Harley Goes Electric! Will it Fly?

Project LiveWire

Project LiveWire

Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival back in 1964 and his diehard fans nearly fell out of their Birkenstocks. Well, history is repeating itself with the release of the Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle. We haven’t heard too much from the Harley Faithful about this apparent departure from what has made the Motor Company famous, but from past experience with the V-Rod and Buell machines, I can only guess that the loud pipes folks will not be happy.

Bob held his ground even as his most devoted fans booed when he sang “Like a Rolling Stone” with a Fender Stratocaster in place of his usual acoustic guitar. It is said that Dylan “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other.”

Is this what Harley can expect? Boos from the Faithful? I hope not, because I believe that electric motorcycles just may be a big part of motorcycling’s future. I recently rode a Zero electric motorcycle and was really impressed with almost everything about it. The power was smooth and instantaneous, the sound was soothing in contrast to the invigorating thrust from the radial flux permanent magnet, brushless motor. Sure, the range needs to be improved, but that’s coming.

Not Your Biker’s Harley

The LiveWire bike differentiates itself by more than just its motor. It also looks different than the traditional V-Twin cruiser that we’ve all come to know. It’s styling is more power cruiser, like a V-Rod or Ducati Diavel. From a marketing perspective this is smart, because there is no sense in trying to convert the already captured audience that Harley-Davidson counts on to pay its bills. Instead, aim for a wider audience who has an open mind to new technology, engineering and modern styling.

The risk is whether H-D will alienate the traditional rough and tumble segment of the riding community enough so that they harm their established image. Let’s hope we can all just get along and Harley can succeed at catering to both segments: young and old, modern and traditional.

Rolling Thunder

Harley’s are not known for their performance. Sure, they do fine for what they are designed to do, which is to cruise the boulevard or tour the countryside at a leisurely pace. The old-technology doesn’t allow for the type of performance that more modern designs from Victory or any of the Japanese companies can deliver. What Harley does deliver is a visceral experience of a rumbling V-Twin that means business, even if the performance numbers don’t impress.

Part of the visceral experience of the Harley (and almost any other motorcycle that burns gasoline) is the sound it makes. I like relatively quiet bikes, but I also enjoy the auditory satisfaction of an accelerating machine with a throaty exhaust note. The number one difference that people need to get used to when introduced to an electric motorcycle is the lack of exhaust noise. Now, for many of us socially responsible motorcycle riders, we see this as a good thing.

But, What about Loud Pipes and Safety?

For those who believe that loud pipes save lives, you will likely exclaim that e-bikes are more dangerous. But, I’ve never been a believer that loud pipes save lives. My own experiences and research have proven that being loud is not a reliable safety measure. For one thing the physics of the way sound travels and my attempts to hear loud bikes as they approach from the opposite direction both convince me that a loud exhaust does nothing to make you safer. I have witnessed loud bikes coming my way and I could not hear them as they approached. It was only when the bike was right next to me that I heard the ear-piercing blast. Noise is not a reliable strategy! I call that myth, busted.

The proven way to avoid being involved in a crash is to be seen. Sure, noise can add additional conspicuity. But, noise alone won’t get you seen. If a driver can see you, he or she can avoid you. Yes, loud pipes will let them know you are in the vicinity, but they won’t know where you are. So, loud pipes annoy neighbors and risk rights, but they don’t make you safer. Sorry.

Electric motorcycles will polarize a lot of riders because of the lack of noise and the challenge to the status quo. But before you judge, ride. I found that the combination of seamless power and silent operation are just as satisfying as the rumble and roar of an internal combustion gas burner. Maybe you will feel the same way.

LISTEN to Ken being interviewed in this National Public Radio (NPR) report on the Harley LiveWire project

Thanks to the LA Times for this video:

Would you buy an electric bike?


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Ken is author of “Motorcycling the Right Way” and “Riding in the Zone” (book and blog). He is also the “Street Savvy” columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and former longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony’s Track Days, a 20 year Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor, and owner of Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training.

Posted in All Things Motorcycle, Motorcycle Reviews, Motorcycle Safety Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
2 comments on “Harley Goes Electric! Will it Fly?
  1. Con says:

    53 miles in Sport mode! Not yet a viable alternative to gas powered mc. I live in the mid-west, my commutes on average are 20/30 miles one way locally and that’s not even fully across the metro and suburban area… then the issue of recharge at work, doubt the powers that be would allow it unless they received some kind of greenie do-gooder write off. Right now it looks like a jaunt to the grocery store or downtown eating or shopping might be the only use… certainly couldn’t ride with wife & friends on the weekend. So it fails on a number of very practical issues. BUT I do like the shape & style, put a gas engine in it and it would give Moto Guzzi, Triumph, Ducati etc etc a run for their money… and remember those power plants downline still have to burn more coal or excite protons and neutrons all of which creates electric to charge the bike. Thinking your being green or conservationist by buying an electric MC is pretty much a scam.

  2. Jeffrey Meyers says:

    While an electric bike will likely be in my future, I can safely say it will not have an HD logo. What the company has done to its Buell line is unforgivable and performance is not in their vocabulary. I suspect that this will not fly…folks who are forward thinkers and wish to embrace new technology I suspect would not be pulled by HD heritage, but that is just my opinion.

    Thanks for making me think about it!

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