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Harley-Davidson Goes Electric—The Hard Way The Motor Company is jumping into the most difficult segment of two-wheeled electrics. Have they lost their mind?

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Harley-Davidson on July 30 announced some of its product plans through 2022, specifically with a targeted presentation to market analysts (the important viewers!), though it did share information with this magazine as well. Part of the presentation was somewhat surprising: Harley plans to sell at least six different electric two-wheelers by 2022, with the first, the H-D LiveWire, arriving next year. It is to be followed in 2021 with two versions of a machine that is clearly a result of Harley’s collaboration with San Francisco’s Alta Motors, the producers of high-performance electric dirt bikes. But the most interesting part of the announcement was a trio of lightweight urban electrics, one of them clearly bicycle-based, that are scheduled to appear in 2022.

Harley has good reason to be interested in lightweight electrics, though not many Americans are aware of what’s been happening in other countries in that market. The chart above shows how eBikes have disrupted the traditional sub-50cc motorcycle/moped/scooter class (legally, L1-e class vehicles) in Europe, which used to have more than 900,000 sales annually in the EU in 2007 and 2008. Ebikes (usually described as “pedelecs,” from “pedal electric”) first saw significant sales in Europe in 2006.

Most of the market consists of 250-watt electrically assisted bicycles that measure how hard their rider is pedaling and amplify that with an electric motor, providing three or four times the power provided by the rider. They have no throttle or other manual motor control, and are generally limited to a top speed with motor assist of 15 mph. There is another class of eBikes known as speed-pedelecs that are allowed more power and provide assist to 28 mph. A good version of either type makes you feel a little like Superman, with acceleration and cruising speed far superior to a fully manual bicycle. Regular pedelecs are treated as bicycles, with no licensing, registration, or insurance required, while speed-pedelecs in Europe usually require that you have at least an auto driver’s license and must be registered.

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Sales of pedelecs look to number near 2 million units in Europe this year, and in many countries are making up around half of all bicycle sales. Meanwhile, sub-50cc motorcycles and scooters have collapsed to just over 300,000 units. Additionally, US states like California have recently passed laws with very favorable rules for eBikes. A class 1 eBike in California is treated like a bicycle (no license or registration), and is allowed 750 watts (about 1 hp) and 20-mph top speed. A class 3 California eBike is allowed a 28-mph top speed, and is still treated legally as a bicycle, though its rider is required to wear a helmet.

However, Harley is entering the scene with the LiveWire in the end of the market that has essentially no sales, and one where technical realities make it difficult to build an e-motorcycle that will satisfy most customers. According to the charts that Harley showed the Wall Street folk, there were less than 1,000 high-power electric motorcycles sold in 2017 in the US and Europe combined, and only 5,000 to 6,000 mid-power e-motorcycles sold. The LiveWire, which Harley first introduced in June 2014 to the press as a very-well developed prototype, falls into that high-power range. Estimates at the time suggested the LiveWire had 72 hp, but with an electric drivetrain’s typical high-and-wide torque curve providing blistering 0-to-60-mph acceleration. But the difficulty with high-power electric motorcycles is always range, as their owners generally expect to be able to take them on highways just like any other motorcycle.


Unfortunately, motorcycles have horrible aerodynamics, and the aerodynamic power required by a small streetbike cruising at 75 or 80 mph is actually greater than that for a very aerodynamic electric car like a Tesla Model 3. But the Tesla has room for an enormous battery that weighs 1,050 pounds and that allows it to go roughly 300 miles on the freeway. The original LiveWire battery was estimated to have about 1/10 the energy capacity of the Tesla battery, which suggests a freeway range of less than 40 miles. Harley has almost certainly done a lot of work on the LiveWire since 2014, but even if its battery comes in much larger at 20 kWh and 210 pounds, which would make it state-of-the-art, the highway range of the LiveWire is unlikely to be much more than 100 miles, at least at 75 mph. Heaven help you if you cruise at 90 mph, as that would cut range by another 30 percent.

Although it’s technically feasible to provide the 30-minute fast charging that Tesla has for its autos, or the 15-minute fast charging Porsche is promising for its soon-to-be-released Taycan sports sedan, no one has done it yet for an e-motorcycle. E-motorcycles have tended to rely on passive battery cooling rather than the active systems on e-cars, which even use the air-conditioning system to pull heat from components during fast charging. Charging for e-motorcycles has generally been a multiple-hour task, which means they’ve been best at defined commutes and close-in urban riding, with none of that freedom of the highway provided by The Motor Company’s conventional bikes. That’s unlikely to change until batteries improve by at least a factor of two or so. Maybe by 2025…

Meanwhile, Harley has promised another family of mid-performance electric machines for 2021 or thereabouts, clearly based on Alta Motors’ lightweight dirt bike platform but with substantial modifications. Harley invested in Alta earlier this year. You can see the family resemblance between the Alta Redshift ST (an oval-track-themed showbike derived from its Redshift dirt bikes and yet to be produced) and the Harley sketch released. This 2021 e-Harley will almost certainly have some of the same issues with highway range mentioned above, but this likely sub-300-pound machine will be a real urban warrior.

Alta has the most advanced motorcycle battery packs in the industry, and expected battery improvements by 2021 might enable an 8 kWh or larger pack in the same package as Alta’s current one, or, if doubled up to a double-width, all the way to 16 kWh or so. Alta’s lightweight e-motor is already pumping out 50 hp for bursts of acceleration, so performance will be impressive even without possible improvements on that front. Harley’s scale will mean component prices will be for much less than tiny Alta can achieve, and it will mean suppliers like Showa will be available—who don’t really like to deal with startup riff-raff. Expect this machine to retail for substantially less than current Alta Redshifts if it doesn’t have a doubled-up pack. A price in the sub-$8,000 range might be possible.

As for the three ultra-lightweight electrics H-D unveiled, let’s start with the fact they’re just sketches at the most. Or as one high-up Harley insider wrote to me after the unveiling, “Lots of work ahead.” A quick engineering team would be able to do any one of them in less than 18 months from go-ahead to production, so the fact they’re being suggested for 2022 means they haven’t even been started.

However, they’re interesting because for low-speed vehicles, the aerodynamic and energy situation essentially reverses as compared to general-purpose e-motorcycles. At speeds below 30 mph, aerodynamic forces fall to very low levels, and you can get 30 to 60 miles of urban range on battery sizes of only 1 to 2 kWh. That’s a battery size that can weigh 9 to 18 pounds (or less by 2022), and be taken inside to home or office for charging. It also means the vehicles can be extremely light (60 to 90 pounds, depending on the details) and extremely affordable, with foreseeable pricing in the $2,500 to $4,000 range.

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The e-Bike that Harley sketched is presumably a speed-pedelec, which would qualify as a class 3 e-bicycle in California and a moped in many other states. The lightweight scooter and the mini-e-motorcycle might both be L1-e vehicles in Europe, which means they wouldn’t require a motorcycle license to ride; in the US, in more states than not, they would qualify as mopeds. Both could have exceptional acceleration for a moped-class vehicle; it would be possible for such a machine to do 0 to 30 mph in around three seconds while staying within European L1-e rules.

Of course, at this point, the lightweight e-motorcycles in Harley announcement may just be vapor to enhance its stock price. On page 41 of Harley’s PowerPoint presentation shown analysts, the plan for 2021 and 2022 shows a range of two to five new electric motorcycles to be introduced, including the Alta-based models. Harley’s already giving itself an out if it doesn’t execute all these concepts. Stay tuned to when and if any of these concept sketches are manifested as rolling hardware.

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