Eva Håkansson and KillaJoule, her electric motorbike: eco-activism in the fast lane
Image credit: Kevin Smith
Eva Håkansson is an engineer on a mission. A mission to prove that high-speed motoring doesn’t need to trash the environment. Her bike, KillaJoule, will attempt to go over a record-breaking 300mph this summer, even though it is powered by an electric motor.
Officially Eva Håkansson is now the fastest female on two wheels (technically three – more of which later). KillaJoule is the bike that she designed and built, along with her husband Bill, and rode into the record books. She describes the KillaJoule project as environmental activism in disguise, declaring: “KillaJoule is no different than people planting Greenpeace banners at nuclear power plants. It’s just a different way of changing the world.
”The original goal had been to tackle the perception that eco-friendly vehicles were inherently boring. KillaJoule’s design brief was to capture people’s interest for electric mobility – people who would never consider buying or using an electric car. Håkansson says: “That’s been my goal for the last ten years, to simply promote electric mobility as something that’s sexy and fun, not embarrassing or boring. I saw a survey that found 60 per cent of US consumers didn’t even know there were electric cars you could buy. That is completely shocking to me. It shows what I do is really important – demonstrating that electric mobility can be fast and high-performance.“
So, has it surprised Håkansson – a US-based Swede – that her gender is being used to encourage girls into engineering as much as her eco-activism is spreading the word about green machines? “Being a role model in engineering was never intentional, it just happened,” she claims. “I never thought that way – I come from a different culture than the US culture. In Sweden it’s completely normal for women to be engineers, even if it’s not as common as men; nobody would even lift an eyebrow if you told them you were a mechanical engineer.”
In Sweden, according to Håkansson, girls outperform boys in the technical subjects and many of the popular engineering programmes are female dominated. “I couldn’t understand that people are amazed that a girl can build something, because why shouldn’t I?” she says. “Boys have been building their own motorcycles for as long as motorcycles have existed, why shouldn’t girls be able to do the same? It’s not like you have to be big and strong. In racing, it’s actually better to be small.”
According to the record books, KillaJoule is the fastest electric motorbike and Håkansson is officially the fastest female motorcyclist, although she concedes that a rival went faster on a single run last year. However, the speed record is taken as the average of two runs – and Håkansson’s 248.746mph (400.2km/h) remains the mark to beat. There are not separate records for men and women, but if you hold a record and are female, you automatically become the fastest female. KillaJoule’s top registered speed is 270.224mph and it is the fourth-fastest battery-powered vehicle.
However, if all goes to plan, this summer could be the end of the road for KillaJoule. The racing season at the Bonneville salt flats lasts for only a couple of months and inclement weather, as has been the case for the past three years, can reduce this further. In 2015 it rained all summer and there was no racing at all.
Should KillaJoule reach its design speed of 300mph, it will be retired. “I’m hoping it will happen in August,” says Håkansson. “I may retire it anyway, because I have a new one on the drawing board that will be built for 400mph.” That would eclipse the overall two-wheeled speed record of 376.363mph (605.697km/h), which was set in 2010 by Rocky Robinson riding the Top Oil-Ack Attack streamliner. While there are so many classifications for records depending on weight, propulsion method, body type and more, it is Robinson’s overall record that the KillaJoule team are gunning for.
Håkansson started out with a business degree, but soon realised that it was not for her. The immigration problem of moving to the US was solved by signing up to do an engineering degree, which Håkansson instinctively knew was what she should have done from the start – her parents and brothers are all engineers and her father was a former TT champion.
KillaJoule started out in 2010 as a fun project for the husband and wife team. They decided to build a streamliner – a bike in which the fairing is extended to provide a shell and also often has the rider in a prone or feet-forward position to reduce drag. Their design came from looking at images of other streamliners rather than sophisticated engineering simulations. They had never heard of the side-car set up, where a side wheel is added just for stability – according to the rules it cannot have any other function such as powering or steering. In the early version of KillaJoule, there were two small pneumatically activated stay wheels to give low-speed stability.
It was actually the inspiration of a British team led by John Renwick that gave Håkansson the idea of giving KillaJoule a single, permanent stability wheel, which therefore gives it the classification of sidecar motorcycle. It was a breakthrough for the team. Håkansson says: “The first bike worked perfectly but I couldn’t drive it – I don’t think it could be ridden on two wheels. Having a sidecar is 99 per cent positive; the only really negative part is that it isn’t a symmetrical vehicle and at high speed that can give a little bit of quirky behaviour. It wants to go sideways because you have one wing hanging out on one side – you have to compensate for that.
“When I started building a sidecar the record was 224mph and the general opinion was you cannot run an asymmetric vehicle over or even close to 300mph, it just can’t be done. But I believe that a sidecar motorcycle can actually beat the two-wheel motorcycles because of that added stability and safety. A trick that I think we were the first ones to do is our sidecar platform is actually an upside-down wing and provides down force. So we get much better grip than anybody else.”
There are two main things limiting the ultimate speed at which KillaJoule can run. One is the power available, which comes from a 400hp permanent magnet motor from EVO Electric (now GKN) and is made in the UK. Computer predictions are that this should be good for 350mph. This is the sort of speed where tyres, the other limiting factor, start disintegrating. These are pneumatic tyres specially designed for land-speed racing. “I could theoretically upgrade the drive train to more horsepower,” says Håkansson, “but I would run into tyre problems. My next bike will run on some other kind of wheels and will not have pneumatic tyres.”
While increasing weight increases the amount of work the motor needs to do, it also improves traction without adding drag. In fact, rather than ‘light weighting’, some racing teams will add ballast for this reason. More important is getting weight in the right place – the nose. With a heavier front end it behaves like a dart, naturally wanting to go nose first. The further back the weight, the more unstable a vehicle will get.
The batteries sit directly behind the rider. The five modules weigh 135kg and about 40 per cent of their 10kWh capacity will be used on a single run. For the second run, which needs to take place within two hours of the first, a new set of batteries are swapped in. It would be ideal in terms of the clean energy message to be able to recharge the batteries from solar panels in the desert, but the budget doesn’t extend to that and a diesel generator is used.
Unlike the design for KillaJoule, which was largely hand-sculpted, its successor, which has the current working name of Green Envy, will be designed in CAD. It will probably be about a metre longer, to accommodate the drive train, and will need a motor that delivers 800-1000hp. There is a sense that Håkansson is impatient to move on: “What I have is not the best any more. It’s good, it’s very good, it works great for this application, but there is much more powerful technology available than what I have.”
In fact, some new parts are beginning to roll off the production line – a production line that consists of a giant 3D printer developed and built by the husband and wife team. They are using it to print body parts for KillaJoule initially – they have printed a prototype sidecar cover for this year – but looking forward it will be able to deal with complex curves and therefore allow Green Envy to be designed in shapes that are aerodynamically correct. Håkansson is toying with the idea of turning the printer into a commercial product in its own right, supporting her “very expensive habit”.
Asked what have been the biggest challenges, Håkansson is in no doubt that it is working to a very restricted budget, but from an engineering point of view it is reliability. “We normally get pretty much one chance a year to test and run for the record,” she says. “Everything has to work. We have a saying that we use so often that the crew just cringe every time we say it these days, but it is ‘to finish first one must first finish’.”
It is coming round to that time of year when record breaking runs can take place and this reliability is critical – will KillaJoule’s swansong be a 300mph run?
Watch this space.
KillaJoule technical data
A123 Systems Nanophosphate lithium iron phosphate, 400V and 10kWh. 500+hp
EVO Electric AFM-240 motor, 400hp.
Two Rinehart Motion Systems PM100 controllers, 400hp combined.
660kg, including the rider Eva Håkansson.
Length 5.6m, width 0.53m, height 0.96m, wheelbase 3.8m, track width with sidecar 1.14m.
Frame and suspension
Chrome-Moly steel tubing with ‘Springer’ style front end and classic stereo suspension for rear end.
Disc brakes front and back. Two Kevlar ribbon brake parachute, actuated with Bimba air cylinders.
Fibreglass composite nose-cone, canopy and sidecar wheel cover, body panels of pre-painted aluminium.
Land speed records as they stand
Fastest electric motorcycle
Eva Håkansson, KillaJoule, 2016, 248mph
Fastest woman motorcyclist
Rocky Robinson, Top Oil-Ack Attack, 2010, 376mph
Kitty O’Neil, SMI Motivator (jet-powered), 1976, 513mph
Fastest electric car
Roger Schroer, Venturi Black Eye Bullet, 2016, 341mph
Fasted wheel-driven car
George Poteet, Speed Demon, 2012, 439mph
Fasted car (rocket-propelled)
Andy Green, ThrustSSC, 1997, 763mph