Riding the rumble-free Harley-Davidson electric motorcycle concept

Taking to the New York City streets on Project LiveWire

Published: June 24, 2014 11:45 AM

Harley-Davidson’s Project LiveWire electric motorcycle concept sounds more like “Tron” than “Easy Rider.” And we had a chance to experience it first hand in New York City yesterday.

While it doesn’t rumble like a traditional Harley, the LiveWire does vibrate to let you know it’s on. And it emits a spooky whine, whether the motor is under power or capturing electrons in regenerative braking.

While the LiveWire is only a concept, in some ways it feels like the most finished electric bike we’ve ridden. Over lower Manhattan’s moonscape streets, this bike squelched craters softly that would have slammed into the suspension of the Zero Motorcycles we rode recently. The LiveWire feels more solid and planted than those lighter electric bikes. And it’s easier to maneuver in tight spaces, with a somewhat tighter turning radius.

And while the Harley is more solid than other electric motorcycles we’ve ridden, it’s also heavier, at about 450 pounds. (A Zero S starts at 367 lbs.) And as you’d expect from a bike named LiveWire, this Harley is quick and ready to run with a motley crew. To get maximum performance, you need to select Power mode on the instrument screen at startup. Riders, who had signed six pages of waivers and had a safety briefing and a video, were warned against wheelies and unexpected response in Power mode. Use all that power, and, a Harley-Davidson spokesperson said, the bike can only go 33 thrilling miles. No top speed was cited, but when the bike is parked, the speedometer reads 111 mph.

Choose Range mode instead (you can only change selections when stopped), and speed is limited to 60 mph. That extends the range to 55 miles. That’s still not a long ride, but batteries are improving, as they are in electric cars. And Harley isn’t likely to build a production electric bike for at least a couple of years, and even then, a spokesman said the potential future bike will be different from this concept. For comparison, Zero Motorcycles S and DS are rated at 79 miles, with a larger battery available that promises 105 miles. From their perspective, getting more than 100 miles in the real world is key to market acceptance.  

Learn more about riding in our motorcycle hub, buying guide, and in our reliability and owner satisfaction report.

Harley says it would take about 10 hours to charge the LiveWire on 110-volts (making the battery about 10-kWh in capacity), but on its tour around North American cities, the company is charging them off a 240-volt generator on its semi-truck by hard-wiring an external charger directly to the battery. Production bikes would have at least a 110-volt outlet and built-in charger onboard (and preferably a 240-volt J1772 electric-car charging port).

So, would tattooed American riders consider such a bike? We asked Carmen Roberts and Joe Sessa, the director of the New York City chapter of the Harley Owners Group, who had ridden the LiveWire earlier. “Absolutely,” said Ms. Roberts, “as a second bike. But you need something to go touring. This is an awesome commuter bike.” Mr. Sessa agreed.

Entering this new niche, Harley brings several key advantages. The company has deep pockets to support R&D, it defines motorcycle culture, potentially making high-tech cool, and it has a vast dealer network that could provide opportunity charging. This last point is key, as Harley dealerships can be destinations in their own right and often host events. Plus, Harley is motivated to create products that can expand its reach in overseas markets, where sound and emissions can be barriers.

To be sure, the LiveWire was one of the easiest bikes we have ever ridden. But whether current American Harley owners buy it may not be the point. LiveWire positions Harley to appeal to tech-savvy, next-generation riders stateside, and it points to a zero-emissions product that may suit emerging markets for electric motorcycles in Asia and Europe. It appears you can teach an old hog new tricks.

Eric Evarts

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