam Kravetz.

For starters, the Hauler comes with a 500 pound payload. It has three wheels — two up front (which drive the vehicle) and one in the back (which steers). The ride is very smooth thanks to leaf springs on the front axle. The components are a mix of off-the-shelf and custom.

There’s a dual vision for the Hauler. Kravetz and Blake think it can be both a path to economic independence for poor people in developing countries and a feasible alternative to cars in places like Portland.

In wealthy countries, Blake sees a huge opportunity for the Hauler to be part of the sustainability solution. Even if there was a massive shift to electric cars, he says, it wouldn’t make enough of an impact on the planet’s energy footprint:

“We need to cut emission by factors of ten instead of simply shifting our current level of use to a different form. Our interest is in providing a vehicle that gets approx. 900 mpg from an outlet to offset the use of vehicles that get 20 mpg from gas or 60-100 mpg from an outlet.”

One of the most interesting features of the Hauler is the solar panel that doubles as a roof over the cargo bin. This is a feature that Blake says was created with developing countries in mind:

“One of the biggest obstacles to improving lives and creating sustainable, small-scale economies in the developing world is energy poverty… the solar panel was designed explicitly as a solution to that.”

Blake says the solar panel is the same size used by NGO’s to power businesses, schools, and hospitals in developing countries. It was designed to easily detach from the vehicle to be put to use in building “ad-hoc, off-grid power solutions.”

The Hauler by Senkai Motor Works-3

For those of us who live where “energy poverty” is not as much of an issue, the solar panel extends the range of the motor. Over the course of a day it can give the electric battery one full charge. Kravetz says their test riders are currently getting between 30-60 miles of use on one charge.

Operating the Hauler is very easy — once you get the hang of it.

The steering happens via grips near your hips and the pedals are out in front of you. Give the throttle a bit of a push and you feel an instant surge from the motor. During my test ride I got going a little too fast on a slight downhill and careened into a concrete wall. The chainrings hit the wall first, the vehicle tipped, and I flew to the ground. I wasn’t hurt, but it turned out to be a great test of the Hauler’s durability.

Despite running directly into a wall at about 18-20 mph, the only damage was bent chainrings and a taco’d wheel. Because the wheels are strong and have loads of clearance, the Hauler could still roll easily. And, even though the drivetrain no longer worked, I just shook myself off, hit the throttle and kept on rolling.

The current price is around $2,600 (without the solar panel), but the idea is to bring the price way down. “Our goal,” says Blake, “is $500 U.S.D. in the Chinese market within the next couple of years.” To Blake, it’s a race to the bottom. According to his calculations a car costs about $9,000 a year to operate and about $54 dollars per 100 miles driven. The Hauler on the other hand, costs about 50 cents per 100 miles driven.

“We’re trying to obviate the internal combustion engine market before car makers can push it even further downmarket.”

No one can accuse these guys of not thinking big. Now all they need is some venture capital.

– See the full photo gallery

UPDATED: Check out this brief video I put together of the Hauler in motion:

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • twilliam March 22, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Okay, I’ll bite: how does it stop? 🙂

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 22, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    it’s got disc brakes in the front.

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  • bob March 22, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Are they in full production?
    Where do I demo one? They do not appear in the exhibitor list for the upcoming Bike show at the convention center.
    I’d love to see it and throw down for some shares.
    Does it have any security device (lock)? Lighting solution?
    Very exciting.
    Go, go, go.

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  • Senkai Motors March 22, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Bob (and everyone else) – we’re in limited production with a number of vehicles on the road to testers, and early users. Unfortunately as much as we want to be at Pedal Nation we won’t be able to be there, though definitely next year.

    The Hauler does have easy locking/security with a key for the electric parts and a standard bike lock for the rest. (U-lock or chain both work fine).

    Any standard bike lights work great (we’ve tried various off-the-shelf one) and we’ll offer an integrated light kit that runs off our batteries as well.

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  • peejay March 22, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Limited number of bikes minus one, that is, thanks to Jonathan!

    I kid, I kid.

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  • Anonymous March 22, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    That looks great.

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  • Wheelburro March 22, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    I like the idea. Great work!

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  • Charmaine March 22, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Very innovative but it looks rather flimsy.

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  • Jonathon March 22, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    Lemme get this straight, three white hippies start a company with the goal of selling millions of American-designed boutique cargo tricycles to Chinese people, and they name their company after the Japanese word for ‘revolution?’ Do these individuals have any clue whatever just how much resentment there is of Japan in China? Accusations of wholesale theft of their culture, the Rape of Nanking? Hello? Bueller? Bueller?

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  • wsbob March 23, 2010 at 1:41 am

    With those white tires, add some wings and it would look a little like the Wright Flyer.

    $500 would be a very good price. Why would the Chinese buy it though? Once having seen and studied it’s design, if any Chinese citizens thought there was a market for the vehicle in their country, they’d likely just knock it off and sell it for less. $500 is quite a low price though. Might be hard to beat that.

    What if you wanted to carry passengers? Doesn’t look like its designed for this, but I suppose a kid could be thrown in the backend. A four wheel version might serve such a need better.

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  • Paul Tay March 23, 2010 at 7:40 am

    “Lemme get this straight, three white hippies start a company with the goal of selling millions of American-designed boutique cargo tricycles to Chinese people, and they name their company after the Japanese word for ‘revolution?'”


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  • Paul Tay March 23, 2010 at 7:44 am

    Senkai Motors? Three White Guys and One Big-Ass Bangin’ Bike! Gimme one. Throw in one big-ass, bangin’ white ghoul, I’ll take TWO!

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  • Paul Tay March 23, 2010 at 8:03 am

    “Why would the Chinese buy it though? Once having seen and studied it’s design, if any Chinese citizens thought there was a market for the vehicle in their country, they’d likely just knock it off and sell it for less.”

    Nanjing Motor Worx…coming soon to Harbor Freight!

    Gimme da two-seater, fully-faired aero version impersonating an enormous male appendage, the middle finger.

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  • joel March 23, 2010 at 8:45 am

    aside from my serious personal prejudices against recumbent pullers for cargo… my first impression here is of a really low bike footprint to cargo space ratio. all that bike for that tiny bed? and all that material around and above the cargo bed, restricting what you can carry? 500 lbs is a nice capacity, but given the cargo bed, im visualizing hauling cartoon anvils.

    i hate to constantly be the paradox of the naysaying cargo bike proponent, but…

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  • Brian E March 23, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Hey critics:

    “Lead, Follow, or Get Out of The Way,” Lee Iacocca.

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  • Curtis March 23, 2010 at 9:24 am

    What a great idea! Love the modular power solution, this has tons of potential.

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  • ekim113 March 23, 2010 at 9:30 am

    The Chinese could mass produce that vehicle for less than $50 a piece. Granted the quality would suffer, but the poor Chinese worker (target demographic) wouldn’t care.

    I do like the irnoy of entering into the Chinese market with a Japanese name. That’s rich. Next big market could be North Korea!

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  • ekim113 March 23, 2010 at 9:33 am

    These are the same questions/remarks any potential investor would make. For instance:

    Do they have an innovative product? Certainly.

    Do they have a competitive edge? Not over China.

    Do they have a market and do they know their market? That seems to be the question.

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  • Stephanie March 23, 2010 at 9:36 am

    How much does it cost with the solar panel?

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  • ekim113 March 23, 2010 at 9:36 am

    You wouldn’t go into Israel with a company called “Mein Kampf”, or selling a trike called the “Reich-mobile”.

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  • Paul Tay March 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    @Stephanie, Harbor Freight carries 45W panels for less than 200 clams!

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  • Adam March 23, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    The bike is rear wheel steered! No wonder you ran it right into the wall. With a full load the thing will be about as nice to ride as a forklift. I will be curious if it will ever actually catch on.

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  • Diego March 23, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Some harsh words here, but mostly apt appraisals. Civil engineering has very little to do with designing bicycles/tricycles – perhaps they should get a mechanical engineer on the team, as well as someone with some experience doing business in China!

    As is, it looks like something that would sell better in Portland etc. than developing countries. Give me an Africabike!

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  • Opus the Poet March 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Dit6to on the rear-wheel steering. Unless they are lock limited they are dynamically unstable, and there is a tendency for the rear (steering control) wheel to break traction and make control of the vehicle strictly a theoretical exercise. I have the scars to prove this from my own experiments in the field. I also have 23 hours of flight time on a J3 Cub with a rear steer tadpole trike layout (AKA Taildragger landing gear). Rear steer is tricky.

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  • Senkai Motor Works March 23, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Senkai motors would like to thank everyone for their enthusiastic feedback on a diverse range of topics, from our choice of name, to the potential use of ghouls in future marketing initiatives. We would like to speak to some of the questions/comments that have been posted in the following general topic areas:

    First, to answer some of the more FAQ style questions:

    1) Retail price with a very high quality 85 Watt solar panel was 3200 for our early adopters, this price will come down for our first full production run, and we will also be offering a minimum of two solar solutions to start: an 85 watt solid panel (as seen in these pictures), and a 130 watt flexible panel/fairing option that is in development. Also, we will sell just the mounting hardware/wiring adapter kit so that a person can attach any solar panel(s) they would like.

    2) The Hauler pictured in the blog post has optional side-board accessories and the solar panel attached, if these accessories are removed the flat bed can accommodate a wide variety of loads of weird shapes. Also, we have provided a variety of full-strength mechanical attachment points for extending the bed, attaching trailers, dump-bodies etc. You can see some of the loads we have carried and possible configurations in these photos/videos:!/album.phpaid=92410&id=61224437897

    3) Rear – wheel steering has design trade offs that make it a poor choice for vehicles that go really fast; we made this design choice for a variety of reasons, including the ability to have full-time 2 wheel drive, and the low-cost robustness of the resulting steering system. We have demoed for many individuals with a variety of athletic and cycling backgrounds, and we are amused to say that the only person who has crashed a demo is the author of a preeminent cycling blog. Jonathan’s wreck was also the result of rapid and ambitious application of the accelerator; Trust us, if you mash the throttle the Hauler will rally. All that said, driving a Hauler is a different feeling from riding a bike, and we are looking forward to having demo units in Portland full time so people can form their own opinions.

    4) No, at this time we don’t have any plans to provide atomically-correct fairing options, but we will see how that market develops.

    Lastly, on the theme of “North American company seeks to do business in developing markets” there are the two linked questions of how we can expect to maintain market share without intellectual property protection, and also, how we expect to gain any market share without local knowledge about market relevancy and a commensurate level of cultural sensitivity. Before addressing these questions we need to clearly dispel any misconception that Senkai intents to produce Haulers in Hood River, ship them to China, and retail the vehicles under the wholly owned subsidiary Senkai Motors China, Inc. The days when international business was this simple have long since passed. In reality, Haulers sold in U.S. markets will be assembled from parts built in a variety of locations, including Malaisia, Taiwan, China, Canada, and the USA; Haulers assembled in foreign markets will share many of these supply chains without the higher cost North American sourcing. In short, we expect Chinese made Haulers to be cost competitive with Chinese made “sun moon brand solar trike super specials” because they will share the same cost of business, except the companies producing Haulers will have a head start on solar trike specific supply chain optimization, QA/QC, operations research, etc. At that point, our customers will be choosing to purchase Haulers based on a personal tradeoff between cost, quality, value, style, and marketing concerns, just as you have chosen to purchase a specific model of bicycle from a very diverse market of “bicycles” in the Portland area as a result of similar tradeoffs. And yes, we are confident that companies can produce Haulers at a very low cost oversees (though $50 is ambitious), because the Hauler has been explicitly design for reliable production in light footprint, low-tech facilities. As alluded to above, Senkai Motor Works will not necessarily be the agent building/selling Haulers in China (or any other foreign market), rather, our company will be monetizing the Hauler through a network of foreign subsidiaries and partnerships, adapting our market strategy and revenue models to meet local conditions. Complicated? Yes, but then again, lawyers and accountants need to eat too.

    As a final note on this theme, we should point out that developing a vibrant foreign market for Hauler–like human utility vehicles is an explicit goal of our company; even if Senkai designed products capture a small share of future solar-trike markets we will have achieved our ethical goals, thereby freeing up Senkai’s founding partners to spend more time climbing mountains and less time in front of computers.

    We appreciate the passion for human powered vehicle critiques the Hauler seems to inspire in Blog readers, and we hope all of you rock your personal human powered option through the streets of Portland in fine style.

    Senkai Motors.

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  • Diego March 23, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Also, with four wheels instead of three, the area for carrying loads could be three times wider! But then you’d have basically what already exists – a truck version of the popular beach-cruiser surrey bike.

    According to this article in Time magazine, there are already 100 million Chinese people riding electric bikes! Are you sure that the target market isn’t already well-served from within?

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  • todd March 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    i admire the boldness and creativity on display in attempting to solve so many trike problems in one design, but i’m skeptical of success. the fact that jonathan crashed on his test ride, taco-ing a wheel, tipping, and mangling drivetrain, well… freak occurrence i’m sure.

    trikes are really, really hard. trikes that are narrower than a car and light enough (gross weight, including rider and cargo) for human power to be meaningful have either (a) a center of gravity not much higher than the axles or (b) a dangerous tendency to tip when turning at fairly modest speeds, such as most any downhill, especially down hills you need a motor to get up.

    this is why upright, load-capable trikes aren’t successful anyplace that isn’t chessboard flat, and dense so distances are short. and i’m not aware of any truly low-slung trike with major cargo capacity in production. not many people feel comfortable in tall traffic being so short.

    because most trikes can’t lean into turns, the wheels are subjected to extreme side loads in turning, especially with heavy cargo and at speed. they need to be massively overbuilt by bicycle standards. this makes them heavier, which by virtue of their number and in addition to the extra structure required to bear the cargo on a wide axle spread… heavy, heavier, heaviest.

    there are leaning trike designs that help with the tippiness/wheel strength problem, but most are fairly complicated and none particularly successful.

    with loads and hills and distances and speed expectations that require motor assistance, the problems multiply. pretty soon a threshold is crossed where motor assist becomes motor dependence, and then the human power part becomes an expensive complication, as much a marketing feature as anything else.

    like those b-line delivery trikes? totally more appropriate than a truck for sub-truck loads in town, but ask a rider: the pedals are kind of a feel-good thing. or the more car-like twike human-electric hybrid trike, which can be yours today for only $45K for 120-mile range. pedals optional.

    don’t think for an instant that the chinese en masse will regard pedals as a positive marketing feature. they are in a different phase of the mobility aspiration cycle than guilt-green american bikers: car envy green.

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  • […] of what I understand to be a new Hood River company, called Senkai Motor Works. Here’s a link to a recent story about the product on a bike-related blog. I’m trying to learn more, and will share here […]

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  • Noel - Tricycles For Adults May 7, 2010 at 6:54 am

    Well, I won’t say it’s good looking, but I’m pretty like the idea. Very interesting.

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