Project LiveWire – We Ride Harley-Davidson’s New Electric Motorcycle

Quick Throttle Publisher Chris Dalgaard demos the Project LiveWire electric motorcycle from Harley-Davidson.

By CD, Editor of QT Magazine

That’s right, we rode it

Like many of you, I’ve been reading about Project Livewire from Harley-Davidson, but what’s absolutely shocking (pun intended) is how many people wrote about it (either in blogs or magazines, or posting on message boards) but clearly didn’t RIDE it. One reason is certainly that H-D didn’t give us a chance to ride it soon enough – and when I say soon enough, I mean, before the public hears about it and we say, umm, yeah that looks cool, can we ride it too, and tell people about it? But another reason is that some choose to opine on subjects they really don’t understand. Well call me crazy, but I choose to reserve judgement until I actually can RIDE a motorcycle, before I condemn it, celebrate it, or just plain report on it.

After riding this completely new bike, I can easily tell who rode one, and who merely took a position on electric motorcycles, pro or con. Both positions are valid, but as gearheads, aren’t we all about the Machine and the Ride??

So with that off my chest, here we go.

Don’t be afraid.

photoIt’s not the beginning of the end of your internal combustion engine. That end was foretold when they discovered that fossil fuels are finite and will, at some point, run out. Maybe by then we’ll get our “potato-potato” sound out of actual potatoes, or hydrogen, or whatever. But for now and for a long time to come, our gas-powered V-Twins are safe. Meanwhile, vehicles like the Tesla and the Prius have shown that there is a burgeoning consumer demand for rechargeable vehicles. Harley-Davidson very wisely started to develop this technology, but also very quietly. So on June 19th, they shocked the world (pun intended again) when they launched Project Livewire. They introduced a motorcycle that looked like a sportbike and sounded like a jet turbine. And it ran on batteries.

Sportbike looks aside, we were very intrigued. Why? Because we knew from the Tesla Roadster in 2008 that this technology could provide “instant torque” and remain very fast throughout the entire power curve. Our interest was also piqued when we heard the sound it made, or a recording of it at least – it sounded like a cross between a turbine engine and the Jetson’s flying car.

Did it sound as good when we rode it? Well, yes and no. But we’ll get to that in a minute. And, we’ll tell you about something very cool that we hadn’t expected out of the ride….but right now let’s talk specs, the few we’ve been able to pull out of H-D, or find on our own: It’s got a lithium-ion battery, an induction 3-phase, 4-pole motor that makes 74 horsepower and 52 ft. lbs. of torque at 8,500 RPM, the bike weighs only 463 pounds and does 0-60 in 4 seconds.

What it doesn’t have is also very much worth mentioning – no clutch. no shifting through gears. Sacrilege to some, to be sure! I reached for the clutch several times before I settled into a different rhythm. Personally, I’d miss it if I owned this bike (or I’d have this as my “city bike”). I drive a stick shift sports car for the same reason. There is a visceral thrill in going through the gears, much more so than an automatic. I get that it makes this bike a lot easier to ride, but it’s also kinda cool to be doing something that others are intimidated by…but, this is a different kind of ride. It just doesn’t need shifting to maximize acceleration. It’s got that in spades.

Look Mom, no brakes?

photo-1Now here’s another common “accessory” that it has, but doesn’t need….brakes! Yes, you read that right. It’s got front and rear brakes, and when you first get on they warn you “Now, it doesn’t have ABS…” and you’re thinking, what? In 2014?? But when you ride it, you experience something that maybe only motorhome owners or diesel truck drivers know about – compression, or “jake” braking. On the Livewire it’s called “Regenerative Braking,” and it’s the motor slowing itself down when you let off the throttle, in order to charge the battery during deceleration. The SIDE EFFECT of this, according to Harley’s Product Development man Phil Zagrodnik, is that it slows the motor so quickly that you don’t touch the brakes. Think of it as the opposite of freewheeling. Well I couldn’t believe it. I had the bike up to 65 mph and was running around town with 6 other Livewire riders, in and out of traffic, and I reached for but never applied the brakes. One H-D person told me, “We put the brakes on there to comply with federal law, but you almost don’t need them.” I’ll be honest – I LOVE this feature. It was so natural and so effective, that unlike the nostalgia I was feeling for the clutch, this just immediately worked and made sense. I now want this on my motorcycle, my car, my mountain bike, everywhere!

Now about that sound…you’ve heard the clip, you’ve maybe heard it revving on the dyno-type platform they’ve been setting up on the Livewire tours. Well, it doesn’t quite sound the same on the road, but close. Yes, it’s got the turbine sound, just not enough of it. I told the H-D guys, “When you finally ship these things, make the sound as raunchy as possible.” Sure it’s cool, but I want more of it. If I can’t set off car alarms with my pipes, I gotta have something right? Now I have heard it’s actually louder than the Zero and other electric bikes. H-D claims they “designed” the sound that way. They also told me the sound can be affected by how the gears are cut. I did notice, when riding around with those other Livewire’s, that it was very reminiscent of the scene in “Return of the Jedi” when they’re flying on those motorcycle-type speeders through the forest (on Endor, of course, for the geeks). It was very cool, I have to say. Just give me more cowbell. Now here’s two more specs I didn’t mention yet, but are probably the most important – 54 miles and 3 hours – that’s how far it will go on one charge, and how long it will take to charge it again. And it’s 220 only right now, not 110 volt. And it’s only got an outboard charger. So clearly it’s not ready for market just yet…I told the H-D guy that those numbers needed to be doubled and halved, respectively. 100-mile range and 90 minutes charge time are reasonable, for this to be at the very least, a strong “commuter bike.” And it can be that – because it’s light, nimble, and yes, fun.

When talking to the production guy about changes I’d like to see, I suddenly stopped and said, “but it seems you’ve already finalized the production?” The bikes just seemed to tight and well-finished. He laughed and said, “Production? Oh no, those are prototypes. You’re looking at about 180k per bike.” So does Harley-Davidson have some diabolical plan? Yes, but it’s not to force an electric bike on you. It’s to sell you a bike, or two, and accessories, and clothes, and parts for those bikes. As for electric or gas, that’s not up to them. It’s up to you. Sure, they feel the pressure mounting from the Feds to start producing these vehicles, but they don’t have to build them if you’re not buying them. Like we said earlier though, some folks do want Teslas and Priuses, and some folks are building electric bikes. So H-D is ready to expand to that segment, when you are. In the meantime, they are thrilled to build and sell heavy, loud, badass bikes as they always have.