When Harley-Davidson decided to design an electric motorcycle, one of the challenges was making sure that it still had the right growl: The deep rumble of the engine is an iconic part of the brand, and a Hell's Angel doesn't want to be confused with the type of person who commutes to work on a Vespa.
"When we went into this, we had to consider all of our products are grounded in three things—look, sound, and feel," says Jeff Richlen, the chief engineer for the new prototype bike, called Project LiveWire. "The sound is the most important, and we didn’t want to lose that. We didn’t want a silent product."
They also didn't want to fake the roar of the engine. Instead, the engineers carefully tweaked the arrangement of the motor and the gear box until it created a sound that's a little like a jet flying by.
"The first time we spun up the gears and ran the motorcycle we knew we had something special," says Richlen. "It really was defining another sound of Harley Davidson. We're certainly not forgetting our past and what is our product legacy, it’s just something brand new. And it kind of sounds like the future."
The company's main motivation wasn't trying to improve the sustainability of their bikes, even though motorcycles produce more tailpipe emissions than cars. "This project is not about being green, though that’s certainly a byproduct of having an electric-powered vehicle," Richlen explains. "This is really looking at what the future possibilities are."
Over the summer, Harley-Davidson will take the new LiveWire bike on a 30-city tour of the U.S. to get customer feedback. "There are some limitations of the EV space right now, and we understand that, and that’s why we’re looking for feedback—what do customers expect out of the product, what would their tradeoff points be?" Richlen says.
Richlen invites anyone who doubts the power of the bike to come try it out. The real proof of the motorcycle is to come out and twist the throttle," he says. "There may be people who get on this thinking ‘golf cart’ and get off it thinking rocket ship."