Mr. Green Car: An electric Harley?

By Allen Penticoff
Freelance Writer

In a sign of the times, Harley-Davidson — motorcycles of great roaring legend — has just announced it has developed an electric motorcycle, “Live Wire,” that is on tour to gain public reaction. This is news on the scale of the French banning smoking in restaurants. Earth-shaking, or rather not, news.

I don’t abide by the proclamation that “loud pipes save lives.” There is no evidence that having a motorcycle spewing out hearing-damaging decibels next to you in traffic is making you any more aware of them than your basic annoyance — although motorcycle noise may help pedestrians hear them coming. If noise made drivers aware of other traffic, we’d wire our horns to be on all the time!

What saves motorcyclists’ lives are: riding with a helmet on (I don’t buy the “I can hear the traffic better without a helmet” line, either — over that noise?), riding with powerful headlights on, watching all traffic situations like a hawk, and presuming you are invisible to all and not speeding through traffic. I started riding when I was 16, and I’m still here. Actually, I stopped riding about 1996 when I bought my Miata in lieu of a Goldwing — after observing Rockford is an unsafe place to ride a motorcycle.

So, does the silence of an electric motorcycle really take away from the cycling experience? For some, it certainly will. They love the throb and roar of their machines and don’t give a hoot about how it affects anyone else. Some like their riding smooth, quiet and sedate — enjoying the open-air travel experience. For others, it is the acceleration and quick handling that define the motorcyclist’s experience, and those are the sport bikes (“crotch-rocket”) motorcycles that rip by at blazing speed. I think the new electric Harley is going to appeal to this latter crowd — for the instant acceleration provided by a powerful electric motor — a sensation that can be addictive.

Pedestrians, beware, for these machines will suddenly appear out of nowhere. Electric motorcycle riders, a little beep of the horn would be a nice warning for pedestrians, much like a bicycle is required to do.

Harley-Davidson has a dozen Live Wire bikes touring the United States and Europe in this marketing test. If they do go into production, Harley-Davidson will be among the first major manufacturers to sell an electric motorcycle. It will be interesting to see if their investment takes off.

At present, Yamaha is dabbling in electric motorcycles, as well as independent companies Zero Motorcycles and Brammo. I’ve written in the past in support of small electric motorcycles, and will say the same for the Harley — they are a far less expensive way to get into electric transportation than buying an electric car ($13,000 versus $35,000). They cost less to charge, and might even reasonably be chargeable by a small solar panel arrangement.

The Live Wire will accelerate from 0-60 mph in less than 4 seconds, propelled by a 74-horsepower electric motor that puts out 52 foot-pounds of torque. Top speed is limited to 92 mph. This power is a bit low compared to gasoline-powered sport bikes, but electric motors provide full torque at zero rpm — so early acceleration is always quite impressive. Around town, this would provide for a lot of fun — and those curvy back roads would be a joy as well, as long as you keep them within its 53 miles of range. Charging on 240 volts will replenish the batteries in 3.5 hours.

The Live Wire is built with a very light frame and wheels to keep the weight to a minimum to compensate for the 250-pound battery pack. No need for an exhaust or muffler — so that reduces weight as well. It appears it would have the handling weight of a large-sized sport bike, maybe equivalent of a 1,000 c.c. bike.

The regenerative braking that happens would make the bike feel like riding in a low gear — slowing quickly without need to touch the brakes. From driving our Volt around town in Low (that makes the regeneration more powerful), it becomes natural and easy to control the throttle to stay apace of the traffic without use of brakes. This helps extend the range as well.

According to a review I read online, the Live Wire is not totally silent — it produces a sound that “increases in pitch and volume the faster you go.” This would appeal to the sport bike subset of motorcyclists. I’m uncertain if this sound is audible to pedestrians or other traffic.

Green” riding could be a lot of fun — I would certainly take an opportunity to ride one if it were presented to me. Let’s keep an eye open for the tour coming to Rockford — we do have the oldest Harley dealership in the United States.

From the June 25-July 1, 2014, issue

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