The Harley Davidson LiveWire - Can electric motorcycles have soul?
Can an electric motorcycle like the Harley Davidson LiveWire have soul? Photo: Dana Hooshmand

Last week I had a chance to ride the Harley-Davidson LiveWire, an electric motorcycle.

As I was writing my ordinary rider's review of the Harley Davidson LiveWire, I kept getting asked "What's the LiveWire like to ride??".

And to me, I think this is saying: "Motorcycles are loud. They vibrate. ESPECIALLY Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the loudest, most vibrational motorcycles around. So what's the LiveWire like? Does it even feel like a motorcycle?"

In other words: "Does the Harley-Davidson LiveWire (or any electric motorcycle) have soul?". That's the question I'm trying to answer.

Man, this is a tough question. What is the "soul" of a motorcycle?

Warning: It's hard to answer this question concisely. The thoughts below are unfiltered, as I'm trying to get out every opinion I have!

If you want to try out the LiveWire, you can rent it for a day for free by signing up to Twisted Road — you get your first day's rental (of ANY motorcycle) free. (I get a $25 credit out of it, but you get a whole motorcycle...)

For those of you who've missed the LiveWire — in a nutshell, this motorcycle is Harley-Davidson's leap into the future. One of the oldest motorcycle manufacturers is — aside from other startups like Zero — the first to have a production electric motorcycle. And it's great.

My original motorcycle with soul - the ducati monster m900
My first motorcycle with "soul" — a Ducati Monster M900. Read my buyers guide to the Ducati Monster here.

Soul can be many things to different people. The team at Common Tread had a whole meandering podcast about whether motorcycles have soul, and didn't conclude anything, as usual (which is what I love about their podcast).

To summarise their thoughts, and the ones of the commenters on the blog, the "soul" of a motorcycle can be things including

  • The ride: How difficult one is to drive — unusual controls, requiring strong steering input, finessing the throttle, or hitting the clutch hard
  • The sound: ... or many sounds that a motorcycle makes, or the vibrations
  • Servicing: The relationship a motorcycle owner/builder/mechanic builds through servicing and modifying their machine
  • Places: The places a motorcycle takes someone — the memories
  • The ability for a motorcycle to get out of the way and let the rider's soul shine

Many of these have been discussed before, and not much is new. I'll go over more of them in my review, but wanted to address that last one: How the Harley-Davidson LiveWire gets out of your way and lets your own riding personality shine.

Luckily, it's one definition of "soul" that I really like (I kinda like all of them).

Overview of the LiveWire Experience: Like Switching to a Digital Camera

Switching from an internal combustion engine motorcycle to an electric one is like switching from a film camera to a digital, something I did in my medium-span lifetime.

Using a film camera — particularly an older one — take a lot of finessing. You have to really understand the machine to be able to get it to produce great images. But when you do, the results are not just incredible, but have "character".

I wasn't much a photographer in my film days — I'm always learning. So here's a famous photo, taken over half a century ago on film:

Film cameras have soul. Or is it the photo, or the photographer? This is a photos of a crowd waiting in line to buy gold in the last days of the Kuomintang, in Shanghai, China. By Henri Cartier Bresson.

Cartier-Bresson would definitely have taken this photo if he had a digital camera (or even a phone) as his main equipment. The difference is that he might have been competing against hundreds of others who took similar photos — or better — and perhaps in higher resolution, or in colour.

Modern cameras are praised (or dismissed) for the quality of their negatives. People describe the photos as being "film-like". It's a strange characteristic. Fuji cameras are often praised for it, as are Leica cameras.

When you use an old camera, you can really understand every aspect of it. You can open it up and peer through the lens and see how the light hits the film. You can even get the film and process it yourself and see how the chemicals react with the negative.

Using an old motorcycle — especially one with points ignition and carburettors — is similar to using an old camera.

Technically, with an old motorcycle, it's possible to understand every single thing that goes on. You can watch the points go round, see the spark on the spark plug, crank the engine case and see the pistons go up and down. It's complicated, but you can learn how it works.

Not so much with a modern camera, or motorcycle.

Using a new camera, on the other hand, is much easier than using a film camera. MUCH easier!

Suddenly it's entirely up to you to create great images. All you need is an interesting subject, good lighting, and a pleasing composition.

It's why it's so easy to take great photos using nothing but a phone, as I realise time and time again looking at winners of the iPhone Photography Awards.

digital cameras are like the harley davidson livewire
It's easy these days to take a great photo, technology just gets out of the way. Photo from Burning Man. Peng Hao, iPhone Photography Awards, 3rd place 2019

And that's what I feel when I rode the Harley-Davidson LiveWire. I felt  like the motorcycle got out of the way and let my own riding style exist.

The Ride of the Harley-Davidson LiveWire

In a nutshell, the LiveWire is like a Star Wars Speeder. Attention-grabbing, quiet, lightning-fast, and easy to just jump on and ride.

I took the rented LiveWire (through Twisted Road, if you want a free day's rental) up into the Santa Monica Mountains. I rode it for a few hours, mostly on eco mode (which I find to be enough), on big straights as well as very slow twisty mountain roads.

Where I rode the Harley-Davidson LiveWire
Route map with the Harley-Davidson LiveWire — In the Santa Monica Hills

The LiveWire accelerates effortlessly at anything up to well-over-illegal speeds. Even in eco-mode, I have no trouble pointing it at any hole in traffic at 50 mph (80 km/h) and just going there. It was roughly like riding a mid-range street motorcycle like a Suzuki SV650, except that I didn't ever have to shift to get into the peak torque band.

In sports mode, the LiveWire is just frantic. Thanks to the traction control, ample torque, and not having to shift, it was easy to be a hundred metres in front of traffic when launching with them at the lights. EASY.

Likewise, the LiveWire brakes easily. While some think the brakes are soft or weak for a motorcycle of this weight, I didn't feel this way. Part of the reason is intellectual — I know it has a Bosch IMU with lean angle-sensitive ABS, so I was confident I could push it to its limits more easily than I could find my own.

At any rate, there was no time I didn't think it braked slowly.

Here's something unexpected: in traffic, or taking a slow mountain pass at 20-30 mph (40-60 km/h), I found the LiveWire exceptionally easy to control.

I could balance it almost at standstill. Not having to finesse the clutch gave me such a sense of freedom. And isn't that was motorcycling is about: freedom to go nowhere, or to go at any speed, at the drop of a hat?

Basically, riding the LiveWire is like scooting across the desert in a Star Wars Speeder.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire, like the Star Wars Speeder
What it felt like riding the Star Wars Speeder, I mean Harley-Davidson LiveWire

The Problem of Not Fully Understanding the LiveWire

But like the Speeders in Star Wars — or a digital camera — it's hard to really know how the LiveWire is working.

Yes, it has batteries and a large DC motor. A lot of the drivetrain is the same as any other motorcycle — it has tyres, brakes, handlebars, suspension components, lights, and a regular (maybe stronger) chassis.

But controlling the motor in an electric motorcycle is a sophisticated brain which takes throttle input and converts it into something sane, regulating the amount of current so it feels like you're accelerating.

The Harley-Davidson LiveWire in LA
The LiveWire against a wall in LA. How does this thing work?

There's good reason why electric motorcycles (and cars) need these sensors. We're used to the way throttles or accelerator pedals work, but they work very differently in an electric vehicle.

In a petrol-driven vehicle (internal combustion engine or ICE in the industry), your accelerator/throttle opens a valve that lets air get sucked into the engine, sucking in fuel as it goes past (with a carburettor) or having fuel injected at an appropriate mixture with a fuel-injected engine.

This means that the effect of the accelerator depends on how much air the engine can suck in, which depends on how fast it's turning at any one moment. So you can accelerate more quickly as the revs climb higher. Thus the torque "curve" — it's hard to accelerate quickly at low engine speed.

In an electric vehicle, motor torque is governed mainly by the amount of current you put into the wires. If at standstill you open up the motor with full current, the torque would shoot up so fast that with enough torque, your motorcycle will just flip. Anyone who has wheelied a bicycle will know how little torque you need to do a wheelie. Basically, any electric vehicle can be wheelied, even an e-scooter with a tiny motor — as long as it's rear-wheel drive.

So electronics in an electric motorcycle is inevitable. This means something unfortunate: unless you're one of the LiveWire's engineers, you'll never fully understand how the machine works.

Feeling Safe, and Like I'm the obstacle

The fact that I could just point the LiveWire and go had an unusual effect: I felt the safest I've been on any motorcycle I've ridden (of the 20+, not including sub-model variants).

The closest experience I've had to the LiveWire was a Honda CB900 919, a.k.a. the Hornet 900 in some markets. This is a 100hp, lighter, more nimble motorcycle, but with a similar upright posture and comfortable sporty slight forward lean.

My Honda CB900 was very easy to ride... almost as easy to ride as a Harley-Davidson LiveWire

The CB900/919 was just very easy to ride. Like the LiveWire, I didn't have to worry too much about what gear I was in. I could do most things in second to fourth gears. Of course, it had an optimal torque band, but it wasn't one I ever feared lugging or stalling, even when in unexpected challenging situations like going up a hill, two-up, in the "wrong" gear.

Easy motorcycles give me the same feeling: these motorcycles are better than me, and it's now up to me to ride them to the maximum (that I can safely on public roads).

I never had to worry about the LiveWire's engines beyond its limits.

  • When I was in traffic, I never worried about the engine overheating. Because it was basically stopped, and not using energy.
  • When I was going fast, I never worried about the engine revving too hard or hitting a redline. I didn't have that constant feeling of a series of controlled explosions under the seat of my pants that I have with petrol motorcycles (which is both awesome and a little unsettling when I don't fully trust the machine).
  • When I was somewhere quiet, like in a silent neighbourhood in the morning, in a country town, or when I was pulling up to a shared parking area where someone appeared to be silently enjoying a view, I never worried about disturbing the peace. Nearly every motorcycle I've owned disturbed the peace. I felt like a good citizen.

The Harley-Davidson LiveWire makes me feel like a better person, and makes me want to be a better motorcyclist. It gives me room to think more about entry angle, lean angle, head position, braking, and acceleration — much more than when I was riding an older, more troublesome motorcycle, like any Ducati I've ridden.

The One Eccentricity of Electric Motorcycles: Range Anxiety

You have probably heard of "range anxiety" in electric motorcycles. It's the feeling that you might not make it to a charging station.

Part of this is the fact that charging stations aren't anywhere near as easy to find as gas stations just yet. Another part is that it takes between 30-60 minutes to get a decent recharge into any electric motorcycle, and that's often not time that we have.

Range of Harley Davidson LiveWire motorcycle
Range on the Harley-Davidson LiveWire. Can I take it home on this?

This means we have to plan our trips to include time to recharge.

Range anxiety on the Harley is complicated further because the indicated range fluctuates a lot when you're on hilly roads.

At one point, when going downhill, my estimated range left was 140 miles (~200 kms).

Then I hit some uphill and it dropped to 50 miles (80 kms). Such a shocking jump!

The Harley Davidson time estimates feel a bit like download estimates.
The Harley Davidson's Range Anxiety can be a bit like time estimates to download a file on a computer. From XKCD.

Both range estimates were right in their moment, but the fact that it jumped so much was jarring.

You can view the range of an electric motorcycle as a hindrance — which it is — or you can embrace the complexity of range estimation as part of the personality of a motorcycle. Some motorcycles have soul because they go slow, or overheat, or blow up sometimes, or vibrate a lot. The LiveWire needs to eat light snacks frequently.

Sum-up: Why The LiveWire Would Be My Daily

Despite any misgivings, if I had a motorcycle that I used daily as transport (which I don't, because I'm in random different countries for work every two months these days), it'd be an electric motorcycle. And it'd be a tough call between the LiveWire and the Zero SR/F.

The main reasons for this are that it has enough power for anything I want, enough range for 99% of my riding (I rarely motorcycle for more than two hours), and that it's silent, so I'd never bother my noise-sensitive brother when I visit.

The second reason is that I'd be helping save the planet. Gasoline will end, and prices will skyrocket in the meantime.

I'll keep my gasoline-powered motorcycles, because they'll be relics, just like an old Norton from the 60s is today. I'll show them at a personal museum, even if it's just of my BMW R1200S and a couple of other models I pick up in the meantime.

This won't be for a couple of years until I settle in one place at least 50% of the time. Until then, I'll grab as many rentals as I can.

The Harley-Davidson LiveWire looks very good.
Does the Harley LiveWire have soul? Well, it looks good. That counts for a lot.