By Andy Jensen
Harley-Davidson isn’t afraid to dip a toe in someone else’s pool. For nearly a decade, the iconic motorcycle company has flirted with markets that don’t mix well with the company’s bread-and-butter, “God Bless America!” biker image. But the introduction of the Livewire, a middleweight e-motorbike, is a cannon ball with a splash that might soak even those who don’t want to get wet.
What’s driving Harley-Davidson’s pool hopping? Opportunity! According to a report published by Global Market Insights, the electric motorcycles and scooters market is expected to exceed $40 billion USD by 2026—a $10 billion USD increase in less than seven years! Granted, a good portion of that growth is in the scooter segment, a space which is a bit foreign to the company. Nonetheless, the 48V, 26V, and Li-ion segments are fair game.
For Harley-Davidson to plant a flag in either of those segments, and gain market share, the company needs to appeal to a different type of consumer. The typical hog enthusiast finds deep satisfaction in Harley-Davidson’s unique sound and emblematic power, both in a literal and symbolic sense.
“To me, the appeal of a Harley-Davidson is the bike’s power, the rumble, the stigma,” says Becky Hess, a long-time Harley-Davidson owner and enthusiast. While giving a clear thumbs-down sign, she continues. “I have no interest in an electric Harley-Davidson.”
Clearly, Harley-Davidson needs to shake off the leathers in order to appeal to the type of consumer attracted to electric vehicles. A significant portion of that group is suburban women, who find the simplicity, style, and adventure of an electric motorcycle appealing.
Harley-Davidson also hopes to win over a younger male market, who is typically attracted by the fast and furious. The rider on the bullet bike may be a bit bored by Harley-Davidson’s kick-back style. Thus, the debut of the Livewire is a metamorphic and strategic appeal to a different type of customer.
Says Jake Bright of TechCrunch, “With declining sales and the aging of the baby boomers—Harley’s primary market for chrome and steel gassers—the company needed to take a fresh turn.”
Hog-owner Hess agrees. “The only reason for an electric Harley is to get the younger crowd into bikes. Millennials aren’t buying motorcycles. They don’t seem to have any interest. But an electric bike may have more appeal.”
The Livewire is not your typical hog. It looks fast. Its lines say, “see how fast we can chew through the next five miles,” which is in stark contrast to the typical Harley-Davidson look that says, “see how well we can cruise the next 60 miles.”
The Livewire is more than fast: it’s quick.
Harley-Davidson’s all-new H-D Revelation™ permanent-magnet electric motor is rated at 105 horsepower (78 kW) and produces 86 ft. lbs. of torque. In short, the bike will reach 60 mph in three seconds. And when you’ve hit 60, and you need a bit more speed, a quick twist of the wrist gets you to 80 mph in 1.9 seconds. Suffice it to say the bike satisfies the need for speed.
With no clutch, the Livewire is simple to operate: twist the throttle and the bike goes. The absence of a clutch and the need to change gears significantly contributes to a faster learning curve for new riders, who Harley-Davidson wants to attract. Call it luck or brilliant engineering and marketing, the transmission creates a unique, electric sound due to the way the power is transferred to the back wheel. While the Livewire doesn’t have the patented hog roar, it does have a unique sound, nonetheless.
Battery life is key to winning over the hearts of a new market. Harley-Davidson states the Livewire will go 146 miles before it needs a charge, or 95 miles in stop-and-start traffic. At first sight, the range seems low. How does the Livewire compare to other e-motorbikes?
EVoke, Brutus, and Arc, for starters, boast ranges up to 292 miles of city driving. Zero, Damon, Lita, and Lightning all have models in the 120 to 200 mile range, as reported on their respective websites. Some manufacturers are reporting numbers on models that are yet to make it to full production, so the numbers are sketchy. To that point, a head-to-head road test between the Livewire and the Zero SR/F Premium, conducted by Cycle World in April 2020, revealed the Livewire outlasted the Zero in miles per charge, which casts some doubt on the reported numbers.
When it’s time to recharge, the Livewire needs 40 minutes to get back to 80% with a DC charging station. It needs another 20 minutes for a full charge. In comparison, eVoke will recharge to 80% using a DC charger in 15 minutes, the company reports.
The power source for the Livewire is a 15.5 kWh high-voltage battery consisting of Li-ion cells. The battery is positioned in the center of the bike’s frame and encased in a finned, aluminum housing, acting as a heat sink to cool the cells. Duct work built into the frame channels air to the fins to assist in keeping the battery cool.
How Harley-Davidson connected the Li-ion cells is a trade secret the company will keep close to their vest. With little surprise, Harley-Davidson politely declined to comment about the tools or processes used in production. However, given the challenges in creating an efficient power cell, it’s no trade secret the company utilized micro welding technology in the process.
“The challenge that Harley-Davidson and other electric vehicle manufacturers face is what type of material they choose to connect the Li-ion cells together,” says Jonathan Young, president of Sunstone Engineering, a manufacturer of micro welders. “In our very first science class in school we learned that copper is king when it comes to conductivity, due to its low cost and low resistance. But welding a thin copper tab to the top of a power cell is extremely difficult. The sweet spot for a durable weld, that doesn’t damage the cell, is very thin. Too much power and you damage the interior parts of the cell. Too little power and the weld will break. A Li-ion cell only compounds that challenge. Handled carelessly they can be dangerous. Only with the right technology and hardware can a manufacturer take advantage of copper.”
Copper has other key advantages over nickel or clad, which is frequently used in developing a battery. “Copper is half the price of nickel,” says Young. “Copper has four times the conductivity of nickel, which greatly improves battery efficiency—the amount of energy lost to resistance is four times better with copper. And the peel strength of a copper tab is 66% stronger than a nickel tab, which speaks to durability. None of this is a secret. Every electric vehicle manufacturer knows copper is the secret to a more efficient battery. But copper is also the challenge. It’s not easy to weld, especially on a production floor.”
Young points to Sunstone’s Omega PA250i battery welding system, which he says makes copper welding not only possible but a viable option for the production floor. “We sell the Omega in three different versions: in an R&D configuration, small shop configuration, or for a fully automated production facility.”
Compared to other manufacturers in the e-motorbike space, Harley-Davidson is a bit late. Sure, they have dabbled here and there, putting their toe in the water, as mentioned earlier. But the Livewire has the full attention of the Harley-Davidson executive management team, indicating the company recognizes the strategic value of a successful Livewire launch.
Other than Honda, the mainstream motorcycle manufacturers don’t appear to be paying any attention to the e-motorbike market. And even Honda is just now filing patents that indicate active research and development in the e-motorbike market.
In a June 2020 article by Kevin Cameron of Cycle World, BMW’s Dr. Markus Schramm indicated motorcycle companies would follow the consumer. “In the car sector, it’s basically government regulations which force the industry, and thereby the customer, into e-mobility,” Dr. Schramm is quoted as saying. “But in the motorcycle industry you are not forced (by government regulation) to ride electric, and therefore your decision to do so is decided by how much fun it is to ride such a vehicle. That means it’s customer driven, and so I think it’s important to direct our strategy with this in mind.”
BMW can stand by Dr. Schramm’s flippant wave of his hand to e-motorbikes by pointing to the 180,000 bikes the company sold in 2019, the ninth year of consecutive records sales. A quick review of the BMW website reveals BMW does sell electric scooters, so the company has not totally dismissed the EV market.
“I don’t believe any motor vehicle manufacturer is ignoring or in absolute denial that emobility is the future,” says Young. “Obviously the manufacturers are approaching the challenge differently. Some are more market driven, some a bit more opportunistic, and some are probably hampered by a weaker R&D capability. But two things are true: they’ll all need micro welding technology to bring vision to reality. And, of course, in the end the best go-to-market plan will win.”