Predictions for Livewire, Harley-Davidson’s first electric bike

January will bring the motorcycling world important final pieces of information about Harley-Davidson’s new Livewire, the motor company’s first production electric motorcycle. I’ve spent a lot of time recently discussing what it’ll take to make Livewire’s launch successful, including what its range and price need to come in at. These are my predictions about what Livewire will cost, how far it’ll go on a charge, and what Harley needs to do for a successful launch and purchase experience.

After nearly five years…

I’ve been a Harley-Davidson owner and enthusiast for many years, and enjoyed tens of thousands of wonderful miles aboard Harley’s heavyweight big twin motorcycles. But I’ve hoped to see America’s legendary motorcycle company find ways to attract new audiences and break into new markets. It’s essential for their long term health; H-D is already feeling the pains of an aging core audience.

When Project Livewire was announced on June 19, 2014, the industry was stunned, and electric vehicle supporters were excited. The prototype electric motorcycle that H-D showed was not only stylistically new, but it pushed about as far away from big v-twin engines as you can go: it was an all-electric motorcycle.

Project Livewire’s global tour included a stop at Eastside Harley Davidson, which featured a “Microsoft Day on Livewire” where employees, who are some of Tesla’s best customers, did test rides and shared feedback with Harley. It culminated with an open letter to Harley-Davidson where I shared my congratulations on a brilliant prototype experience, caution regarding the inevitable rejection from much of their existing customer-base, and encouragement for getting Livewire to market quickly.

The production model looks incredible

During the Project Livewire tour, H-D was clear that Livewire was only a concept, shared to get customer feedback. Exactly zero people believed that. The prototype bikes were polished enough that it was clear they were bound for eventual production. Four and a half years later in August 2018, at Harley’s annual dealer meeting in San Diego, the production version of Livewire was finally unveiled.

Project Livewire prototype (left), and the production Livewire (right).

And it looks superb!

Livewire appears to be one of the very rare cases where a production unit  looks better than the prototype. In most cases, manufacturers create prototypes that are idealistic, but impossible to produce at scale, so the production version prove to be a let-down. Not Livewire! It retained many of the prototype’s design cues, but introduced a more streamlined frame, better-integrated TFT instrument display, and a quarter cowling.

The final design works really well, combining elements from past bikes that I’ve loved with a very modern look. The nose cowling reminds me of the 1984 Honda Nighthawk 700, the broad, flat sides of the battery cells are almost reminiscent of the flat body panels of Suzuki GS models,  and many comparisons will be made to Harley’s own XR1200, one of the sportier machines in their recent history.

Whether you love the production Livewire model, or you’re sitting in your garage on your shiny CVO Ultra Classic Electra Glide, tears crying down onto your HOG patches because you think the motor company is abandoning you, it’s clear that Livewire is different. And one look at H-D’s recent financial results tells us, incontrovertibly, that something different is needed. Now.

Up Next: Price and Range

Every Livewire post on every social network, every conversation over every beer, eventually results in: “What’s it gonna cost?” and “What will the range be?”

Those are the two big questions that are going to determine whether Livewire really does mark the beginning of Harley-Davidson’s next 115 years, the welcoming of an entirely new generation of riders, and a period of innovation that will set it apart from competitors in every region… or an expensive flop that joins the V-Rod in the annals of Harley history of failed attempts to modernize an aging line of big twin cruisers.

For both price and range, I’ll paint a spectrum of what’s feasible given today’s technology and price curves.

Price…

  • $14,995 – The reality is that Livewire is actually worth somewhere between $13,000 and $15,000. This has nothing to do with what it costs to build (electric drive-trains are still expensive) nor what H-D will charge for it, but rather this is a statement of functionally what it must compete with. Livewire is a short-range electric “standard” motorcycle. It’s a naked bike with no meaningful wind protection or luggage. It’ll get you around town in style. That value proposition is on par with the 2019 Honda CBR1000R ($12,999) or the 2019 Ducati Monster 1200S ($14,995). These bikes do roughly the same thing, but Livewire won’t be in this price bracket because it doesn’t have electric competition there. This is unfortunate, because this price range is mass-appeal and would match their likely technology and styling leadership with Livewire.
  • $19,995 – This is where Harley should price Livewire. It’s expensive, but on par with other electric motorcycles like the Zero DSR, maxed out with the largest battery and quick charger ($19,990) or the now-dead Victory Empulse TT ($19,999). Expectations are that the Empulse will reincarnate as an Indian-branded electric in 2020. I say this is where Harley should price Livewire because it will compete with EV motorcycles now on the market, affords a premium for the new technology above it’s functional value, and gives the H-D brand some equity to offset what they save with their established manufacturing scale. At $19,9K, I’ll follow through on my deposit and purchase the launch model.
  • $22,995 – I fear that Harley will target the $23,000-24,000 range, and in doing so they’ll probably assume that the same premium that they command for their heavy-iron big-twins can be applied here. They’ll be wrong. Units will sell at this price, but it’ll be a niche and struggle to justify the production costs and the floor space. There are too many truly incredible motorcycles in this price range, that aren’t subject to the limitations of electric bikes, for this to make sense to any market other than the most niche alpha-buyers. If I had to predict their retail price, this would be my prediction. I’ll pull my deposit back in this case. Being an enthusiast is one thing; being an irrational brand-slave is another.
  • $27,995 – Internally at Harley corporate, market researchers are citing Tesla as the example to justify stratospheric pricing. They’ll use the Tesla Roadster as an example of how techno-lust for a hot EV will drive people to pay anything for the category leader. They’ll claim that the same customer who spends up to $155,000 on an ugly EV crossover fully loaded will do the same for a motorcycle. No. While motorcycles are passion purchases, and there are a handful of people who will spend that kind of money for the privilege of being first, this will completely defeat Harley’s goals with Livewire by showing that their new audiences must have the same brand lust and same levels of disposable income as the the CVO purchasers. Their investment in Livewire design, brand-building, and manufacturing ramp-up will have been wasted. I’ll feel bad for them as I head to the BMW or Ducati, or maybe even the Zero dealership.

Range…

Range anxiety may impact motorcyclists even more than automobile drivers. When we get stuck, we’re out in the elements, we require specialized towing gear, and we’re likely more disappointed because we enjoy our time in motion more!

Project Livewire (the prototypes) scared people because they only had about 50 miles of range. That range was with tech that’s now five years old, had no optimizing software to drive it, and likely depended on smaller off-the-shelf batteries that weren’t fully built specifically for a motorcycle form factor. With production, all of those aspects will have changed.

Miles here means actual miles. Claimed range is almost certainly going to be inflated 20% above what an average rider will experience. This has been the case with most EVs, where the reported range reflected optimal, rather than actual, conditions.

  • 100 miles – I don’t think Harley can deliver a motorcycle with less than 100 miles of range on a charge and still have it be taken seriously as a usable bike. Sure, there is plenty of data – mostly from Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) – suggesting 55-75 miles is sufficient for daily commuting purposes. But motorcycles are rarely purchased purely for commuting, and even the smallest Sportster tanks hold 100 miles of petrol. Even at 100 miles, I think Livewire would struggle for acceptance.
  • 120 – 150 miles – This seems like a sweet spot for electric bikes right now. Zero Motorcycles claims that their maximum-range configuration gets a “mixed” range of 132 miles, coming from 204 miles of city range, and 97 miles of of highway range at 70 mph. The 204 miles was likely experienced by a skeleton riding downhill with a tailwind. If Livewire delivers over ~120 miles per charge, it’ll be a viable urban bike that competes nicely with other electrics. This range is my minimum bar for buying the bike, especially if it’s at the $20,000 mark. If they’re below this range, the price needs to come in accordingly lower.
  • Over 200 miles – I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Zero-esque claim of over 200 miles of range from some contrived circumstances. There may be some risk here, as riders will be quick to get online and share actual performance data with the rest of the community. The difference between 150 miles and 200 miles in terms of practical daily usage is not so great (well, it’s exactly 50 miles…) to merit losing customer trust over inflated claims.

New experience needed

There’s an important factor besides price and range that Harley has to reinvent for Livewire to launch successfully: the experience of purchasing, taking delivery, and owning Livewire. There are some great examples in the EV industry for Harley to learn from, notably Tesla and the way that – on average – they thrill Tesla buyers.

Let me get something out of the way up front: If buying a Livewire means going into the H-D dealerships that we know today, trying to find a Livewire parked among a sea of big twin cruisers, and trying to check it out under the scornful eyes of the local pack of leather-clad urban professionals taking a break from watching last week’s episode of Mayans MC, it’s an abject failure.

Livewire is new enough, and advanced enough, that supply is certainly going to be tight. Harley can, and should, take pre-orders for the bike. A deposit should be required to secure a place in line, and a rough delivery time frame should be offered. This matches the Tesla pre-order experience. Harley can take it a step further by giving people their exact spot in line, as well as a specific build date for their bike.

If the motor company truly wants a deeper, more enduring relationship with a new generation of riders, it needs to think about a modern channel of communication. Email pleas to join the local HOG chapter, or coupons for 10% off of a valve job may be uninteresting at best, and embarrassing at worst.

There should be a Livewire app for my phone. It should wirelessly connect to my phone, and share bike telemetry with it, like ride distance, speed, energy consumption, and the health of the bike’s systems. See BMWs Connected system for an example of what this might look like. This same app should help me plan routes with knowledge of fast charging stations.

Harley should delight me with software updates that are pushed to the bike, a hallmark of the Tesla ownership experience. Saddling up to see a congratulatory note on slightly better range or slightly quicker safety systems would make owning Livewire a joy. Having to go to a service center to get a software update would be an inconvenience anchored in decades past.

Assuming I opt in, Harley should offer to connect me with other Livewire purchasers for electric-centric events leading up to delivery. At the first such event, the motor company should announce a deal that they’ve struck with Tesla to leverage their charging network. If Live wire costs over $15,000, free charging should be included for the first few years of ownership.

The delivery of Livewire should reward us for being early adopters. We’re going to overpay for this latest tech, and we’re going to buy a first production batch of not only a new model, but an entirely new platform from H-D. That’s risky, and ultimately expensive, for us early customers. H-D can reward us with scheduled delivery times, perhaps at-home delivery like Tesla did for a while. If at the dealership, they can have truly knowledgeable staff on hand to familiarize us with our new bikes. This doesn’t mean a petrol engine technician who got a few hours of training from a factory rep. It means someone who knows the systems, has ridden a demo bike for 100+ miles, and offers a direct e-mail address and phone number for service and support questions or issues.

After we ride away on our new Livewires, with the muted-jet-engine sound of the electric drive-train powering us out into our two-wheeled worlds, connectivity between the motor company and our bikes will be important. Push us notifications via that Livewire app when a service is due. If the system throws a warning code, message us with details and instructions with the appropriate degree of urgency. Monitor our Livewires for accidents by making our $20,000 bikes smarter than our $300 smartwatches. Have crash/fall/battery drain detection active, and be ready to help us if we need it. It’s fine to charge us a bit each month for these safety nets, and it’s a vital new reliable stream of recurring revenue for you, Harley.

We ride in interesting times

The entire transportation industry is on the precipice of multiple re-inventions. Electric drive-trains, autonomous driving, shared ownership, and ride-sharing each stand to radically disrupt the automobile industry on their own. Together, they’ll change how we think about vehicle ownership and usage.

But motorcyclists have different motivations. The old saying, “Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul,” holds as true now as it did when William Harley and Arthur Davidson rolled the first motorized bicycle out of a shed over a 115 years ago.

In those early days, they strove to create a better motorcycle than their competitors, like Indian. The early motor company tried to innovate quickly. They delivered great products that people loved, that performed well, and were priced to grow a healthy business. The legendary bar and shield has endured for over 115 years in part because of that early focus.

In 2019, we’ll learn if they’re serious about creating a better motorcycle than competitors like Zero and Indian. We’ll see if they can deliver an electric bike that we love, that performs well and has great range, and is priced within reach of all riders who might find a new, or renewed, interest in the H-D brand.

January will bring us Livewire’s price and range. The deposit check that I wrote for Livewire #001 back in June of 2014 is still on my dealer’s books. Let’s hope Harley comes through with numbers that are as attractive as they production design they created for the 2019 Livewire.

Because I’m ready to ride an electric Harley, and [most of] the world is ready to see H-D establish its leadership role and take the industry into a clean, fast, exciting future.

-Jeff

One thought on “Predictions for Livewire, Harley-Davidson’s first electric bike”

  1. Read every word with interest. Sounds like a fantastic addition to the HD line. Enough to make me consider putting on my riding gear again!

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