Kevin Clemens has the kind of background that would make even the most diehard gearhead envious: stints working for Michelin and Automobile magazine, a transportation reporter fellowship at the University of Michigan, and founding a publishing company devoted to automotive books. A mix of oil and ink has dominated his resume for decades, but recently Clemens added a shade of green when he set a new national land speed record on an unstreamlined electric motorcycle.
Yes, you read that right: an electric motorcycle. After a career focused on horsepower and sports cars it might seem incongruous for Clemens to go green. But getting a master of arts degree in natural science and environmental education from Hamline helped lead the automotive-minded author in a different direction. “As I started going deeper into environmental and energy issues at Hamline, I discovered I couldn’t go back to driving SUVs and writing about the practicality of driving ridiculous vehicles,” explains Clemens, who published a book, The Crooked Mile
, about making cars and their fuel more sustainable.
A desire to put his money where his now-ecofriendly mouth was pushed Clemens to adapt a dream he’d been harboring since his days of testing vehicles with Michelin at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Instead of trying to set a regular speed record, Clemens decided to use his new environmental knowledge to build the fastest 150-kilogram electric motorcycle in the country. Why a motorcycle? Having an unused Honda Scrambler frame gathering dust in his Lake Elmo garage helped, but Clemens says he wanted to show how easy going electric could be. “The reality is if you cut out half the wheels and things like air conditioning, then electrification is a lot simpler,” says Clemens. “Motorcycles are great commuter vehicles and a practical means of transportation.”
Clemens spent the winter and spring of 2011 tinkering with the machine and calculating how far and fast the five 12-volt batteries and electric motor would carry him—a skill he couldn’t imagine having without his environmental education degree from Hamline. “I went to engineering school and learned how to destroy the natural world. When I got an environmental education degree from Hamline I learned how to appreciate the natural world,” explains Clemens. “It gave me a different lens than engineering; if I just wanted to go fast I would have built a gas motorcycle.”
When Clemens arrived at the Salt Flats in August, his electric motorcycle was one of only six electric bikes among more than 600 motorcycle record seekers, yet no one treated him like an ecooutsider. “People were interested in the bikes, and they’d wave when we’d silently motor by,” laughs Clemens. And when he noiselessly cruised his lightweight bike to the 61.54 mph record, he knew it wouldn’t be his last electric ride.
“I’ve got salt in my blood now,” says Clemens, who plans to return to the Flats next summer to chase a new record: 100 mph on an electric motorcycle—almost double the speed he achieved last year. That goal might seem aggressive, but Clemens says it indicates how quickly technology is evolving when it comes to electric vehicles and their capabilities. And in true eco-friendly fashion, Clemens has decided to dismantle the original record-setting Honda and recycle the parts in order to build his next record-setter, which will be constructed on a Kawasaki Ninja frame.
In the meantime he is also thinking about how to use a combination of his record-setting experience and Hamline master’s degree to relate a positive environmental message to kids. The fact that a motorcycle is involved already helps pique the interest of children who might write off the concept of fuel efficiency as boring. “I like the idea of teaching a class on the idea of engineering and design as it relates to the environment, and that electric vehicles could be a future part of transportation infrastructure,” says Clemens. “Motorcycles make these ideas fun and exciting for kids… electric vehicles aren’t as boring as they used to be.”
Clemens also sees room for lectures and seminars about environmental technology at Hamline, where students across all degree fields find a common interest in lessening their impact on the planet. “Hamline doesn’t have an engineering school, but it does have plenty of people who care about the environment,” he explains. “I think you can be in the literature department or the law school and still care about this kind of thing.”