Motorhead Memo: Rise of the electric machines

By Kip Woodring

Figures! As soon as I finish an article about the basics of batteries… the basics change. So, in no particular order and because there’s so much new “stuff” to cover… here goes:

First, before we go much farther… the non sequitur. Everything we’re about to discuss has to do with a serious trend. That would be electric motorcycles. Sure, we all know that Harley has more electronics than ever on the old gas buggies, and it’s the main reason for the Motor Company to offer lithium ion batteries (at long last) as the best way to get those started, whilst simultaneously powering the on-board computers, ignition, EFI… etc., etc. But it amounts to a mere taste, compared to the latest 500-pound gorilla in the room… namely the LiveWire. The LiveWire basically, is all battery (rather a bunch of ’em, as we’ll see) hooked to an electric motor. But, it’s more than that. It might well be the first electric motorcycle… you’ll really want!

Beware the Ides of March! Days after beginning to write about Harley’s e-bikes, word came down that every single one of the Moto-E class race bikes were burned to a crisp in this paddock fire. Moto-E is the electric equivalent of Moto-GP… or was! (Yes… they race electric motorcycles… no surprise!)

Electric vehicles of all sorts have been around since the beginning, believe it or not, at first, outselling gas and steam cars. Made particular sense to urban dwellers, since they were quiet, easy to start, easier to operate and didn’t stink of gasoline. Gas buggies were nothing like as good at the time, and in the days before long-distance road trips… or roads for that matter… hassles often outweighed advantages. Steam was more familiar to most folks than either of the others, but that “old hat” familiarity (and a couple of boiler blow-ups) looked like drawbacks after a couple of centuries of previous experience. Particularly the 20-minute startup times… to build steam.

We all know how it came out. Gas vehicles innovated and advanced… eventually even starting… ah… electrically. Steamers got better, not nearly fast enough and could never be called advanced. Meanwhile, electric cars were stuck with state-of-the-art batteries… and batteries stuck it to ’em good. That pesky lack of range was suddenly a deal breaker once roads were built and people could (and did) go farther than the next town. Thus the slow decline, costing more and doing less… the Detroit Electric was last produced in 1939. That was it for decades in the U.S.

The production specs of the LiveWire have been updated… notably in the all-important areas of charge times (shorter) and range (longer). Yay! Your results will vary, but make no mistake, the LiveWire is Harley’s new flagship machine… in every way and not in name only. The fact that it’s not a dresser ought to indicate the sea change, folks!

A lot has changed since then. We can (and prob’ly will) get into the myriad details another time. Suffice it to say for now, the time for electric vehicles has come around again. For motorcycles… it has come around perhaps for the first time… at least in this country. A time based primarily on two things: the growing need for a practical, non-polluting antidote to urban crush and sufficient advances in battery technology. Demand has surged worldwide, with sales in multi-millions per annum, and companies like Lime are on the forefront of the real end game for e-bikes. Namely, point-to-point rentals in the metropolis…. any metropolis. All in all, the whole concept has more facets than a disco ball! So, where does H-D fit in?

But the long-term goal… is the 21st century answer to the Honda Cub. Harley’s initial foray into this end of a massive potential world market is this “so ugly it’s cute” Tote-Gote/Cushman lookin’ thing.

You may or may not be aware that in addition to making the LiveWire, the Motor Company is getting ready to offer exactly the kind of commuter scooters that are suddenly the darlings of the industry… the urban transport industry. In addition, Harley recently bought a toy company… a toy company… that specializes in tiny electric motorcycles for kids! As mentioned, they’ve jumped on lithium technology for conventional motorcycles as well. All this goes beyond the notion of just having a new flagship in the product line for us Yanks to showboat on. It belies the reality of Harley-Davidson reinventing itself for the masses… and the long game. Let me put this another way; over the next decade H-D is planning on being the Electric Motor Company… and everything that entails. A plan that encompasses attracting new customers all over the globe and doing it while they are young. From cradle to grave… real “big picture” stuff. By then, the traditional rider/customer will amount to only a sliver of a much bigger pie. Not because Harley wants it that way, but because that’s the way it is. Or… looks to be. Demographics tell the tale. H-D has to become a “new” old company to keep from going the way of the dinosaur. They plan to be here for another hundred years. But… the question looms… is the electric motorcycle really the all-encompassing answer or just a pole to help hold up a bigger tent?

And this much sexier unit!
Then… for the 5-12 crowd… yet another new electric “avenue” from the Motor Company

We talked about the technological rivalries at the dawn of the motoring age. We know how it played out even if we weren’t there to see it. Since then, there have been other rivals to the four-stroke, piston-engine, internal combustion winner. Remember when two-strokes were supposed to be the more efficient and simpler competitor? That didn’t turn out either. Chrysler took a swing at the turbine engine in the ’60s… and struck out. The rotary/Wankel was such a hot item for a decade or so that virtually every major manufacturer took out a license and began playing with them. Notably, Mercedes-Benz and Mazda. General Motors came close as well, but to cut to the chase… if a major Japanese company couldn’t put it over the top, it can’t be done! The only idea that caught hold was the diesel engine and that’s pretty marginal… except in trucks… mostly big trucks.

It gets better! Buell (remember him?) is now Fuell with his own unique lineup of electric bikes! (You simply cannot keep a good man down, nor his good ideas.)

Point is, lots of different approaches have been tried… none have succeeded in ousting those stinky, dirty, loveable, lethal, hateful fossil-fuel monsters most of us have in our garages. What’s notable is the electric vehicle is the only one of the contenders to step back into the ring for round two… and the odds of success are good this time around. “Petrol,” the reigning champion, might well be old and ugly but stays in phenomenal shape and has a support group second to none. So, you just can’t count on a knockout, only extra rounds in a long, drawn-out bare-knuckle brawl, which is most likely to turn out a split decision. The smart money is covering the spread, not the outcome… and that’s right where H-D is for now.

Next episode we’ll get into the backstory on the key elements of electric motorcycle construction… most notably… naturally… batteries. You might not know (or care) about the differences between a 18650 cell and a 21700, let alone the way they are packaged into a “powerpack” on an electric motorcycle. However, you will learn why it would be smart for Harley-Davidson to sell the LiveWire but lease its battery packs… in the long run. Watch this space. More nits to come!

The “plan du jour” of social planning for overcrowded urban transport… is shown here. Point-to-point rental in the city of Paris is representative of the way things are headed for two-wheelers. A company called Lime (unsurprisingly based in California) is leading this global revolution…. and winning! A shocker!

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