EV Engineering News

Harley-Davidson’s Chief Engineer on the development of Project LiveWire

As Harley-Davidson tours America testing the waters for its prototype electric motorcycle, LiveWire, early riders like what they see and hear.

For decades, few names have been as synonymous with traversing the American landscape as Harley-Davidson. After 111 years, Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Harley-Davidson Motor Company has survived many ups and downs, including outlasting the Great Depression, producing American bikes for two World Wars, changes in ownership, dips in product quality, investor class-action lawsuits, and a slow, steady resurgence spanning more than 30 years in which the company’s business and reputation have notched upwards. 

Harley-Davidson remains the only major American motorcycle producer, and it’s arguably the most beloved of all American vehicle manufacturers. In the post-Easy Rider United States, few pastimes denote reverence for your homeland more than a long-haul motorcycle road trip – always on a Harley, preferably on a chopper. That’s why, for decades, Harley-Davidson has cornered the American market for “touring” motorcycles with >700 cc motors, and has built a huge part of its cycle brand on factory customization. Its 2013 launch of Project Rushmore solidified its commitment to the luxury touring-bike space; the customer-feedback-driven upgrade package graced Harley touring hogs with more power, better brakes, updated tech, ergonomics and more. 

However, a company this old seems to know that in business, the only constant is change. We’re starting to see the fruits of the 2009 decision to shut down its wholly owned Buell sportbike brand to concentrate solely on the Harley brand. Now, after only producing heavyweight, >700 cc cruiser motorcycles since 1977, Harley-Davidson has been leisurely dipping its toes into new waters. This year it began selling its line of urban street bikes, including the 500 cc Street 500 starting at $6,799, trying to appeal to a new class of young riders by launching the Harley-Davidson Riding Academy using the Street 500 as the training vehicle. 

The company already has its next forward-thinking project underway. This one, Project LiveWire, introduces Harley’s first-ever electric motorcycle. 

 Harley-Davidson LiveWire 2

Electrifying a classic

For Harley-Davidson, Project LiveWire “is absolutely 100 percent different,” Jeff Richlen, the company’s Chief Engineer, told Charged. Obviously the first electric Harley was going to be a different beast, but the company has been taking its time with Project LiveWire to figure out how to introduce electrification in a way that still felt like a Harley-Davidson. 

Conceptually, the LiveWire program began about four years ago, when executives and the HOG board of directors evaluated the prospect, and eventually decided to make Project LiveWire similar to their Project Rushmore in that it would be focused on customer feedback. 

Harley-Davidson LiveWire PQ1

Before they could gather much of that feedback, however, they first needed to build a prototype electric bike, and that was no easy task. “Delivering a great motorcycle in the electric space is not as easy as it looks,” said Richlen, who worked in the company’s custom vehicle operations for several years. “The number-one challenge is developing the powertrain/power electronics/battery combination. For a four-wheel passenger car, there’s lots of space, lots of real estate. But in a motorcycle, you don’t have the real estate and the packaging space. So it’s a particular challenge to have the look, feel and sound – which are really our three tenets at Harley-Davidson – like a traditional motorcycle. If you look at LiveWire, everything is very purposeful. From the first pencil mark on paper to the last motorcycle version we built, everything is well thought out with a plan in mind – how we package the power electronics, how we do the powertrain combinations. Getting all that to fit within the two-wheel space and still have it look like an awesome motorcycle was certainly not by accident.” 

Besides the electric powertrain, the LiveWire embodies other design departures from traditional Harleys. Its frame is cast aluminum, which creates a kind of dark grey exoskeleton around the motorcycle, which uses silver, black and red to create a cool look somewhere between sporty and high-tech rebel. 

Harley-Davidson LiveWire PQ2

“Our bikes are traditionally tubular-steel welded,” said Richlen. “If you look at any of our bikes – touring, sports or softail, pick any one in the family – they’re a combination of tubular steel, some casting, and also some forging that’ll all get welded together into one single-steel weld. Aluminum is a first for Harley-Davidson. Obviously in the electric space, weight is a pretty important factor. This one was largely developed in a virtual space, and heavily optimized for weight.”

Harley-Davidson is working with some parts suppliers for the LiveWire, but it’s all custom-made – no off-the-shelf components. The motor, batteries and power electronics are all cooled differently. “There’s what I call a typical radiator system up front that liquid-cools the power electronics,” Richlen said. “Then in the tail, there’s an oil cooler that cools the motor and gear box assembly. The batteries are just convection air-cooled.”

Despite its unavoidable, overall newness, the LiveWire was still mandated to follow the Harley-Davidson design philosophy in which form follows function, but both evoke emotion. Like all Harley motorcycles, the LiveWire’s motor was to be the visual centerpiece, and then to emphasize the explosive electric acceleration, the LiveWire also took design inspiration from racing bikes. 

“If you look at the lower longitude of our motor, that was from day one a focal point,” Richlen said. “As the Motor Company, that was the central jewel, as in all of our traditional ICE bikes – the jewel of the motorcycle is really the motor. It was very deliberate to highlight it and have it look very muscular. That theme carries throughout. It may not be immediately obvious, but the front wheel is 18 inches versus 17 inches in the rear, and that front end gives it that muscular appearance. The motor housing itself has hints of a Top Fuel dragster. Putting together the two elements of engineering function and styling is why we refer to it as ‘where innovation meets art.’”

Then there is the sound. Similar to the sound of the Spark-Renault Formula E racecars we wrote about in Charged Issue 11, the LiveWire sounds like a fighter plane that George Jetson may have flown (Hear it at Projectlivewire.com, where you can also get tour dates and additional info). Again, it’s nothing like the traditional Harley growl, but still pretty badass. It’s another example of how Harley-Davidson has tried to adapt its combustion legacy to an electric motorcycle. 

“It wasn’t like we invented a motor or we invented batteries,” Richlen said. “It’s really the combination of putting great technology together in a great way. It’s not particularly compelling to wrap a frame around a box of batteries, which is essentially the power plant. But the way we did it, and the way that we constructed a frame around it, doesn’t look like a box of batteries rolling on two wheels.”



Now Hiring

Brammo CEO Craig Bramscher noted in a recent Charged feature that there are only so many cool jobs for people who love electric motorcycles. It sounds like a few of the coolest jobs imaginable just opened up – Harley-Davidson is looking for EV specialists.

The careers section of the company’s web site lists five electrical engineering openings, including:

  • Director Electrical Vehicle Technology
  • Staff Technical Engineer – Electrical Vehicle

According to the job posting, the EV Director will be responsible for “personally driving successful execution of the largest, most strategically important production and innovation EV projects,” and is expected to be the company’s top electric vehicle expert.

The position requires a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering or a related field, as well as a minimum of ten years of product development experience.

Jeff Richlen, Harley-Davidson’s Chief Engineer, told us that the EV Director will work closely with him as “we look toward the future and what we’re considering for the EV space. I’m a chief engineer, that would be a complementary technical position that supports the development of EV strategy. So it really is looking at the technical side of helping to develop electric vehicles, if we choose to go forward.”

All of the engineering positions are located at Harley headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Director job was posted on June 19, and two Staff Technical Engineer openings were posted on June 23.


Get on the bus

While an electric bike represents a big change, the company wants to show its customers that it’s not changing its core design principles. And nothing could represent business-as-usual for Harley-Davidson better than a nationwide road trip. The Project LiveWire Experience launched June 24 in New York City, and will pass through 30 Harley dealerships in 30 US cities before wrapping up in Jacksonville, Florida on December 20. The tour stops allow licensed riders to take a 5-7 mile test spin of the current LiveWire prototype, and the unlicensed can try out the “Jumpstart” simulated riding experience. 

During Project LiveWire, Harley-Davidson will be collecting as much customer feedback from the test rides as possible to potentially inform the direction of the final product, but also to help determine whether there will be a final product. There’s currently no solid commitment to a production-model LiveWire. In 2015, the Project LiveWire Experience will continue in the US and expand to Canada and Europe. After that, LiveWire’s fate is uncertain, but Richlen told us that the company may opt to extend the tour for another year. If the test feedback warrants it, perhaps production LiveWires will hit the open road instead. 

Let’s not skirt around the issue of masculinity. We all know that whether it’s warranted or not, Harley-Davidson’s image has been steeped in some amount of machismo, and whether it’s warranted or not, electric vehicles still carry a stigma of wimpiness in some circles. That’s probably why some company literature encourages you to view the LiveWire like the first electric guitar rather than an electric car. However, so far it has appeared that motorcycle gearheads are quicker than many to judge EVs based on their merit alone. Honest appraisals in the motorcycle press of bikes from the likes of Brammo, Energica, Zero, etc. have shown that the proof is in the performance, and that the instant torque of electric motorcycles bring smiles to riders’ faces.

“So far, the response has been overwhelming that it’s so smooth and such a natural performance,” Richlen said about the Project LiveWire results. “Customers have been very complimentary that it’s not jerky, not erratic. While it is extremely exhilarating from an acceleration standpoint, it doesn’t feel uncontrolled. It feels very refined.”

 Harley-Davidson LiveWire 1

Refining reinvention

As the tour progresses, the company is processing the feedback it gets and adjusting the questions aimed at the customer. Once a person completes their LiveWire test ride, there is a structured list of interview questions a Harley-Davidson employee asks them, as well as a chance for some free-form chatting. The company wants to know both the post-ride impressions of the LiveWire’s performance, and how that may have differed from pre-ride expectations. Richlen says the LiveWire has a natural, very smooth torque curve that the rider feels when twisting the throttle for power delivery – but was that what customers were expecting?

Harley-Davidson also has plenty of opportunity to collect technical data on the LiveWire during its test rides. The prototypes have two riding modes to choose from: one optimized for range and one optimized for power. The range mode limits the amount of power going to the rear wheel. However, as the LiveWire is nowhere near a final version (and there may not be a final version), many technical specs – including estimated range – are not available yet. Media testers were told that in power mode, the LiveWire had 30 miles of range before the Li-ion batteries would need a 3.5-hour recharge at Level 2. 

“If we are truly going to live up to our tenet of being customer-led and customer-focused, the technical data can guide us as engineers,” Richlen said, “but as far as lifestyle preferences and how they actually use the product, we will get that out of the demonstrators’ experience.”

So far, much of the test-ride feedback on the LiveWire has varied significantly according to geographic region. At press time, the tour had been from coast to coast, beginning in NYC and finishing a series of stops along Route 66. “If you’re talking about urban dwellers in New York City, they love it,” Richlen said. “Very few of them saw the range being that big a deal for their type of lifestyle. We spent the morning riding around in lower Manhattan and we used about 30 percent of the battery. So for an urban dweller, it’s a very good fit. For someone out in the plains of Oklahoma, which is where I was last on the Route 66 tour, range was the first thing they mentioned. They’re in big country, and it would be a significant limitation. But that’s the exact type of feedback we’re looking for: If we were to do a full commercial vehicle like this, who’re the key customers and what would their expectations be for their riding style. I’ve had financial types in Manhattan saying, ‘this would be a great bike for me today,’ and people in Oklahoma City who said, ‘I ride 50 miles to work one way each day, so it just wouldn’t work for me.’”

Forever tied to American ideals, Harley-Davidson has a sustainability policy that speaks of preserving the freedom to ride, including preserving the beautiful American great outdoors for the next 111 years of riders. The way the company frames it, Harley’s expansion into electrification makes plenty of sense. “America at its best has always been about reinvention,” said Matt Levatich, Harley-Davidson’s President and COO. “Like America, Harley-Davidson has reinvented itself many times in our history, with customers leading us every step of the way. Project LiveWire builds on Harley-Davidson’s many recent reinvention successes.”

Freedom, preservation, reinvention – all of the above could correlate to American energy independence, in which perhaps Harley-Davidson could play its own small part. That, along with “tire-shredding acceleration,” sound like good reasons for Project LiveWire to keep on motorin’.


This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 14 – June/July 2014

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