Backmarker: H-D LiveWire Launch & First Ride

June 25, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Sunday, June 22, 30,000 feet, Somewhere Between Kansas City and New York

Normally, I’d wait to begin writing up a “first ride” type report until after seeing the bike, but today I’m writing this on plane, flying to the site chosen for the launch.

On the one hand, I’m excited to be a small part of the story. On the other, considering the millions of words written about the Harley-Davidson LiveWire since news of the bike’s existence was leaked last week, and considering that journalists will only ride the bike on the crowded streets of Manhattan—and at that, only for 20 minutes or so, I already wonder what I can add to that story.


The LiveWire looks good in pictures, and great in the metal. It highlights Harley-Davidson’s unexpected strength in EV design—and, perhaps, comparative weakness at upstarts like Brammo and Zero.

Rumors of a Harley EV started to swirl about three months ago. That was when the first high-res images of the machine leaked off the set of the Avengers movie being filmed in South Korea. Once the LiveWire had rolled on a big film set, there was no way the secret could be kept for long, and the Daily Mail (a UK tabloid) ran the photos online, but the story never got any real traction. The sheer implausibility of the idea—that the most conservative motorcycle company this side of Chennai or Irbit would build an EV—allowed the project to remain hidden in plain sight.

It was only after the story started to leak again, in mid-June, that people paid attention. They looked at the machine and thought, “Hmm, that looks a little too finished and road-ready to be a movie prop.” For example, it had the federally mandated side reflectors of a road-going vehicle. Those are ugly little doodads; not something a propmaster would stick on a movie hack.

Funny story, though… four years ago, I worked with a team of MIT students, helping them build a bike to race in the TT Zero event. One of my first calls was to Erik Buell, who was then a Harley-Davidson employee. I thought it made sense to team a great American university with the only American sport bike builder. Erik and I ended up on a conference call with H-D execs, as I pitched our project.

The Motor Company passed on it (and the MIT team later allied with BMW). The execs I spoke to were evasive, but at the time, something about that the conversation made me think, “Wow, Harley’s actually given an EV project serious thought.”
That conversation came back to me on Wednesday when the Orange County Register ‘accidentally’ failed to observe the terms of Harley-Davidson’s news embargo.

I use sneer quotes on that ‘accidentally’ because the whole LiveWire launch was the most skillful PR exercise ever conducted by a motorcycle manufacturer. (Can I even call it a launch? They claim they have no plans to manufacture it.)

Harley President and COO Matt Levatich was on hand. When not cleaving to the official LiveWire talking points  he comes across as pretty genuine. We bemoaned the commercial failure of the XR1200x which  for both of us  was a favorite model. CEO Keith Wandell was in New York for the launch too  but he seemed to be focused on reporters from outlets like Bloomberg. Project LiveWire is evidence that Harleys C-suite has been doing some serious strategic calculation. And soul searching.
Harley President and COO Matt Levatich was on hand. When not cleaving to the official LiveWire talking points, he comes across as pretty genuine. We bemoaned the commercial failure of the XR1200X which, for both of us, was a favorite model. CEO Keith Wandell was in New York for the launch too, but he seemed to be focused on reporters from outlets like Bloomberg. Project LiveWire is evidence that Harley’s C-suite has been doing some serious strategic calculation. And soul searching.

Put it this way: my wife owns a ballroom dance studio, and on Thursday afternoon, a dance teacher arrived and breathlessly asked her, “Does Mark know that Harley-Davidson has an electric motorcycle?” By Saturday, the cashier at Trader Joe’s asked me, “But how will Harley customers react to a bike that doesn’t go, ‘potato potato’?”

I doubt that even Weber Shandwick, Harley’s PR agency, could possibly have thought that LiveWire would become such a mainstream news story. I also doubt they were fully prepared for the virulent reaction from Harley-Davidson’s core customers. Most of the comments I saw on Harley forums were not written in language that I can even quote here.

Commenters with screen names like ‘L-frame S&W’ blamed Obama, Al Gore, and (I’m not making this up) Hillary Clinton. A gathering of the faithful brethren of the Bar-and-Shield does, by and large, resemble a Tea Party rally in more ways than just demographics; they really are conservative in both the upper- and lower-case ‘c’ sense.

So what’s the fuss about?

Those Harley faithful didn’t wait to learn too much about the LiveWire before throwing cold water on Harley’s party.

Harley claims performance specs somewhere between the Brammo Enertia and Empulse, or between the Zero S and SR; 0-60 times of less than four seconds, with a top speed approaching the ton. As a straight motorcycle guy, the numbers are acceptable, but EV nerds obsess over range, and the claim of “about 53 miles” was seriously underwhelming.

Commercially available batteries all have roughly the same energy density, and modern electric motors are all more than 95% efficient. So while different EV motorcycles optimize the weight/power equation their own ways, everyone’s doing similar math.

That’s why, when I told Michael Uhlarik that I was heading to Manhattan to see and ride the LiveWire, he said, “The everyman keeps talking about range but the real bottleneck in EVs is the charging-to-driving time ratio. If you can top up a smallish battery (say 50 miles of motorcycle range) in ten minutes, then the EV motorcycle is going to take on all comers and slaughter the gasoline counterpart.” The early rumors that the LiveWire would need to charge for 3.5 hours in order to run for one hour were, again, underwhelming.


There was a lot of enthusiasm for the bike, even from old-school Harley riders there in New York City. Mind you, in New York City, Harley riders drink cappuccinos. They’re a little more skeptical out in what Sarah Palin calls, “the real America.” And even if you scoff at Palin, the fact is, out there is where Harley sells most of its bikes.

That said, the machine looked the business. It seemed more resolved, with better fit-and-finish than any of the e-bikes yet sold in meaningful numbers. In fact, they seem more like production bikes than the limited-run prototypes that Harley-Davidson says they are.

Yet, according to H-D, the LiveWire’s only current purpose is to tour dealerships across the U.S., allowing management to gauge the public’s interest in the concept.

Ri-i-ght.

Harley’s just stolen a march on every other mainstream manufacturer. By carefully calling it a ‘prototype’ and labeling the whole project as a market test, the company has avoided the criticism it might have faced if its machine failed to live with the best offerings currently on the market. (It’s not a coincidence that journalists’ first test rides will be staged in dense Manhattan traffic; again, preventing comparison with Brammo’s or Zero’s comparable models.)

The LiveWire tour will bring mainstream exposure in every market, and—Harley hopes—attract a whole new kind of visitor to its dealerships. Strategically, Harley-Davidson has the same problem that the whole motorcycle industry has, only way worse; the average age of new motorcycle buyers hovers somewhere around 50. The industry in general—and Harley-Davidson in particular—needs to attract new customers. Hence the paid, promotional races, featuring the Street 750, at the X-Games.

Harley’s effort to attract younger riders faced a challenge until recently. The Motor Company’s entry-level offerings, the various Sportsters, seemed antiquated and anemic compared to, say, a Kawasaki 650 Twin or even a Honda CBR500. The new Street 750 and Street 500 models may compete with bikes like those two. (Although I have a feeling the ‘Street’ models are mainly for the international market.)

With the LiveWire, Harley’s leapfrogged right over the other big manufacturers. And even if Harley never mass produces it and Yamaha (or BMW, or whoever) brings an e-bike to market, Americans will always think, “Yeah, but Harley was first.”

First.

Mundane Honda commuter bikes had overhead cams 40 years before—and Suzuki’s GT750 was water-cooled 30 years before—the V-Rod. Milwaukee was more than a decade behind when it came to trying fuel injection. But from now on, they’ll be thought of as the first major motorcycle manufacturer to put an EV on the road.


The LiveWire tour will also include this ‘Jump Start’ display, where non-riders can sit on the bike, twist the throttle, and spin up the rear wheel without moving. As a twist-and-go, the LiveWire would be a great ‘gateway drug’ into motorcycling. Of course, the last bike Harley-Davidson marketed expressly to beginners was the Buell Blast, and we know how that worked out…

Of course, it’s not a Harley-Davidson in the sense that most other Harleys are. For example, ‘The Motor Company’ didn’t actually make or even design the motor. Harley certainly designed the chassis, styled the bike, and assembled all the components, but key elements like the sandcast alloy frame were made by prototyping specialty firms. Harley execs wouldn’t tell me who supplied the battery, except to say it came from a “development partner.”

Everyone at Mission Motors has been sworn to secrecy of course, but it’s rumored that aspects, at least, of the driveline were engineered there. (Mission also contributed to the Mugen that John McGuinness used to smash the TT Zero lap record earlier this month. Mission is locked in money-raising mode, but those consulting jobs for Harley-Davidson and Mugen, which is a backdoor Honda team, have no doubt helped fund production of a few Mission R superbikes.)

One interesting engineering choice was to turn the motor 90 degrees and spin the countershaft sprocket via a bevel drive. Although Harley never succeeded in trademarking their ‘potato potato’ sound, the company was pleased when the LiveWire produced a distinctive gear whine.

For such a conservative brand, the LiveWire is a bold strategy. The Motor Company has clearly looked at its existing customers and realized that most of them are in their 50s, 60s and beyond; the risk of alienating them has to be balanced against the need to attract new customers. By zigging all the way to the left with a twist-and-go EV, they can hope to attract customers that aren’t even motorcyclists.

Will those aging, hardcore Harley riders come to appreciate the LiveWire given the chance to test ride it? Hell no. The 30 city LiveWire tour won’t even stop in Sturgis or Daytona. As it is, angry web trolls swear that it’s the last straw. I suppose if that’s true, the LiveWire might actually give a little boost to Polaris’ new Indian brand.

Another question is, if the LiveWire does go into mass production, will Harley dealers support the idea? There was a lot of resentment towards the Buell brand, and it was nowhere near as ‘out there’ as the LiveWire project.

Last but not least, how much value can Harley extract from this PR first? It may not be the first major manufacturer to actually sell—as opposed to merely show—an e-bike. Yamaha’s got several e-bikes in development, and I am sure that Mugen’s big presence on the Isle of Man foreshadows an e-Honda. BMW, of course, already has a sophisticated electric scooter for sale in Europe.

 


Backmarker: H-D LiveWire Launch & First Ride
Harley-Davidson LiveWire First Ride
Harley-Davidson LiveWire First Ride

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