The year was 2015. The LiveWire had been news for while. The bike had been showcased at the winter motorcycle shows across Canada. Attendees were allowed sit on the bike and goose the throttle on a rolling platform to hear what was described by the literature as “the sound of a jet engine”. Having worked in the Canadian Biker booth across the aisle for one of those shows, that sound wasn’t so appealing after the 200th person had tried out the throttle. But interest and enthusiasm were obvious. The summer rolled around and Harley-Davidson sent 30 LiveWire prototype bikes on a variety of tours to get more feedback on the first electric Harley-Davidson and the first electric offering from a major manufacturer. We attended one of those tour stops.
Much like the battery of an electric vehicle, Crowdsourced opinions can take you only so far. At some point, Harley-Davidson will have to make up its own mind whether or not Project LiveWire is a viable production model.
“The maybe-maybe not” production dilemma of Harley-Davidson’s Project LiveWire came to Canada in May as the continent-wide promotional tour of Harley’s now-famous first electric bike visited Barnes Harley-Davidson in Langley, BC. Unlike the display of static machines at the Canadian motorcycle industry shows during the winter, the promo tour truck contained a fleet of street-ready LiveWires for the specific purpose of offering short demo rides that would then elicit feedback from the motorcycle community.
Not often has so much effort been put into determining whether a product is coming to market. Project LiveWire may be the largest, most expensive and most active focus group in motorcycle marketing history with thousands upon thousands of test riders providing their opinions after a short ride on the machine. During the winter show season Harley was offering in-situ “rides” of the LiveWire prototype, which was secured—dyno-style—to a rolling platform. You could wick the throttle and spin the wheels, but you weren’t actually going anywhere. I had purposely not jumped aboard any of the show-venue LiveWires so as to not have any preconceived notions about the bike when I was finally given the opportunity to ride it for real.
The ride route through the busy streets of Langley was complete with weekday traffic, stop signs and lights. It may seem an unusual locale to unleash a few hundred riders on the alien beast that is an electric motorcycle, but it is the environment for which the LiveWire was designed and where it could shine because its current range of less than 100 kilometres/charge makes the bike an urban transport vehicle as opposed to a long-hauler. But the demo ride was very limited in terms of actual saddle time, with no opportunity to test the range of the battery, the top speed of the motor or the extended comfort level.
Following a short video illustrating the basics of the LiveWire each rider sat aboard their respective bike and was provided further debriefing before being sent out into traffic between lead and sweep riders—Harley not wanting to lose any of the very expensive prototypes, which number about 30 on the various tours.
Once activated the only hint that the LiveWire prototype is ready to ride is a very slight vibration in the chassis that is from the activity of the cooling pumps. I was expecting a little more and may have punched the starter a couple of times but the LiveWire does not rumble to life. It turns “on.” The flat instrument panel provides a couple options for power levels and usage along with the operational information you need on the road, which is where we immediately went.
The biggest reveal about the first electric motorcycle from Harley-Davidson? Within minutes of getting aboard you realize the LiveWire is just a motorcycle. Not to diminish its technical achievement but beyond being electric it does exactly what you expect a motorcycle would do. Turn the throttle and it goes forward. Turn it more; it goes faster. Hit the brakes and it stops. One of the cautions offered by the tour staff prior to the ride concerned the LiveWire’s regenerative braking. As the bike decelerates it recoups some of the battery’s energy and it slows quickly when off the throttle but even that is comparable to engine braking on a traditional motorcycle.
The LiveWire might be one of the easiest motorcycles to ride you are going to come across. No clutch to pull and no gears to select. No opportunity to stall. There is no redline, only a linear power curve with no soft spots. You can ride as slow as your balance allows or spin the electric motor up to highway speeds smoothly and easily, and all without shifting. To an avid motorcyclist the lack of a clutch and shift points may feel a little like cheating, as technology is doing the work for you. But on the LiveWire, not so, because this is how an electric motor works—it simply spools up.
Increased weight has a proportionately inverse effect on range so the LiveWire is a short, light and narrow machine. I once referred to its styling as sportbike-ish but apparently sportbike is not the styling theme that Harley-Davidson was after. On the other hand, its ergonomics are decidedly non-cruiser.
On the road the bike is remarkably smooth with almost no vibration. Finding something to compare it to in the world of internal combustion is difficult but, if pressed, perhaps the power and feel reflect that of a big six-cylinder engine with muted vibration from an isolated engine and seamless delivery.
Much has been made of the sound of the machine. Within the confines of an enclosed show hall where I had last heard the bike, it was loud, unusual and referred to as jet-engine-like. Out on the road, with a full-face helmet on, I could barely hear the LiveWire even at moderate speeds. The only sound was a high-pitched whine—present but not intrusive on a short ride.
The traditional exhaust note of Harley-Davidson’s V-Twin is very important to the company and very much part of the Harley ride experience. The jet turbine sound would be as engineered into the experience as the potato-potato of a Big Twin. But the electric sound has no precedent and therefore one would need to be created. Is this the sound of an electric Harley-Davidson? It could be.
Amid the survey following the ride was the question of whether or not you would buy a LiveWire: Yes. No. Maybe. For most, it has to be ‘Maybe’ until MSRP is made known. As it stands now, with its current battery capacity, the LiveWire could get me from home to the office for almost a week without recharging. Which would be absolutely great, but it couldn’t take me away for a few days. A few facts seem to be missing from the marketing, such as how much does it cost in hydro dollars to fully charge the bike? An electric motorcycle still needs to make sense especially if it will not fulfill all your motorcycle needs. Yes, people are buying Teslas but a lot more purchase Prius because they make more everyday sense and are far less expensive. It is crucial to know where the LiveWire will fit in the motorcycle market—as a pure luxury item or as an everyday tool. The answer to that will be largely dictated by the asking price.
Leaving the demo event I was no less confused by the LiveWire prototype and project than when I arrived. Perhaps even more so considering how well the bike worked. Harley-Davidson isn’t committing to building the LiveWire in production numbers but two fleets of competent and polished LiveWire prototype bikes touring North America is a serious commitment. If the final decision is no, then where is the off-ramp? Once the dust has settled, might Harley-Davidson declare that there will be no LiveWire? A traditional and social media barrage followed by a declaration of “No, we don’t think so. We are going to stick with the Street 500 and 750 to attract new customers.” That wouldn’t fly. Harley-Davidson doesn’t exist within a bubble and all that spreadsheet rustle they hear from over the hill is Polaris buying up every asset it can find and their chief American rival has taken a shorter route to a consumer line of electric motorcycles with the recent majority acquisition of Brammo—an electric bike manufacturer that already has product on the road.
Harley-Davidson is looking for an answer to one question: Will consumers buy in numbers? Perhaps somewhere out there, amid the thousands of riders who will give it a try over the summer, the answer awaits. But as a rep from another company once told me, the number of people who say they want a certain model often differs from the number who will actually buy one once it is available. Perhaps one of the questions should be: Is Harley-Davidson trying to sell an electric motorcycle or a motorcycle that just happens to be electric? There is a big difference in that question, which is just one of many.
Judging from the number and variety of motorcyclists at the demo ride event for the LiveWire prototype, Harley may have to make up its mind, sooner rather than later, whether it will or will not build the LiveWire in production numbers.
by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #313
(As of 2023, the Livewire is part of its own company and there is a sister bike, the Del Mar)