Monday, June 30, 2014

Preview: Harley-Davidson Project LiveWire

Harley-Davidson has developed a bit of a reputation for a lack of innovation. Many of its bikes are filled with technologies that were state of the art several decades ago, but are now anachronisms of a bygone era. So you can imagine everyone's surprise when Harley-Davidson announced last week that they were going to be diving into the world of electric motorcycles. Called Project LiveWire, this initial effort will primarily be to gauge customer interest and determine if the market exists for a full-scale effort. The goal was more than to just create an electric version of one of Harley's existing bikes, but rather to create a whole new bike that marries the latest electric motorcycle technology with design traits that are classically H-D.

Out of sheer good fortune, I had the opportunity to go and check out the bike in-person and get not only some photos, but also a quick demo of it, although a test ride was not possible at the time.

My initial impressions are generally quite positive. For what are essentially early demonstrators, the build quality is impressive. The trellis frame looks similar to something that Ducati might produce and is bolted to a rather conventional looking rear swing arm held up by a single lay-down shock. Between and below the spars of the trellis frame are the batteries that supply the charge to the electric motor, which drives the rear wheel through a belt. In front, a pair of very standard looking upside-down forks attaches the front wheel to the frame. Up top, a standard bike handle bar and a digital touchscreen instrument cluster completes the setup.

A lot of time was put into making the bikes look production ready because there was nary a stray wire out of place or a detail overlooked. The matte gray finish of the frame contrasts well with the few touches of gloss black paint and pairs well with the brush metallic finishes that are used as accents. Even the little details, such as the white and orange stitching on the seat, looked like they came from pieces that had been fully QA'ed, every stitch looking uniform and well aligned. On whole, the bike actually looks rather handsome and absolutely nothing like any Harley I have seen before. In fact, if anything, the LiveWire bears a fair bit of resemblance to the Ducati Diavel. A sort of muscle cruiser that is vintage in its stance but modern in its execution.

The LiveWire uses a keyless starting system so you just need to step up to the bike and switch on the power. After a brief few seconds, the screen comes to life and prompts the rider to select power or economy mode. It is unclear if it is possible to switch this on the fly, although to flip the switch off and back on at stoplight would hardly be that difficult. The digital instrument panel is clear and easy to read in the shade of the tent, though without any kind of hood, might prove difficult to read in direct sunlight while out on the road. Sitting on the bike, I found the foot pegs to be rather uncomfortable as my knees felt unnatural and splayed rather wide. While this was likely done to accommodate shorter riders, a set of adjustable pegs would go a long way towards making the bike more comfortable.

Twist the throttle and the response is nearly instantaneous. There is just enough play in the throttle so that bumpy roads most likely would not result in a constant, inadvertent, throttle adjustments, but not enough to feel like the delay would be annoying while riding. Roll on hard and the speedometer climbs rapidly, taking a matter of seconds to reach the 65mph cut-off that the H-D rep asked us to limit the display bike to as they were concerned their roller setup would not be able to handle more. On throttle, the sound is an intense whine, similar to that sound you get when a jet engine is spooling up, except constant and unending. Regenerative braking is present and rather effective as rolling off the throttle completely and not touching the brakes brought the speed down to zero rather quickly.

Overall, Project LiveWire is really quite impressive as a first effort. If the production bikes will be of this level of fit and finish, then there are likely to be many takers, though not likely from H-D's traditional customer base. My few concerns at the minute are around the rather low range (around 55 in economy mode and about 35 in power mode) and the ergonomics of the rider triangle, especially the peg position. Then, there is that pesky matter of price, which given Harley's target market, is likely to be quite high. However, given that much more tried and true technology in the form of the Brammo Empulse and Zero SX are already on the market and offer either more performance or more range. This means H-D is going to need to be aggressive in how it positions this product if they want to see it to succeed.

I will say, however, that despite being a bit of a Harley detractor, I am genuinely excited to see what the future holds for Project LiveWire. If H-D gets it right, this could be a serious contender in the electric motorcycle space and would have even me willing to consider one.

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