CLOSE Harley-Davidson plans to publicly unveil its first electric motorcycle next week, a sleek, futuristic bike that hums like a jet airplane taking off. (June 19) AP Harley-Davidson's first electric motorcycle shown at the company's research facility in Wauwatosa, Wis.(Photo: M.L. Johnson AP) MILWAUKEE — Harley-Davidson has introduced its first electric motorcycle, a sleek, futuristic bike that sounds like a jet airplane taking off and can go from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds.
The bike isn't in production yet. Instead, the public will get its first look at handmade demonstration models at an invitation-only event Monday in New York. The company will then take the models on the road for riders to try and provide feedback. Harley will use the information to refine the bike, which might not hit the market for several more years. The venture is a risk for Harley because there's currently almost no market for full-size electric motorcycles.
The millions of two-wheeled electric vehicles sold each year are almost exclusively scooters and low-powered bikes that appeal to Chinese commuters. But those focused on electric vehicle development say Harley has the marketing power to create demand, and its efforts to lower costs, build charging stations and improve technology will help everyone involved. Show Thumbnails Show Captions Last SlideNext Slide "It does validate what we've been doing; it adds additional credibility to it.
It is certainly going to draw more people's attention to electric motorcycles. The marketing horsepower of Harley-Davidson is going to be able to do things for us that we can't do on our own," said Scot Harden, vice president of global marketing at Zero Motorcycles, the top seller of full-size, high-powered electric bikes. Zero expects to sell 2,400 electric motorcycles this year, a drop in the bucket compared with the more than 260,000 conventional motorcycles sold last year by Harley.
The new LiveWire won't make Harley's distinctive "potato-potato-potato" chug. Its engine is silent, and the turbine-like hum comes from the meshing of gears. Electric motors also eliminate the need to shift gears and provide rapid acceleration and better handling. LiveWire's design places the engine at the bottom of the bike. "When you ride a motorcycle, it's the movement of the top of the bike side-to-side that gives you agility in regard to making turns.
So, if I put weight low in a motorcycle, I can turn faster. I can drop the bike down and make quicker moves," said Gary Gauthier, of NextEnergy, a Detroit-based nonprofit with expertise in electric vehicles. One hurdle Harley and others have yet to address is the limited range offered by electric motorcycles. Batteries typically must be recharged after about 130 miles, and that can take 30 minutes to an hour.
San Jose State University police Capt. Alan Cavallo helped his department buy two Zero motorcycles and said officers have been "super happy" with the quiet, environmentally friendly bikes made nearby in Scotts Valley, California. But he said American riders who like to hit the highway would likely lose patience with the technology. "That's the deal with the cars; you can't jump in a Tesla and drive to LA, it won't make it," Cavallo said, adding later, "People want the convenience of 'I pull into a gas station, I pour some gas in my tank and I go.
'" Harley President Matt Levatich said he expects technology to improve and the company is less interested in immediate demand than long-term potential. True growth in electric vehicles also will require common standards for rapid charging and other features, as well as more places for people to plug in. Harley expects to play a role in that, he said, noting that its dealership network could provide charging stations.
"We think that the trends in both EV technology and customer openness to EV products, both automotive and motorcycles, is only going to increase, and when you think about sustainability and environmental trends, we just see that being an increasing part of the lifestyle and the requirements of riders," Levatich said. "So, nobody can predict right now how big that industry will be or how significant it will be.
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Harley-Davidson is more than a motorcycle, or even a brand. It is an icon, one that brings to mind big, loud bikes ridden by burly men with tattoos and beards. The company has long been known for rumbling V-twin engines and the open road. All of which makes the idea of an electric Harley seem downright absurd. It's actually pretty cool. The LiveWire is the first electric two-wheeler out of Milwaukee.
We spent an afternoon riding one amongst the weeds and broken glass of an abandoned Marine Corps runway outside Los Angeles last week and came away impressed. The Hell's Angels aren't going to be riding them anytime soon, but the bike offers an entertaining blend of power and comfort. It doesn't sound anything at all like a proper Harley—or a “fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier” as Harley brass say—but it's got a futuristic sound that brings to mind an airliner taking to the air.
The LiveWire may not rumble like the Harleys everyone knows, and it doesn't perform like them. But it'll hit 60 mph in under four seconds and it's got more style than other electrics we've ridden. Now Harley has to find out if anyone actually wants the thing. Cutting weight and potatoes If Harley-Davidson isn't the world's most famous motorcycle, it's close. The company has been building motorcycles since 1903, and typically subscribes to the bigger-is-better school of engineering.
But even Harley-Davidson knows the times are changing, and it recognizes the need to diversify a customer base dominated by middle-aged white guys. Upstarts like Zero Motorcycles and Brammo have proven one way to attract younger, urban riders is selling small, compact bikes powered by batteries. Even major players like Yamaha are giving electrics a go. So Harley is trying it out, too. “Any business has always got to look ahead to see where customers are interested in going, and see where society might be going,” says Mark-Hans Richer, Harley’s top marketing guy.
[embedded content] That said, this isn't a production model. Not yet, anyway. Harley is taking a few dozen LiveWires on a tour, dubbed Project LiveWire, of the United States and Europe. It will invite people in each city to check out the bike and provide feedback. The tour starts Monday in New York. The key challenge in building the LiveWire was the shift from building a bike around an engine to building one around a battery.
A battery is heavy—Harley wouldn't say what the pack weighs, but one EV expert told us something with the range and recharge time Harley claims would be around 250 pounds—so engineers had to cut weight elsewhere. The cast aluminum perimeter frame wrapped around the battery box weighs just 14 pounds, which makes it a full eight pounds lighter than the Zero's frame. The wheels have hollow spokes, and Harley claims they're among the lightest aluminum wheels it's ever produced.
There’s no need for an exhaust system, which not only saves weight but gives the bike a sleeker look. The result is a clean, tightly packaged bike without frivolous details. Harley did most of the chassis work—it's been building bikes since the dawn of internal combustion, so it's got that down pat—but brought in experts like Mission Motors for help with things like the motor controller. Speaking of the motor, the LiveWire marks quite a departure from Harley’s signature sound.
You don't get the syncopated “potato, potato, potato” that is synonymous with a 60-degree V-twin engine. But even though it's electric, and therefore has no engine, the LiveWire had to live up to Harley’s “look, sound, and feel” mantra. That took a lot of work, but company president and COO Matt Levatich insists the result is “not contrived." The high-pitched whir of the longitudinally-mounted, three-phase AC induction motor reverberates through the chassis, amplifying the sound.
It starts off quietly, then builds in pitch and volume as the bike gains speed. It's louder than you'd think, and though it's not going to set off any car alarms, it'll definitely make you smile. Harley-Davidson What customers want The LiveWire offers 74 horsepower, 52 foot-pounds of torque and a (governed) top speed of 92 mph. It's more powerful and quicker off the line than the $13,000 Zero DS, but it's got less torque and range.
That said, it's got more torque and power than Harley's Iron 883. Still, Harley execs and engineers don’t like talking about specs. They don't want potential customers making judgments based on what the LiveWire offers right now. The LiveWire is a work in progress, based on “what we think our customers are looking for,” Richer says. The company hopes to glean more info during the LiveWire tour, and iterate accordingly to suit consumer tastes.
Think of this as LiveWire v1.0. Harley isn't saying much about the drivetrain beyond saying the bike uses a lithium-ion battery with a range of 53 miles. It charges in 3.5 hours at 220 volts. Assuming the bike has a 3.3 kw charging system like other electric motorcycles, some back-of-the-envelope math suggests the LiveWire uses a 10 kilowatt-hour pack. Twist the throttle and the bike leaps forward with authority.
Roll off the throttle and the regenerative braking kicks in, bringing the bike down from speed with due efficiency. Harley-Davidson Harley emphasizes its excitement over the LiveWire, but downplays its importance. An electric bike is just an idea, something that could draw younger, urban buyers to the brand. Companies like Zero have had some success with that strategy, and even convinced a few police departments to add electrics to their fleets.
“This is just part of us understanding where the world might want to go,” Richer says. The upside of so cautious an approach, of course, is there's less fallout if the bike is a flop. New direction That's not out of the question. Harley's past forays into the potentially lucrative market for smaller, city-focused bikes have ended poorly. That hasn't kept it from trying again this year with the launch of the Street, a simpler, cheaper, bike made for city riding.
The LiveWire is another step in that direction. “Why can’t Harley do some of these other cool things, too, and see where it takes us?” Levatich says.