Yes, 100% electric- Forbes’ headline was “Hell Freezes Over.” For angels and devils alike, Saturday was time for some good clean fun, at least briefly. Project LiveWire is, currently, not Product LiveWire. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company is taking the rideable demonstrator bikes on tour, officially to gauge interest and get rider feedback (though see below). I caught the caravan at Brian’s Harley-Davidson, between Philadelphia and Trenton (thanks Brian!).
Anyone familiar with Harley-Davidson knows that, if nothing else, they’re experts at brand management and promotion; this tour date was no exception. It had to be; LiveWire is both a leading-edge technology and “wedge technology,” in a wedge demographic. I’ve already seen a call for a boycott from Harley hardliners. Hardliners created, in part, by prior successes at branding.
What you’d notice right away- even before stepping in the canopy- is the sound of the “Jumpstart” test stand doing a run. Previously, Harley-Davidson brought static motorcycles to events, with the rears on dummy dynamometers. Bike novices could twist a real, working throttle for the first time, and be introduced to Harley’s hallmark growl and rumble without actually knowing how to ride. For the LiveWire tour, the Jumpstart version lets people experience near-ideal “throttle” response, with little or no spool-up lag, clutch losses, or other drivetrain slop. Just realtime torque, throughout a near-ideal powerband too. EV enthusiasts know that shifting and clutches/torque converters are actually bug fixes, not features. Now the Jumpstart “riders” do, too. In any case, the throttle curve could be reprogrammed arbitrarily by someone with access.
The event enclosure is no ersatz garage, with dusty shelves and fake oil stains. One end had at first glance a hologram- actually a LiveWire frame in a display case, with a transparent LCD giving overlays. At the other end was a prototype heads-up display you could try by putting your face inside. In the middle, one screen scrolled people’s #projectlivewire tweets. This ain’t your grandpa’s bike rally. I thought I heard Dan, the dealership’s general manager, mention that a camera drone was coming.
The actual vehicles are surprisingly well done for demonstrators. There were rapid prototyping (“3D printing”) marks on some parts, sure, some of them pretty obvious. But more and more components are going to be rapid-prototyped for logistical reasons, even on production vehicles. Meanwhile the plastics were excellent, with good fit and little orange peel effect- they looked as good as plastic trim on production bikes on the dealer floor. The brightwork and metal-finish pieces could have used a bit more buffing, but they were made to be shown and seen, not just run on a company dyno or around a test track. Same with the upholstery- it was apparent that the seat was designed and stitched for this model, not something an engineer found and slapped on a test-only unit. The aluminum frame still had a grainy texture from casting, but it was a single component, not cobbled together.
There were running bikes, besides the static display and Jumpstart units. They had manufacturer plates and couldn’t be registered (at least, not in Pennsylvania), but were roadgoing/trackworthy. After a long wait, I got a chance to take one out. Five of us got both a video demo, and verbal instruction from a tour organizer. Regenerative braking is a bit different, but comparable to engine braking. With massive torque and no clutch or neutral, the group was told numerous times not to squirt ourselves forward accidentally. (I of course remembered these from Day 1 on my own electric bike.) We were also warned sternly not to wheelie, stoppie, burnout, or donut.
Those were hardly options- we were taken on a guided run, with staff riders at both lead and chase. The suburban arterial roads were, well, suburban, including Saturday afternoon traffic. There was a stretch of rolling terrain and one spot to get up to a fair speed. Still, I never got a chance to really test top end, or an off-the-line launch.
My quick impression, then, was a quick bike (as expected- it’s an EV and all), but also a solid one. A big, centralized mass in a one-piece perimeter is going to feel responsive- no “Harley hinge” in this design. Engineers then made sure to keep the center of gravity low (but not too low), and took care with fork and shock geometry and tuning. “Planted” is how the sportbike crowd calls it; Mercedes fans refer to the “bank vault on wheels” feeling. (Though so do Mercedes haters.) Braking was almost entirely regenerative. This is close to the “one-pedal driving” of BMW’s electric cars, with the friction brakes only needed for literal stops, and any emergencies that may pop up.
Some little touches: now that everything’s integrated, the turn signals cancel themselves. That’s right, motorcycle turn signals generally don’t cancel after a turn. But there’s no g-switch, to activate the brake lights for you while slowing down regeneratively, instead of by the friction brakes. Riders coming from internal combustion also mentioned no hot calves- veal’s not on the menu, roasted, smoked, past date, or otherwise.
We were, of course, debriefed by staffers; that’s supposed to be the whole point. Every rider I heard (and I hung around for several debriefs) mentioned torque, power, handling, or all three. Those who were unused to regenerative braking wanted a different modulation, but again the right grip is programmable and arbitrary. Harley-Davidson reps admitted it needed rewrites; when the bikes arrived, the dealer staff took a ride with regen cut out completely. Those who were coming from sit-up-and-beg cruisers wanted a different riding position, of course. When the venue owner Brian did debriefs, he had to remind them of this legacy view. I, with no cruiser and a good back, felt right at home.
It’s important to note what this bike is, and isn’t. It’s clearly not a three-bagger; the designers left no place for saddlebags at all (for now). The styling and ergonomics are obviously cafe racer, and like those British models and rebuilds, it’s meant to excel at “knife fighting distance.” If you’re complaining about all-day comfort, or even discussing range as an issue, then you’re not in the targeted market. Harley has other products they’d be happy to sell you.
But what is the sound like? I wasn’t going to get any clean audio, sorry. There was background music and crowd noise; a single rider with an ICE Harley on the lot would drown out any LiveWire recording. Even the Jumpstart bike would contain dyno components besides the bike. You’ll have to picture it from written words.
Descriptions include the one from Harley-Davidson, calling it “fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.” But of course they’d say that; as I wrote above, they’re experts at marketing. Their phasers are set to “chest thump,” almost as much as Chrysler Corp. Other, less-vested individuals had previously mentioned “The Jetsons,” and again at this event, and yes, there’s a bit of that beat frequency overlaid on the main sound. I couldn’t put my finger on it for the longest time, but I eventually thought there was a touch of police siren. Not the bulk sound, of course, but just enough suggestion to add some drama and urgency. On regenerative braking, there’s a component I’d call “pneumatic blowoff.” Decelerating, overall, has a sort of Ducati sensation, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Harley-Davidson executives claim the sounds have been engineered, and yes, their Wisconsin audio lab looked pretty impressive last I saw.
Something’s far more important than sound adjectives: whether or not you can actually buy the thing. Answer: I dunno, and Harley-Davidson probably dunno either. What I got ranged from LiveWire being “a concept bike… NOT a prototype” to another guy’s “preproduction” “…in X years.” X being something off the record, but not next year, or the next. One problem is that any given staffer working the event might be a Harley-Davidson employee, or Brian’s, or a contractor in events/promotions.
Another problem for pundits is the drastically different levels of completeness present. Even though the forks felt smooth, they weren’t literally- the stanchions still had lathe grooves. Though you could put power down easily, you couldn’t put it in- Project bikes had a custom charger with industrial plug. Most disturbing: we were told not to touch the bikes in any emergency, but to step away, even in an intersection. The company was wary of any shielding/grounding flaws, or insufficient fault protections- in other words, any actual live wires. This is NOT a 1.0 release to the consumer.
Yet Harley was clearly selling something, perhaps the very idea of an electric bike. The display had a metric option, something you don’t put on a test bike that can’t stretch to the Canadian border from Milwaukee. The LiveWire program built almost forty units, not four. The eleven here were touring the eastern US, another trailer is working the West. The third is in Asia; again, not sticking to labs and test tracks. In the (American) tent, internet tablets were set up for people to post to social media. A business novice might think that’s to get people while the bikes were still fresh on the mind. A marketing shark might think that’s a cookie harvesting operation. One staffer proudly noted that they were drawing lots of women and younger riders.
EVs face an uphill battle, still. Despite all the compliments, one rider came back asking for shifting to be added somehow. Sure, and then we’ll emulate the UI via reins and stirrups. Another debrief question was pricing: first-timers often gave price expectations completely out of touch with technological reality at this point.
Still, EVs are great at uphill battles. Brian and Dan of the dealership noted quite positive feedback, including “checkbook’s in my car…” One dealership staffer, Wayne, was your stereotypical burly, bearded, tattooed rider. He admits he was skeptical of the idea of electrics, and quiet Harleys. But he and other employees were allowed to ride Livewires before the public; now, he says he’s eager to see where this is all going. You and me both, bud.