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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.