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New untippable motorcycle balances performance, safety

Lit Motors calls it the C-1, but the San Francisco start-up's untippable motorcycle seems nothing short of magic. It uses gyroscopes to stay balanced in a straight line and in turns in which drivers can, in theory, roll down their windows and drag their knuckles on the ground.

Is it a motorcycle? A car? Neither. It's an entirely new form of personal transportation, presuming it gets off the ground.

The all-electric vehicle is fully enclosed and uses a steering wheel and floor pedals like a car. But it weighs just 800 pounds and balances on two wheels even when stopped, making it more efficient than hauling around a 2-ton four-wheeler and safer than an accident-prone bike.

"Most people don't drive motorcycles because they're dangerous," said Lit Motors founder and C-1 creator Daniel Kim, 32.

"We're bringing safety to motorcycles with car-like controls that everyone's familiar with," Kim said of his self-stabilizing two wheeler.

If it goes into production in early 2014 as planned, it will be made with a steel uni-body and glass windows to protect drivers from the weather and objects that might crash into them, leaving enough room behind the driver's seat to carry a passenger, groceries or suitcase.

Two years away from production, there are currently two versions of the C-1: a sleek, Swedish-influenced model to demonstrate its curb appeal, and a rudimentary, drivable mock-up that can travel 10 miles per hour and withstand a swift kick to its side and remain standing.

The C-1, or Concept 1, uses the same type of electronically controlled gyroscopes as the Hubble Space Telescope. Two counter-rotating gyroscopes are mounted into the floor of the vehicle, working together to maintain balance in a turn, a straight line or at rest.

The C-1 is a more user-friendly version of the X-Prize-winning E-tracer, a $100,000 electric cabin motorcycle controlled with handlebars, a throttle and outriggers to keep it upright at slow speeds and when stopped.

The C-1 isn't the first vehicle to use gyroscopes. Mechanically controlled gyro cars have been around for almost a century. While the Segway personal transporter is the most modern and mainstream example of gyroscopic technology working to balance an otherwise teetering two-wheeler, what's different about the C-1 is the configuration of the wheels and the number, size and speed of the gyros, which are as big as dinner plates piled with pancakes, their centers spinning up to 12,000 revolutions per minute.

The faster the gyros spin, the more force they exert on the vehicle to keep it balanced. In production form, the composite-reinforced side panels should be able to withstand a typical side impact from significantly larger SUVs, Kim said. Its tires, which have a wider contact patch than most traditional motorcycles, allow for better traction when driving and should skid across the pavement in case of impact.

In production form, each wheel hub will be outfitted with a motor, making the C-1 a two-wheel, rather than rear-drive vehicle -- aiding with traction and enabling the C-1 to be driven in the snow.

Because the C-1 is computer-controlled, it can even be programmed to do tricks, such as stoppies, wheelies and slide-outs, on command.

The personal transportation industry is now focused on emissions, but as the global population increases and shifts to urban areas, the discussion is likely to include options like the C-1 that can help reduce traffic congestion and burdens on roadway infrastructure.