I like electric vehicles. I mean, I really like them. But unlike a lot of journalists who say they like something, I actually went out and spent my hard-earned on an electric car, a 2018 Chevy Bolt; one of my best purchases ever. I bought it because when it was announced, it was the first affordable long-range electric vehicle, and it’s been great. It’s not perfect for everything, but what car is? For cars, EVs aren’t coming; they’re here.
Motorcycles? Not. It’s now been almost exactly 10 years since I reviewed my first electric motorcycle, and I thought there would be more progress. In fact, things are starting to look a little bleak. There’s really only one company selling e-motos in any kind of volume – Zero – and it’s struggling, likely only keeping the lights on thanks to the deep pockets of its investors. Brammo has gone the way of the dodo, Alta Motors abruptly shut down and Energica likely sells less than 100 units a year. KTM and BMW make electric two-wheelers, but in small quantities, and the range/price equation is underwhelming.
So, when I heard Harley-Davidson was putting the LiveWire prototype into production, I felt a glimmer of hope. H-D is a behemoth when it comes to heavyweight motorcycle manufacturers, far outselling any other brand when it comes to the bigger-than-middleweight category. But it’s been struggling for years with an existential threat: its riders are aging and the young ’uns just aren’t buying the Wide Glides and Fat Boys like grandpa does. Would H-D put some real effort behind producing an electric motorcycle? Bring something to market with practical range and a competitive price?
The answer is… it depends who you ask. If it’s H-D’s Media Relations Manager Paul James, recently moved from the product development department at H-D, the 2019 LiveWire is a smashing success, a technological tour-de-force intended as a “halo” product, a “pinnacle vehicle that shines the light on everything else.” He has a lot to back him up; the bike looks great, has good suspension and brakes and bristles with tech like cellular connectivity and Level-III DC fast charging that can get you an 85 percent charge in 40 minutes.
Objectively, there’s a lot to be impressed with here. First, the bike looks great – H-D is, after all, a foremost trendsetter when it comes to motorcycle styling – and should accelerate in a predictably snappy fashion (H-D claims a less than 3.5-second 0-60 time and a 110 mph top speed). The details are entrancing as well, from the monobloc Brembo calipers to the macho-looking Revelation drivetrain. Suspension is high-spec Showa stuff, and a customizable, cellular-connected LCD touch-screen display (please, let it work with gloves) looks like it could be leading-edge technology. But still, it’s not the overwhelming experience I was expecting after over four years of LiveWire hype, and there are two big flies in the LiveWire ointment.
The first is range. To be very clear, we don’t know what the range will be yet. Sure, H-D says an estimated 110 miles on the “urban” iteration of the SAE J2982 testing regimen, but that may change as we get closer to production. I’d wager about an 11ish-kWh battery pack if I were a betting man.
That’s about the same size pack as the 2014 Zero S – which was half the price. If H-D has been working on the LiveWire since 2012 or longer, the development team is now way behind the times. Such a limited range for the price may be appropriate for the kind of urban-hopping lifestyle riding you may do on a peanut-tanked Sportster, or for a fixed-distance commute, but you’re not going to impress anybody with figures like that, even if it was 2014, which it isn’t. James says “range doesn’t always mean fun,” which I agree with – after all, a Prius can go 600 miles on a tank – but I’d point out that a short range limits your fun when you’re having it.
The second elephant in the room – make that 29,799 small, green elephants – is the MSRP, and the shrieks of outrage resound far and wide. It’s a lot of dough, and it’s going to limit the market for this bike. James shrugs this criticism off. “This is not a $10,000 motorcycle,” he told me. It’s meant to be a halo product, the first of a new line of electric vehicles intended to show H-D’s technical prowess and commitment to the future. Like Tesla, H-D is making the premium product first. He pointed out the high-spec components, the premium style, design, fit and finish.
But I – and I’m not alone – don’t see it. Sure, it’s a nice bike, but is it as nice as the Energica, which arguably can also be placed on the top shelf when it comes to tech, components and style, at many thousands less? The Brammo Empulse, which was also quick and good looking, was about $10,000 less, and the Zero SR not only offers far more range, a 103-mph top speed and a claimed 3.3-second 0-60 time (which, like the LiveWire, nobody has verified in independent testing) but is $10,000 less. Oh, and look what Lightning the cat has dragged in: a new model claiming 150 miles of range for just $12,998. If it looks half as good as the LS-218, it will match H-D’s style card; for $17,000 less. If Lightning can actually build more than a few, that is.
It’s not likely the LiveWire will be as thick on the ground as Sportsters, either. James wouldn’t confirm, but I estimate about a third of U.S. Harley dealers will be selling the bikes initially – and that requires some commitment, as they must invest in DC fast-charge equipment for their customers, plus special tools and training. Also, response by the H-D faithful has been less than overwhelming. That means production will probably be pretty limited. Does that mean dozens? Hundreds? James wouldn’t say. Zero likely only makes 500-1000 motorcycles a year, but H-D makes (roughly, based on 2017 worldwide sales of 242,788 units) that many every day, which means “limited” is something different when you’re talking about H-D. So, you will see LiveWires on the road, just not in huge numbers.
I started writing this article to vent my righteous outrage at the LiveWire’s shrunken range and swollen pricetag. James laments, “why are some people so upset about a product they don’t want to buy?” and this is a perfect example. Guys like me want more range and less price, and some of the faithful are not down with the LiveWire. One forum poster, who would seem to fit right into the targeted demographic – affluent guy with four Harleys who was actually looking for an electric bike – wrote it was underpowered and overpriced. Other comments started with “is this a joke?” and went downhill from there.
James has heard all the negativity and takes it in stride, confident this bike has a place in the market. He sees it as a showpiece to usher in a new era where the Motor Company’s products appeal to a new generation of global buyers. And more e-motos are coming from Milwaukee. The company has shown a few upcoming electric models, and James said “we’re going to have a broad portfolio,” though of course he can’t comment on specifics. But the tech for a 900-pound, fully faired touring bike with 250 miles of range at freeway speeds or a 600-pound Fat Boy that can go 200 riding is already here (e-motorcycle touring pioneer Terry Hershner has been riding long-range capable e-motos for years), and I feel confident to speculate that H-D has considered such products – and will inevitably offer them in the future.
I have to give kudos to H-D for bringing the LiveWire to market, for committing to electrification when no other major manufacturer will, and for showing us silent, clean transportation can be cool. But that doesn’t mean I can’t park my Bolt in the parking lot of the abandoned Alta factory and sob tears of frustration. The technology for long-range electric motorcycles is there – guys like Hershner and Brian Rice have proven it. BMW, Honda, Kawasaki, Triumph, KTM: time to seriously take up the cause and deliver. And H-D, step up the pace and become the Tesla of motorcycles: an American company that doesn’t trail the market by five years, but leads it, with fast, stylish, long-range electric motorcycles we know you can build.
iscuss the story at our DHarley-Davidson Livewire Forum
Gabe Ets-Hokin is a product-test subject for a leading manufacturer of canine shock collars. He would very much like to work in sales, please.