Harley-Davidson LiveWire First Ride

The Motor Company makes motor history

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Harley-Davidson’s electrically-powered LiveWire has sent shockwaves throughout the moto industry – and also through the general public. I don’t recall the last time Harley made a bigger splash in traditional media than the news of this electric motorcycle, which I got to ride yesterday on the streets of New York City.

The LiveWire impresses even before riding, as Harley engineers have clearly put a lot of effort into making this an e-bike that pleases the eyes. It borrows some elements from H-D’s dirt-track heritage, with a low, flat faux fuel tank and abbreviated tail section. Also low is the seat height, about 30 inches. A sand-cast, perimeter-style aluminum frame wraps around the batteries, while the electric motor is proudly on display at the bottom end of the bike. Harley designers describe the longitudinally mounted motor with its billet aluminum housing as a highlight of the LiveWire.

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Harley-Davidson’s V-Twin engines are always proudly on display in its gas-sipping motorcycles. That tradition hasn’t changed with the electric motor on the LiveWire.

Positioning the motor longitudinally forces a complicated arrangement for driving the rear wheel. The motor’s output shaft uses a spiral-bevel drive to change the rotation to a sideways orientation. From there, a small belt transfers power to a sprocket located concentrically with the swingarm pivot (which negates the need for belt-tension adjustment), then finally to the rear wheel via a traditional belt drive.

Discuss this at our Harley-Davidson LiveWire Forum.

The heat generated by the various systems is managed in different ways. The gearbox and motor are cooled by oil, while the batteries are cooled by air. Heat from the electronic motor controller is shed by liquid circulated through a small radiator.

The LiveWire’s only carryover parts are the Nissin brakes, LED signals, mirrors, hand controls and a tail lamp, the latter borrowed from a V-Rod and inverted in this application.

MORE: Harley-Davidson Reveals Project Livewire

An electronic key fob activates the LiveWire, while traditional Harley switchgear is used to ready the system for launch. A full-color TFT screen displays a multitude of information, including battery charge, range and temperatures for the motor controller, motor and battery pack. A rider has the choice of two thrust delivery modes: Range or Power. Naturally, I chose Power.

A full-color TFT screen provides the necessary ride data such as remaining battery charge. The mirrors mounted to the turn signals under the handlebars proved to be less useful.

Harley says its motor produces 75 hp and 52 ft-lb. of torque at its peaks, which enables a sprint to 60 mph in less than four seconds. Acceleration is indeed brisk, leaping away from traffic with a quiet ferocity that thrills even motojournos jaded by big power. It’s likely the LiveWire could go wheel to wheel with Zero’s speedy new SR. Top speed is limited to 95 mph, which is a velocity we didn’t come near while on the congested streets of Manhattan.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of tuning an electric motorbike is programming its motor controller to transform ones and zeros into natural feeling throttle response. Here, the LiveWire shines. It can pull away from a stop as gently as an expertly calibrated clutch hand. Also earning praise is the tuning of its regenerative braking, which applies force to the electric motor when rolling off the throttle in a manner that deftly imitates engine braking from an internal combustion powerplant.

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The LiveWire’s ergonomics are pleasant, with a modest reach to the handlebars and a reasonable amount of legroom. Its seating position suited my shortish body, but I could imagine taller riders would feel short on fore/aft space. In contrast to Brammo’s Empulse, the LiveWire is incredibly slim between a rider’s knees. Its mirrors, mounted below the handlebar, look nicer than they work.

Handling performance seemed to be quite good, but firm opinions will require more than just a few miles on the streets of NYC. Still, the fully adjustable Showa suspension seemed to work well, and the chassis responded fairly quickly to shoves on the handlebars. Harley was reluctant to release the weight of the LiveWire, but we suspect it scales in at less than 480 pounds, thanks in part to its cast-aluminum frame purported to weigh just 14 pounds. The LiveWire’s cast-aluminum wheels are said to be the lightest hoops ever mounted to a Harley.

There are no dead dinos in the LiveWire’s faux fuel tank. Word is the LiveWire’s batteries hold enough power for a 53-mile range; not enough for a production model but suitable for the test ride tour.

Obviously, there’s the question of range, which is impossible for us to verify based on our very short ride and the fact that Harley hasn’t released the LiveWire’s battery specs. A 53-mile range in mixed riding was hinted at, leading us to believe a battery capacity of about 10 kilowatt/hour.

Jeff Richlen, the LiveWire’s lead engineer, told us that a range of at least 100 miles is needed before an e-bike starts to make sense for most riders.

And that’s the reason why the LiveWire is thus far a proof of concept machine rather than a production bike. Harley is spending the next year or two evaluating customer feedback via its “Project LiveWire Experience,” a cross-country tour of two trucks, each with 11 LiveWires, headed to Harley dealerships in 30 U.S. cities. Reservations can be booked online at ProjectLiveWire.com. The demos will continue in Canada and Europe in 2015.

Harley-Davidson is bringing the LiveWire to dealerships in 30 U.S. cities. Test ride registrations are available on online

Harley-Davidson is bringing the LiveWire to dealerships in 30 U.S. cities. Test ride registrations are available on online

Based on the tour dates, we think the emergence of a production version of the LiveWire is at least 18 months away, perhaps as long as two years or more while the energy density of batteries improves.

However, you can be sure a LiveWire will arrive at Harley dealerships at some point in the future. The immense buzz from the bike’s debut is way too strong to ignore.

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  • Kevin

    Any thoughts on the brakes themselves, Kevin?

    • Kevin Duke

      Our short ride barely gave a chance to test them. They seem decent but not stellar.

  • michael franklin

    What, no video? this is 2014,right?

    • Kevin Duke

      Video shot but not edited. Stay tuned.

  • Craig Hoffman

    Can it do a wheelie? If anyone can get to the bottom of that inquiry it is Mr. Duke – LOL

    It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Motorcycles are not known to be terribly eco friendly, and a lot of people are put off by a clutch. This bike addresses both of those issues. Nice looking bike too – ironic then that the sharpest looking Harley in the Hog pen is their new e-bike concept.

    Perhaps the scooter format will turn out to be the best of all for e-bikes though. To my mind anyway, the scooter format and electric power seem to belong together.

    • Kevin Duke

      Manhattan streets provided limited traction and space, so I’ll have to do more investigative work on the wheelie situation!

  • coma44

    If it cannot go 200 miles per charge, and if it takes more than 1 hr to charge than it is useless as a real motorcycle.
    Commuter “juice box” is all they will ever be. 15 to 30 miles round trip charge for hours at home.

    • drkennethnoisewater

      With a Tesla battery at 40-50kWh and charge rate at 135kW it could get there, but that battery would run around 250kg all by itself currently. But, as a stressed frame member, there’d still be a 150kg budget for all the rest of the bike for a cruiser substitute at ~400kg..

      • DickRuble

        400kg is about 880 lbs.. A battery is not an engine.. it cannot be on itself a stressed member unless it has a sturdy frame, which in turn makes it even heavier.

    • Rookie

      Well, aren’t most motorcyclists commuters anyway? I won’t say “yes”,and I won’t say “no”, as electrics have been unjustfully overpriced, just for the fact of being something “new” (which they aren’t, EVs have been here for at least 80 years) but it’s the petrol industry not wishing to give the juicy bone away, that’s held them back. But I like it’s design and I congratulate Harley for making this bold move. Let’s hope it doesn’t have a stellar price tag….

      • pdad13

        Mostly commuters? In this country? No. While a lot of us use our bikes to commute, their primary function is for pleasure. That means bikes have to be able to go hundreds of miles in a day. To get to the prime roads in my area I have to ride at least 30 miles. Then I’ll ride for another 50 to 100 miles. Then I have to get home. All in a few hours. That’s just a weekend day. There isn’t an e-bike made that can do that. Let’s not even discuss touring.

        Now, theoretically, I might own an e-bike as a second bike or a commuter, but there’s one big problem: it makes no economic sense. I’d have to pay a large premium to own a limited use vehicle. Am I going to pay $18k for a bike that can do maybe 85 miles on a charge? No way. And neither will almost everyone.

        Now consider that most people can only afford one bike. So, your point taken.

        But the reasons why e-bikes are not due to big oil. It comes down to two main issues: 1.) Batteries are very expensive, and 2.) E-bike production is low. And the low production numbers are due to the fact that e-bikes aren’t very capable yet.

        With all the oohing and ahhing over them, almost no one buys them.

      • DickRuble

        Motorcycle commuters in the US definitely not a majority. Those who are commuters have a much reduced life expectancy.

        • LS650

          Um, depends where you live, really. Out here on the west (wet) coast, I’ve commuted by moto year-round since 1992, and I’ve never had any kind of crash or injury.

        • Rookie

          I’m from Europe :)

    • LS650

      Although I like to tour once in a while, I have to admit that the bulk of my riding is my cross-town commute and local back roads. I couldn’t work with a range of 53 miles, but I could live with maybe 100-120 miles.

    • Jay F.

      Check out Zero bikes

  • DickRuble

    HD seems to have gotten the strategy right. The drive train, “feel”, and handling seem to be sound, based on reviews. Range will be sorted out as technology progresses or as HD finds better batteries.

  • Luke

    So a HD Street Glide is like 800 lbs. I wonder how many batteries you could fit on an HD cruiser at stay at that weight?

  • JMDonald

    Is HD using any government money or tax incentives for this project/offering?
    Until range and recharging/refueling times are improved to the that of gasoline motorcycles acceptance will be limited. Unless of course electrics are the only available motorcycles permitted. I guess if you don’t have very far to go and you don’t need to recharge any quicker than overnight it may work for some riders. Harley Schmarley, they don’t bring any credibility to the table from my point of view. That doesn’t mean everyone sees it that way.

    • Luke

      I think the tax incentive ran out at the end of 2013.

  • ADB

    I still say it is impossible that these bikes are Harley Davidson’s. The foot pegs, seats, and handlebars are all in the proper positions. This just can’t be. None of this makes any sense.

  • LS650

    I’m willing to give Harley the benefit of the doubt and take one for a test ride….

    The Eco-nazis seem to be winning the war against the internal combustion engine, so I expect in the decades to come we’ll see more movement towards electric motorcycles – I’m just surprised it’s Harley leading the way for the big manufacturers. Where are Honda, BMW, etc.?

  • bigjames

    I love it when HD does something this unexpected. How did no one see this coming? How does a company this big hide a project, well, this big? Guess I’ll mozy over to the web site and see if one is coming close enough to check it out. As a concept bike, sure are a lot of them and who lets the public ride concept bikes?

  • Charles O. Slavens

    Below is a proposed 30 second TV commercial for Harley’s Wildfire electric bike. This version
    is aimed at new expanding group of potential buyers… young, environmentally aware,
    urban, and looking for a thrill.

    The Darth Vader voice underscores the threat…. a wrong decision will imperil the
    future of our planet and the human race.

    Let’s give HD some help here! Please REPLY with your own version

    … Just re-write the version below.

    Charles O. Slavens

    SCENE 1:

    VIDEO – FI – A dark mountain ridge silhouetted against the upper limb of a rising moon – CUT

    SFX – high pitched whine of a jet engine winding up

    NARR – Darth Vader voice: “The future is in your hands.”

    SCENE 2:

    VIDEO – CU a single headlight flares…a pump zoom back to a long shot of a rider outlined against the full moon. The moonlight is reflected in the centerline of the highway. — CUT

    SFX — whine approaches and shrieks past, changing tone dramatically via the doppler effect.

    NARR – Darth Vader voice: “The key to survival on your planet lies with you.”

    SCENE 3:

    VIDEO – low angle medium shot of the bike at speed from the front as the headlight flares. The camera moves to the side and the bike drift by, revealing details. — CUT

    VIDEO — Close up of the Harley Davidson logo. — CUT

    SFX – jet engine whine continues

    NARR – New voice (Alan Sklar)…. “Rising to lead is a quintessential icon of American ingenuity – Harley Davidson… long a symbol of ability and American resourcefulness.”

    SCENE 4:

    VIDEO – The biker is now in the Holland Tunnel whizzing past large trucks.
    — CUT

    SFX – The ever-present whine of the jet engine is loud, echoing off the tiled
    walls.

    NARR – “It’s coming… the beginning of something new”

    SCENE 5:

    VIDEO – Dawn is breaking in Downtown NYC. We’re in the financial district. Our rider dismounts, takes off her helmet and shakes out her hair. In the background we see the façade of the NYSE. — CUT

    NARR – We see the path… it’s going to happen.

    SCENE 6:

    VIDEO – Our rider walks past a low angle look at Wall Street’s charging bull in the foreground. — DISSOLVE

    NARR – Harley Davidson is moving forward with what is great about America.

    SCENE 7:

    VIDEO – HD/Livewire logo — FO

    SFX – music up and out.

  • RedDon

    I’m an RC (radio controlled) airplane pilot and more of us have gone over to electron propulsion than burning hydrocarbon fuel over the past few years. The technology has made tremendous strides just in the last couple years. Our nitro fuel is about $9/qt, give or take a little and there is a lot less clean-up after a flight. There are still some of the older guys who won’t give up internal combustion but the writing is on the walls and the components, motors, batteries, and ESC’s are getting cheaper by the minute. When I first heard that H.D. was looking at an electric bike I figured, if Harley is willing to spend the money then there must be more to the story. As far as range goes, personally I’d like at least 200 miles but I know that a lot of people who want to have a 200 mile range rarely actually go much more than 100 miles for an average ride and in fact most of my riding buddies could live with 50 because they don’t have the time to do much more than that. Fifty miles would do for a lot of people who just want one for commuting. I’d put my money on seeing an electric Harley within a couple years.