Dissecting the Harley Davidson LiveWire

DEC 28 2014 BY TDILLARD 20

The Harley Davidson LiveWire project has far and away been the breakout electric motorcycle sensation of 2014, and nobody saw it coming.  Love it (which we’re sure Zero and Brammo do because: sales) or hate it (which we’re sure Zero and Brammo do because: attention), there’s been much speculation about the significant investment HD has made in the building of the bikes and the shopping of them all over the US, and, next year apparently, Europe and Canada.  Some estimated numbers go well into the mid-tens of thousands of dollars per bike.

Preeee-posterous, as our favorite old family curmudgeon used to say.

Leaving the costs of the actual travel and staffing alone for a minute, and taking sort of a reverse-engineering approach to the build, let’s look at some real world costs.  We are forced to make some assumptions here, most notably they were as frugal as possible, and didn’t throw gobs of money indiscriminately at contractors like Mission Motors for the development.

Here’s what we’re starting with, via HD:

The LiveWire is powered by 3-phase AC electric induction motor, which produces 74 hp (55 kW) and 8000 rpm. Peak torque is 52 lb.ft (70.5 Nm). The bike maxes out at 92 mph (148 km/h) and accelerates from 0-60 mph (100 km/h) in 4 seconds. A full recharge takes around 3.5 hours and its average range so far has been 53 miles (85 km).

Setting aside the recharging claim, since there’s no on-board charging, let’s start with the motor/controller combination.  Our first impression of the longitudinal-mounted motor was immediate.  It looked like an AC-20 from HPEV with a plastic cover on the front, and a machined aluminum mount holding the body.  Not only that, it felt like an AC20, based on our rather considerable experience riding a bike so equipped.

AC20 with Curtis controller

AC20 with Curtis controller

Looking at one of the HPEV dealer pages, Thunderstruck Motors, we get some comparable numbers right off the bat.  Scroll down to the AC20 with Curtis controller with the bells and whistles: Tyco contactor, Spyglass display, wiring harness, throttle, and custom programming, and specs of  72-108V 650A 65HP at 5200RPM.  Bump it up one and we’re right in the ballpark: the AC-20 w/1239-8501, and 96-144V 500A 73HP at 7900RPM.  Put us down for $4000.

The batteries?  Time for some really rough stabs, but let’s say we want a complete system, plug and play.  We don’t want to re-invent any wheels, and so we’d look at either Brammo or Zero for a pack.  Let’s see – the Zero SR gets a claimed 100 or so miles with the 11kwh (nominal) pack.  So half that.  5.5kwh sounds about right, and the Zero Power Tank is 2.8kwh at $2500 (retail).  Put us down for two.

Zero 2.8kwh Power Tank

Zero 2.8kwh Power Tank

Time to build the frame.  The Harley frame is sandcast aluminum, and there were 40 bikes made, so we can’t imagine it was like building a one-off custom frame, like what Framecrafters does, especially considering we’re guessing there were little or no costs in tooling for a giant manufacturer like HD.  Given that a Framecrafters one-off is (if memory serves) in the neighborhood of $4000 for a trellis steel frame, we’re going to slap $1500 into the cost of the frame.

Where are we at?  $10,500?

Before we get all “…but what about wheels and brakes and all that?”, let’s take a look at what they’re running.  None of it was top-shelf stuff, and we’re assuming that a lot of it came from the HD warehouse.  For that stuff that didn’t, HD has some clout when they call up and ask for one bike’s worth of parts x40, they’re going to get some decent pricing.  Just for the sake of argument, we’ll throw in a high price of $1000 for all that, plus what is basic EV readout stuff and some really funky bad mirrors.

Oh wait.  That right-angle drive reduction gearing by which HD claims they’ve “engineered” the sound of the bike.  Considering we could get off the shelf right-angle drives for around $500 from Surplus Center, let’s just throw $500 at that, but with the caveat that if HD paid that much for a simple right-angle reduction drive then they’ve melted down a lot of their transmission tooling from days of yore.

So our guess?  Let’s just round it up to $12,500 per bike, ready to ride.

However, since it’s for 40 bikes and not just one, and it’s HD talking to vendors and suppliers, then for our money we’ll take 20% off the top.  Again, round numbers?  Let’s say $10,500.

We’ve heard it before, though.  What about “development costs”?  What about them?  There’s not one single thing about this bike that’s unique or particularly advanced, in fact, you can pull about a dozen bikes’ specs from 5 years ago and match them up with this bike.  Unless you consider what we just did above – doing a little online research and writing it down “development”, we simply don’t see it here, other than normal corporate overhead for any project whatsoever.  This project could quite literally be “developed” on a napkin in a bar.    And keep in mind, this project does not have to pass any DOT manufacturing requirements.  It’s a prototype.

So let’s compare, for a reality check.  The Zero SR runs at 100mph, 0-60 in 4 sec or so, is a comparable size, and boasts twice the range.  It’s passed all the DOT stuff, has ABS along with a charger and some notably top-shelf suspension components.  The price?  $17,345 retail.  The 11kwh battery pack and charger come pretty close to evening out that playing field off the bat.  How about the Brammo Empulse?  Similar specs, and you can buy a 2014 Empulse R for a special sale price of $13,995.00.    We’ve got to guess thats pretty close to production cost, and the Empluse even sports a specially-designed 6-speed gearbox – a lot more pricey to design and build than a simple right-angle reduction drive.  Still.  Twice the performance numbers.

It’s obvious that HD has spent tons of money on this project, from the ads and PR work, to the simple challenge of driving several teams all over the continent and everything that something of that scale includes.  (Just about the last thing we’d like to try to imagine is the insurance bill for this caper…)  But producing the actual bikes?  Not so much.

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20 Comments on "Dissecting the Harley Davidson LiveWire"

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I don’t know Ted.
I think this bike is way too under powered.
….but that’s keeping with the Harley tradition.

Looks cool but no go.

If I buy an electric pickle, I want 2.6 0-60 time.

…and like my “slow” HD fatboy, still plenty fast enough to kill yourself.

Speed ain’t everything, it’s how you ride.

Your wife will be happy when you figure that out…..

What motorcycle is not fast enough to kill yourself?

Speed and acceleration are not nothing.


I bought a 2013 Zero S and had Harlan Flagg/Hollywood Electrics upgrade the controller to 660 amps from the stock 420 A. My 0-60 dropped from a decent 4.8 to three seconds flat. It screams… quietly.

It’s incredibly fun to ride in the traffic of LA. It used to be you couldn’t go anywhere during heavy traffic, but now I can go anywhere in minutes for about 1 cent per mile.

Lane splitting is fun. My personal rule is under 40 mph, usually slower, but the bike has incredible pull, with no clutch or shifter to distract you. Just zip, zip, zip. I got the smaller 8.5 kWh battery which will give 100 miles in a pinch. The way I ride it, I get 70-90 miles. Mine weighs 350 lbs and the bigger 180 mile range Zero is about 430 lbs I think.

I’ve yet to be beaten off the line by anything. I’ve got a standing offer to take on the new Tesla P85D as soon as I can find one.

Most people would love the new electrics. Zero and Brammo have great bikes that are incredibly fun and low total cost of operation.

Lightning Electric Motorcycle, 200 horsepower, 100 miles range, 218 mph top speed, 1.0-2.0 second 0-60 time, sub 10 second 1/4 mile, beat “every” other bike up Pikes Peak by 20 seconds.

Reviewed by Jay Lenos Garage-

Roy, did you get price on the Lightning yet? Compared to the guesses we hear about the HD Livewire – price wise?

The Website – lists 12 kWh, 16 kWh, and 20 kWh versions (Shades of Tesla – 3 Battery Choices!), but no prices at present or – at first glance, anyway – http://lightningmotorcycle.com/

Has anyone ever been able to get a response from Lightening? I have tried multiple times from their web site and have yet to get an answer back on anything. Maybe they see no need to answer the questions of potential customers. Would love to know about on board charging. They also mention DCFC capability but what format? Is it SAE Combo or CHAdeMO? SAE Combo works if you live in California but there is almost no SAE Combo infrastructure in the rest of the country. And yes, would like to know the price with a 20KW pack.

The LA Times reported a $35K (or was it $37K?) price for the one that sold a couple months ago.

I too was surprised at Harley’s effort to define a future conceptual model pathway. There is absolutely nothing new nor distinctive in the Livewire experiment. Perhaps it really was a softening up marketing push for Harley riders to think about the possibilities of something different, without actually delivering anything to grasp. Sowing the seeds, nothing more. Harley has been through this birthing experience before with the V-Rod, after a very long gestation. Job advertisements suggest something more real is in development, or more exploration. I’m not a Harley Davidson aficionado and have never come to grips with this squatting upright torso feet forward riding style. But I grow older and more of my friends seem to enjoy this way of getting down the road. However, my visions of an HD proof of concept bike would be an amalgam of a V-Rod backend (very wide wheel/tire) with a Road/Street Glide front of bike concept. I’d use the fairing to enhance the aerodynamics to improve range. I’d probably be a bit innovative here to stretch people’s mindsets. As packaging an electric motorcycle is a major challenge, the electric motor would be mounted inside the rear wheel. Some of the suspension compliance would… Read more »

In wheel motors are horrible, horrible ideas for motorcycles. Even for something as non-performance oriented as a cruiser, it’s still a horrible idea. You’re putting far too much weight in one of the worst possible places to add weight to a bike.

Richard, I thought the same until I went to an EV expo where a racing electric motorcycle used a in wheel motor. The aeronautical engineer bit of me asked about the unsprung weight problem for consistent traction and grip for consistent handling. The answer I got was “look’ at the lean angle how the rear tire is being used”. In this 60 hp/kW (can’t remember which) configuration they seemed very happy with the handling, more concerned about cooling. More speed was needed and they had a 100 hp/kW wheel nearby in development. So for cruiser type speeds and handling expectations I would not discount the possibility of a modern tire plus a well tuned suspension producing an adequate outcome. I’d obviously prefer less weight to the rear of the bike and less unsprung weight, but everything is a compromise in one way or the other

Malcom, good stuff! You seem to know your way around a bike. Have you any experience with the Pereaves E-Tracer? It won the automotive X-Prize a few years ago. The cabin was Kevlar, two seats, climate controlled, no helmet required.

Perfomance at 75 mph was equivalent to 320 mpg. 0-60 in about 4, 60-120 in 3 seconds more(!), and it topped out over 150.

Motor/controller from AC Propulsion. Their AC150 was the original powerplant in the Tesla Roadster. 150 kW in a 1250 lb rocket with a drag coefficient of .19.

Malcolm, The Lightning used a Chain Drive, but still targets a 100 mile range on it’s littlest battery – the 12 kWh version! http://lightningmotorcycle.com/product/specifications/

They also offer the bike with 16 and 20 kWh versions, click the order link to see!

ZElectricVehicle – builds Scooters with hub Motors that do top speeds to about 80 mph with a single rear motor (designed with a 60-40 Split in its Cor, for a ‘Transmission effect’ when the use the 40% of the motor width part, it’s either like cruising or starting out in lower gears, using the 60% of the motor side is like 2nd gear, and using both sides together – is like 3rd gear or top speed/power. http://www.zelectricvehicle.com/

The Drive mechanics of the motor in the wheel and the batteries in the body – fits your idea, but if you extent this to a conventional motorcycle style, and add a front motor – you could likely get what you want in range and acceleration!

When will we be hearing about your rendition completed?

Getting H-D to design and build an incredibly awesome electric motorcyle is the easy part. Getting their dealers to be willing to sell it and to be willing to accept a customers cash for one of them is the hard part. A few months ago I met a gentleman who was clearly fascinated by my Zero SR. He was also a member of the “Harley Faithful”. But when I asked what he thought of the Live Wire his attitude changed completely. “Publicity stunt” was one of the nicer terms he used to describe it. Or look at the experience with Beull. I would expect any attempt at selling electric motorcyles to be as bad or worse. Harley’s biggest competition in selling electric motorcycles would be their own dealerships.

How’s your experience with your Zero SR? I’ve been thinking about getting one, but can’t wrap my head around the price tag since I would also need to add the windscreen and top case. In CA, once I add in the tax and fees, I’m looking at about $20K out the door.

Would certainly appreciate your opinion, both good and bad.

Kent, I have had my SR since last February and right now it has a bit over 15,000 miles on it. I love the power delivery of that electric motor! I also have a 650 V-Strom which makes for an interesting comparison. Both bikes have similar weight and HP but the Zero has almost 2 1/2 times as much torque. The SR will completely smoke the V-Strom at every point except top speed. It really isn’t even close. The ability to quickly pass someone without downshifting two gears is nice. I have had my SR out to the Tail of the Dragon three times this year. With an electric you don’t worry about engine RPMs or what gear you are in. With my V-Strom or any other ICE after awhile you find yourself making mistakes in those two areas on that road. I really do prefer the electric on tight twisties like that. While on one hand I love the torque it can also get you in trouble in less than perfect traction conditions. I was charging in Deal’s Gap campgrounds and got a little mud on the tires. Didn’t think anything about it. Once I got on north US129… Read more »

Thanks Vinny! This really helps. As a owner of two Volts, I certainly understand many of the benefits of going electric. One final question…even with all the benefits considered, is the Zero worth the $20K I would need to shell out?

Thanks again!


I have no regrets at all about getting the SR. For me it was really just about the power delivery of the motor. A lot of the other benefits of going electric are nice but they are just not my soap box. My V-Strom is one of the lowest maint ICE out there and it gets great gas mileage. But no one makes an ICE bike that delivers power like an electric motor does. There are many features found on motorcyles that if you want them you are going to pay a premium for. Take ABS, Brembo brakes or traction control for example. I put electric motors in that same catagory. But there are so many factors that play into whether or not it is worth it to someone else. I believe that there is nothing you can buy with four wheels that will ever make you feel as alive as being on two. If you can relate to that in some way then you won’t regret buying a SR.

Thanks again, Vinny!

For Harley Davidson to market and sell this bike they will need to bring the range up to 200 miles, and make them accept a Tesla Supercharger current. Tesla has said they will license the use of the network, and while that price might be steep, the sales of Livewire type bikes would likely pay for it by a factor of four. Imagine riding coast to coast for free on two wheels. HD has the name and perhaps the foresight to make it happen.