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With Its E-Motorcycle, Harley-Davidson Outdoes the Automakers

Sam Jaffe — June 20, 2014

This week Harley-Davidson unveiled a battery-powered electric motorcycle concept, called the LiveWire, that has surprised the transportation world.  Crankshafts, engine oil, and the smell of gasoline are all integral parts of the Harley-Davidson identity, so most expected the company to be dragged kicking and screaming to the electric vehicle (EV) party.  Instead, Harley revealed a concept vehicle that’s better looking, better designed, and might one day be better selling than most automotive company attempts at EVs.

First, a personal detour: I’ve never been a fan of Harley-Davidson.  Its motorcycles are beautiful to behold and intimidating to hear.  But I’ve always disliked the design ethos of a company that decides to sacrifice performance in order to cosmetically alter the sound that a machine makes.  Harley-Davidson’s notorious engine rumble comes from the single pin engine design that can’t match other performance bikes on speed and torque.  Additionally, Harleys are tuned to have a low idle speed in order to give them a more distinct popping sound when not moving.  This, in turn, leads to excessive wear and tear on the engine, leading to lower expected lifetimes of Harley-Davidson engines compared to their peers.

Lag Gone

Which is why I was surprised to view the videos of the electric concept bike.  Instead of trying to market a machine for environmentalist two-wheelers, the company designed a bike for its core market: people who love motorcycles and the power and freedom they represent.  The drivetrain design provides 52 foot-pounds of torque, which for a vehicle that weighs less than 500 pounds is like strapping a Scud missile to a Smart Car.  The resulting power allows the machine to reach 60 miles per hour in less than 4 seconds.

Motorcycle reviewers note the other element of EV drivetrains that can’t be matched by internal combustion engines: instantaneous torque.  An electric motor responds to the driver’s command immediately, with zero torque lag.  Even the most expensive Ferrari or Lotus has a noticeable buildup to full torque, which is inherent in the nature of how combustion drivetrains work.  I’ve noticed instant torque when driving the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF – albeit much less dramatically than it probably feels on the Harley LiveWire or the Tesla Roadster.

Sound and Fury

Harley-Davidson has done something that no other incumbent vehicle manufacturer (we would expect EV-only companies like Tesla Motors, Brammo, and Zero to get these things right) has tried to do: it has built an EV around the strengths of the drivetrain.  There are, of course, weaknesses too (most notably a 30- to 60-mile range and a 3-hour recharge time), but in the end people like their motorcycles (and cars) for what they can do and are willing to live with the compromises that have to be made for what they can’t do.  Here’s hoping that the design executives from the major automakers take the LiveWire for a test ride and get inspired to make the next generation of muscle cars and hot rods – with electric drivetrains.

And how about the signature Harley-Davidson sound (which the company once unsuccessfully tried to trademark)? Well, this thing sure sounds different.  Thanks to the high frequency electric motor, it sounds more like a jet engine than a traditional Harley.  But it still makes you instantly respect and appreciate the power and fury that the bike is capable of.

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