She broke the land speed record for fastest electric motorcycle in her lovingly built streamliner the 'KillaJoule'. Swedish-US based Eva Håkansson tells us the perks of being an engineer and how she came about breaking the land speed record.
Amylia Hilda: How did you get started in engineering?
Eva Håkansson: I call it a genetic disorder. Both my parents are mechanical engineers. My brothers are electrical engineers and I became a mechanical engineer. My mum kind of jokes that we never played when we were kids, we were always kind of making things all the time. According to my parents, the first thing I invented...and I don't have any memory of this, I had built a nuclear power plant when I was four years-old! It was made out of cardboard and cans and I was convinced that this was a nuclear power plant. No clue where I got the idea from! Probably something I saw on TV. I've always loved building things, that's my passion in life. I started up with doll houses and stables for my plastic horses and it went on to making science projects and so on.
AH How did that sort of transitioned into automobiles?
EH My dad was an amateur racer and he built motorcycles in his spare time and he also worked a day job. He had quit racing long before I was born but still, I grew up in a family with motorcycles and cars and the reason I kinda got into motorcycles and electric motorcycles was when I was in my late teens or early twenties and I wanted an electric car, but I couldn't afford one and we didn't have the garage space for another car so my dad suggested, "Well why don't we build an electric motorcycle?" So, that's what we did together and that's what got me really into electrics.
AH How did you come about building Killajoule?
EH KillaJoule is really my love baby that's what I call it. me and my husband, we built it together. The story began when I had built an electric motorcycle with my dad back in 2007 and at the same time I was writing a popular science book about vehicles, and I knew about the KillaCycle, - the drag racing motorcycle which was the fastest electric motorcycle in the world and the quickest electric vehicle overall at that point and I wanted to use picture of it in my book. So i tracked down the owner online in the US and asked if I can use a picture of his motorcycle in my book and he said, "Sure!"So, we kept in contact and then it turned out we were going to the same electric vehicle convention in Los Angeles in 2007 and that was the first time we met in person. The owner of the motorcycle, Bill, became my husband about 18 months later! (laughs).
That's how I ended up in Colorado and we were doing quarter mile drag racing which was also all about getting to the other end as quickly as possible in the shortest amount of time, but because the track is too short, (it's 400 by 2 metres long) it's particularly difficult to get to high speeds, so the KillaCycle did 174 mph which is fairly impressive but it doesn't blow people's minds. So, we found it hard to communicate that message, the fact that it runs a quarter mile in seven seconds which really quick but people just don't get it. they're think it goes 0-60 miles in 6-7 seconds? that's not so fast but no they don't understand…it's actually 0-60 mph in less than one second! it's just insanely fast but the message just didn't come through.
The reason we are racing is mainly to promote electric vehicles and eco friendly technology. I call it "eco-activism" in disguise but we just couldn't get the message through, that electric vehicle were really fast so we decided to build an insanely fast motorcycle. I wanted it to be 300 miles per hour because I know that would impress people. To build it that fast you'd need a streamliner motorcycle, which is a fully enclosed motorcycle and that's how the KillaJoule was conceived. It was built to be the fastest electric motorcycle in the world. We just started building it in March during the spring break and brought it out to Bonneville in August for the first time and then it took another year before it took the record.
AH What was the process like? I'm sure it must've cost a lot of money?
EH We were insanely optimistic, we had no clue was we had started. We had never built anything for land speed racing, or for racing in Bonnevile before and we had never built a streamliner and we had never even been to Bonneville! We thought, 'Oh maybe this would cost us 10,000 dollars and take six months.' Well, it turned out to cost us about 10 times more and take 10 times longer! (laughs) The personal safety equipment required cost us about 4,000 dollars just for the helmet, suits, seat belts gloves and all that. We were just so insanely naive, but we didn't think, we were so naive back then, but it was fun and it was a great adventure. We don't regret it at all!
AH I guess it's just difficult to convince people about electric mobility?
EH Yes it is, in general. The problem with electric racing is that companies that should be interested, such as companies of electric component manufacturers, they have never sponsored racing and they don't understand, they don't see the PR value. Companies that are typically in racing, they want statistics, such as the audience demographics, the marketing value and so on. Well, I don't have those numbers. Then they'll say they will sponsor Nascar instead. So, the people that are typically interested in motorsport don't understand electric. So, you end up having a very hard time on getting sponsors.
AH How did it feel like when you finally broke the land speed record?
EH I get this question all the time and I never really have a good answer. I'm quite different from most race car drivers or motorcycle riders, because I'm not in racing for the thrill of speed, people have a hard time believing that, but I'm in it for the engineering challenge. I love my late nights in the garage, that is my therapy and that is where I just love seeing things take shape, seeing things materialise. The record attempt in itself it is like taking a final exam…you know you have to do it, and it is your only chance to prove what you know but you'd rather not do it! (laughs)
To me, racing in Bonneville is just quite brutal. physically, you arrive in a desert and you spend your days out in the sun, and waiting in line, because they have fixed starting times. So, the whole adventure is quite exhausting, the run itself I can describe it is a mix of boredom, terror and magic. Because it's an electric vehicle, the startup sequence is fairly long and there are lots of switches and turning on of things and data logging, but when everything is up and running, there's just a throttle and noting else and there's brake chutes so that's it. So, I just sit back, look out the window and twist the throttle. that's all there is to it and i keep and on temperatures and things like that to make sure that everything is going well. But it's those two minutes that it takes to make a run feels very, very long. You're just accelerating like your Japanese family car, the acceleration is not impressive at all and I'm kinda working hard to stay concentrated because my mind tends to drift away.
But when it starts to go really, to set a record…you have to go faster than you've ever done before and particularly, faster than the vehicle has ever done and you're entering uncharted territory and that's kind of terrifying because you have no clue…are we gonna fall off? is it gonna handle it?, is it gonna take off and lift and fly? So, you can go very quickly from very boring and uneventful to completely terrifying. What I struggled with was claustrophobia because the vehicle is so tight, it's built around me, there's no room, so you're kind strapped in something like a straightjacket and I can barely move my hands and feet and then it gets hot and you breathe your own air and things like that but the moment of actually exceeding a record can actually get quite terrifying and i'm kinda talking out loud (to myself) 'Come on, come on! You can do it!' Then you finish and the brake chutes come out and …magic! I'd feel like, 'Let;s do it again! That was easy!"
AH Did you realise you broke the record while you were in the KillaJoule or did you only found out after?
EH It depends on how close i am. I have a speedometer, because there's absolutely no sense of speed, I have no reference, so at 30 mph feels really fast because everything is rattling and shaking and 200 mph feels the same. 250 mph starts to feel fast because it does start to change behaviour a little bit but the problem I have is when you go so fast, the wheels grow and tires grow with speed so it all sets my speedometer a little and I kind of have to choose where I worked the error and I calibrated it so it's corrected at lower speed, so it shows a little bit less than I'm actually going. So, it depends on how close I am I don't approximate how much the error is.
AH What's the best lesson you've learned out of the experience?
EH I think the lesson is that you can accomplish almost anything you want if you are willing to put in enough work. Building something like this is a huge confidence builder and i am very much into pro-women in science and technology and the many reasons for that is at least to me, there is nothing more empowering than seeing an idea actually materialise.
Girls, typically love arts and crafts. I love arts and crafts and I always say that engineering is just arts and crafts for grown ups. There's noting different than having an idea on how to make a necklace and having an idea on how to build a racing vehicle. The process is the same, you only need more skills to build and more specific tools, but somewhere along the way, we lose girls and suddenly they don't think they can make things any more. I don't know why that is because women are equally good engineers.
AH Do you face a lot of pressure being a woman in such a male dominated field?
EH I wouldn't call it pressure, I grew up with two older brothers and that kind of changed me a lot. So, they would do all kinds of cool things and I wanted to do what they were doing but they had such a huge head start and I had to work really hard to catch up, I was six years behind being bored.
This is a theory from my husband and I agree. If boys see somebody doing something such as building a race car for example, in his mind he thinks he can do that, doesn't matter if it's a woman or a man. Girls on the other hand would see it: If the person showing the motorcycle is a man, many girls think, 'Oh, I can't do that because I'm a girl, ' and they'll not think about it again. But if it's a woman showing it then they can identify with the woman and feel like they can do it too. Girls tend to have this need to identify so you need to show women doing cool stuff and we are really lacking female superheroes.
Ed: Studies have shown that role modes are important to all groups in all spheres. It's not a gendered thing per se - if anything, boys are more likely to be influenced by a negative role model - but we do definitely need more women superheroes!
AH What is your next goal?
EA friend of John Glenn the astronaut said that Glenn had given him the best career advice ever. Glenn advised: 'If you ever find yourself at the crossroads in your life - which is where I am right now - Think of where would you do the most good, what would be the best use of you? And I thought well, I've almost always been complaining about poor teachers all my life because there are a lot of poor teachers. I can make a good living being just an engineer in this country, but if I work in the industry, I will work on one single project at one time but if i can help educate more engineers, then I can kind of indirectly work on many more projects. It's important that I do something good for the world and that's why I like eco-friendly technology and sustainability and so on and I if I can get the next generation of engineers to fit in sustainability in their engineering lives then I can do so much more than just working as an engineer.
Kuala Lumpur based writer, Noor Amylia Hilda has been working in the publishing industry in Malaysia for over four years. She started off her writing career with stints at magazines such as Marie Claire Malaysia and ELLE Malaysia. She is now a full-time writer at Women's Health Malaysia and pens for their Lifestyle columns. A love for motorsports, however, leads Amylia to devote her free time to covering various series especially Formula E where she is a regular contributor to e-racing.net. She can often be found next to the coffee machine in Media Centres.