Harley-Davidson Goes Electric: Behind the Scenes of LiveWire’s R&D

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

For more than a century, the throaty “potato, potato, potato” rumble of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle has been synonymous with the open road, freedom—rebellion, even—and, some might say, American masculinity.

For non-gearheads, that iconic sound, introduced in 1909, is the result of Harley-Davidson’s (NYSE: HOG) traditional engine configuration, a V-twin with a 45-degree angle between the cylinders and a single crankshaft pin that connects to the two pistons. Each cylinder fires at uneven intervals, contributing to the rumble’s distinct cadence in an uneven, syncopated rhythm.

But the times, as Bob Dylan—who reportedly bought his first Harley as a teenager—would have put it, well, they are a changin’.

And Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson, which has seen sales slump in recent years as baby boomers age and sell off their rides, has jumped on the electric motorcycle bandwagon with its LiveWire bike (pictured above). The company has joined electric motorcycle and scooter makers such as BMW, Honda, Yamaha, Zero Motorcycles, and more than a dozen others. Harley-Davidson is a bit late to the game. California-based Zero kicked things off a decade ago with its Zero S, which it claims was the first electric street motorcycle to be mass produced.

“We know global consumer needs and interests are shifting,” says Paul James, Harley-Davidson’s marketing channels manager. “We also knew we needed to shift our thinking with bold actions. Today, we live in an on-demand, anywhere, anytime business environment where success depends on the ability to go where customers are, rather than expect [them to] come to us.”

To do that, Harley-Davidson began introducing LiveWire prototypes five years ago. The electric-powered motorcycle was seen by many observers as a bid to attract younger riders, many of whom live in cities and are more interested in an eco-friendly bike for commuting and other short-range trips.

It marked a big shift for Harley-Davidson, but James says the response from riders and dealers was “very enthusiastic, even from our traditional Harley customers.” Others have given it mixed reviews, however.

CNET reviewer Kyle Hyatt called the LiveWire a “lustworthy, sporty electric motorcycle,” and actor Peter Fonda, of “Easy Rider” movie fame, said during a test ride, “I love it! This is a blast!” Meanwhile, a motorcycle enthusiast who blogs under the name CycleCruza ripped the LiveWire, calling it overpriced and underpowered compared to the Zero SR electric motorcycle, which at $16,495 sells for almost half the LiveWire’s $29,799 retail price. (By comparison, other high-end electric motorcycles from Brutus and Lightning cost about $32,500 and $39,000, respectively.) And The Motley Fool’s Rich Duprey called LiveWire a “nonstarter” and a “failure in the making,” blasting the motorcycle for having limited range, compared with the Zero S electric bike.

LiveWire will be available at dealerships this fall, and will be one of the most expensive bikes in Harley-Davidson’s lineup.

Although the company has no plans to abandon its traditional, heavyweight touring motorcycles, it’s investing tens of millions of dollars on electric motorcycle tech over the next few years and it spent countless hours of research and development on the LiveWire bikes, which have a sound that is something akin to a jet engine at higher speeds.

LiveWire can be charged from a standard household electric outlet with a power cord that stores below the seat. The LiveWire should be able to go 140 miles in the city on a single battery charge, and riders will be able to find charging stations via an app, Harley-Davidson says.

The bike goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds and requires no shifting—a boon for new riders. Regenerative braking helps recharge the battery—a trait that will serve it well in urban traffic, which often requires a lot of slow-rolling and stop-and-go riding.

Harley-Davidson established a research center in Silicon Valley last year to focus on future products, including the company’s first complete line of electric vehicles. But Sean Stanley, the company’s chief engineer for electric vehicle technology, says development and production for the LiveWire were done at a facility in Harley-Davidson’s home base of Milwaukee.

Stanley says a major challenge faced by his team was designing and styling a motorcycle that “embraced its electric powertrain,” creating all-new forms and features for a next-generation product while staying true to the Harley-Davidson heritage.

But he says the company never considered trying to engineer a synthetic version of the classic rumble.

“That would have been inauthentic,” he notes in an e-mail message. “It was never an option. Look, sound, and feel are integral to the essence of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle—it’s not any one of those but a combination of all three that makes it a Harley.”

Stanley says Harley-Davidson engineers knew going into the project that they wanted LiveWire to have a distinctive sound, “which is a natural outcome” of the design and characteristics of its electric motor.

To maintain something of the classic Harley-Davidson styling, Stanley says the shape of the cover over the battery charger was designed to suggest the familiar lines of a gasoline fuel tank.

The cast-aluminum case for the high-voltage battery, however, looks nothing like the V-twin engine. Rather, Stanley says, it was “deliberately, highly styled with functional cooling fins that suggest the attractive, repetitive, horizontal cooling fins on an air-cooled engine,” such as those made by Porsche and Volkswagen.

With what Stanley calls a “wasp-like contour of the tail section,” the LiveWire looks much more like a sleek street bike than one of Harley-Davidson’s heavy, long-distance motorcycles.

Stanley says Harley-Davidson didn’t shake up its normal R&D process to come up with the LiveWire. But developing the electric powertrain involved some adjustments by its engineers, he acknowledges, requiring “different considerations, like high voltage, lithium batteries; electric motors; and power electronics.” Working with those components required “new tools, dynamometers, battery simulators, procedures for testing, battery safety,” and other changes.

Although some maintain that LiveWire caters to a younger set of riders who are indifferent to the classic rumble, Stanley says the plan was to create a unique motorcycle “separate from a specific demographic.” (For what it’s worth, this writer owns a 2015 Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883 and enjoys the engine’s rumble, but the LiveWire’s sound is intriguing.)

Virgil “Wolf” Schulenburg, who has been a Harley dealer in the Madison, WI, area for more than four decades, says he’s talked to older riders who own heavyweight touring bikes, yet say they are interested in buying a LiveWire.

However, he says he believes the main target demographic for the electric bikes is between the ages of 18 and 35.

“Personally, I’m pumped about the LiveWire,” he says, standing in his dealership showroom east of Madison. “I love the classic rumble, but these new bikes are really cool.”

The big question, of course, is whether enough consumers will agree. LiveWire still may have a significant hurdle to leap to gain acceptance among older (and not-so-old) riders who love the signature sound of Harley-Davidson’s traditional engines.

Robin Diedrich, a senior equity analyst with Edward Jones, says in an e-mail message that she views Harley-Davidson’s investments in the electric motorcycle market as part of its strategy to grow its customer base in younger demographics, particularly in certain international markets.

“We believe Harley will need to balance its strong lifestyle brand that has made it the leading heavyweight motorcycle company with the need to expand its brand to appeal to a wider array of consumers that are interested in bikes that are easier to ride, lower cost, and protect the environment,” she says.

She continues: “The additional challenges for Harley and all other makers of electric vehicles includes increasing the driving range with longer battery life and providing the customer with a good driving experience—all at a reasonable cost. While electric bikes will continue to be an investment for Harley for some time, we share the vision that the electric motorcycle market will grow, particularly in markets such as China, and that Harley has a long-term opportunity in front of it.”

Schulenburg says Harley-Davidson is “going full-on into electric bikes,” noting that it just announced its acquisition of California-based StaCyc, which designs and sells electric-powered, two-wheeled bikes designed for children. The bikes, which come with 12-inch wheels or 16-inch wheels, cost between $649 and $699.

For Harley-Davidson, Stanley says the “LiveWire is the first chapter that brings electric propulsion, evocative design, and connectivity to today’s rider.”

The company’s planned lineup of electric motorcycles “will feature a spectrum of models and price points,” from a few thousand dollars to the nearly $30,000 starting price of LiveWire, Stanley says. That portfolio includes an off-road motorcycle that looks like a cross between an electrified dirt bike and a mountain bike. Another can only be described as an electric scooter, which Harley-Davidson says won’t require a license to operate.

The goal with the new products is to “keep our current riders engaged while introducing Harley-Davidson to the next generation of riders,” Stanley says.