Kenyon Kluge: Zero to 60

An electrical engineer with a passion for motorcycles finds a job designing all-electric dirt bikes

5 min read
photo of Kenyon Kluge
Photo: Rod McLean

This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.

photo of Kenyon KlugeWorlds collide: Kenyon Kluge, an ieee member, has merged two careers—as a silicon Valley engineer and as a motorcycle racer—into one at zero motorcycles.Photo: Rod McLean

Kenyon Kluge grabs a leather jacket from his office and heads down the stairs to the manufacturing floor at Zero Motorcycles, a maker of high-performance, all-electric dirt bikes. He stops to take a pair of knee-high boots, a helmet, and gloves from a shelf and then hoists a gleaming new Zero X dirt bike off its rack.

For the next hour or so, he’ll be darting cleanly and quietly up the trails that wind through the trees near the company’s Scotts Valley, Calif., facility. And all the while he’ll be working, too.

Until a year ago, Kluge led a double life. Monday through Friday, he was a mild-mannered Silicon Valley engineer. On weekends, he was a top motorcycle track racer, competing in events all over the United States. Now, as Zero Motorcycle’s director of engineering, he has managed to merge his passion with his profession.

Kluge’s journey into engineering began early, when he qualified for a physics program for middle-schoolers run by the local University of California campus. For about a year, the 13-year-old spent his Saturdays studying on campus with undergrads or out on the boardwalk at the Santa Cruz beach, measuring the g-forces generated by the Giant Dipper roller coaster. When he graduated from high school in 1992, tight family finances ruled out a four-year college. Instead he registered at an ITT Technical Institute in the Los Angeles area to work toward an associate’s degree in electronics, expecting to transfer to a four-year EE program.

He never did get that four-year degree; real-world work proved too captivating. While still at ITT, he interned with a contractor who built new-product prototypes. After getting his associate’s degree in 1997, he went to Extreme Networks, a start-up in Santa Clara that made one of the first gigabit Ethernet switches. In 2000, he moved on to chipmaker Altera, in San Jose. There he worked on one of the first “softcore” microprocessors, devices that can be implemented on a programmable logic chip, such as a field-programmable gate array (FPGA).

Much of that time, Kluge was racing. He’d first ridden a dirt bike on a visit to a California ranch when he was 11 years old, but his parents refused to let him have anything to do with motorcycles after that. In 1994, however, after he turned 18 and no longer needed his parents’ permission, he got a motorcycle license and bought a Kawasaki EX500.

“From the start I wanted to race, but I didn’t really know how to go about it,” he recalls. He spent the next three years figuring it out. Then, in August 1997, he loaded his motorcycle into a friend’s truck, and they drove to Sears Point (now Infineon Raceway) in Sonoma, Calif., camping overnight in a nearby field. For his first race, he entered the 750-cubic-centimeter Superbike class, one of the fastest and toughest categories. Way out of his league, he crashed, wrecked the bike, and dislocated his shoulder.

Two months later he went back. This time he didn’t crash. He didn’t even finish last. He continued as a weekend racer until 2002 and then took a year’s leave of absence from his job as a senior engineer at Altera to race full time on the American Motorcyclist Association’s pro racing circuit, crisscrossing the country, living out of an RV. He placed 15th out of 94 in the Formula Xtreme class. But 27 is late to turn pro in motorcycle racing, and after the season ended he went back to Altera.

He was assigned to a group creating sample product designs to support sales of Altera’s FPGAs. The work was creative, but because the group didn’t build products to sell, they got little support within the company. By 2007, he was tired of hearing, as he puts it, “we want this and want it now, but we don’t want to give you any resources to go do it.” He began thinking about leaving.

He decided to look for an engineering job in the one field that really interested him: motorcycles. He reasoned that as an EE, his best shot would be with a company that built traction-control systems, the most sophisticated electronic component on a motorcycle. Such systems monitor wheel speeds, acceleration, throttle, braking, and other factors to determine if the vehicle is sliding; if it is, the systems make adjustments to stop the skid.

Kluge drew up a list of companies and sent out résumés. He was willing to relocate if necessary. He got a few responses but no hard offers.

Then, last February, he received a call from Gabriel DeVault, an engineer at Zero. DeVault had heard of Kluge’s racing career through friends of friends, and he wondered if Kluge could put Zero’s prototype all-electric dirt bike through its paces. DeVault had no idea that Kluge was an EE who was looking for a job.

Kluge rode the bike and was impressed. “I had expected it to be more of a toy, but it really wasn’t. It was a full-blown bike,” he says. He and DeVault chatted about the bike and the company. DeVault mentioned that he was in a bit of a jam because one of the contract engineers he’d been using to design and build circuit boards was no longer available.

Kluge told DeVault that he worked in engineering and knew some manufacturers who could do the work; soon afterward, he arranged to have a run of boards produced, billing Zero for a couple of hours of his time. In the process, he visited the company’s Scotts Valley office and talked to founder Neil Saiki and other employees. In April, when some additional financing came through, Zero hired Kluge as full-time head of the electronics department, which at that point was just him and an intern. But by the end of the year, the company’s ranks had tripled to 30â¿¿plus, and Kluge had advanced to director of engineering.

Photo of Kenyon KlugePhoto: Rod McLean

At Zero, Kluge designs circuit boards and arranges for their manufacture; defines the interface between the brakes, suspension, and motor; and helps determine what subsystems to use. He redesigned some of the control circuitry for the bike’s power control, speed control, and user interface systems, and he rewrote the software that manages the bike’s lithium-ion battery pack. He also supervises a growing staff of mechanical and electrical engineers.

And he rides. Sometimes, when he’s out on the hilly trails winding through the trees and open fields on the western slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains, he thinks about what he’d like to change in the next model, a street-legal motorcycle due out this winter. Other times he just rides for the thrill of it. Unlike a gas bike, he says, the electric bike doesn’t make you wait for the motor to ramp up to speed, and it has virtually no engine noise. You just crank the throttle and blast forward with a little whoosh as the air gets out of your way.

Someday all dirt bikes will be electric, he says. Noise pollution and trail degradation from engine exhaust have been pitting dirt-bike riders against environmentalists all over the United States. It’s a conflict that has to be resolved, Kluge says, and the electric trail bike is the way to do it. An electric bike, he says, is not only “doing the right thing; it gives us more rights as riders.”

Kluge also likes that his work could have a huge impact on the motorcycle world. “I could go work for a gas-bike company, but everything there has already been done. I’d be making small, incremental changes to wiring harnesses or electronics. Here I get to define what an electric motorcycle is going to be.”

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2009.

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