Harley-Davidson’s Project LiveWire motorcycle doesn’t sound like anything the legendary Milwaukee-based firm has built since its founding in 1903. Painted almost entirely black, it looks menacing even while sitting still. When moving — goodness, does it move — the LiveWire sounds like something you could imagine cruising the surface of another planet. And when it’s time to fuel up, a LiveWire rider blows past the gas station … to plug it in? Project LiveWire is Harley-Davidson’s first electric-powered bike, offering the company’s vision for the future. As chief engineer on the LiveWire project, Jeff Richlen, Grad ’07, played a leading role in bringing it to the road.
By Chris Jenkins
Don’t look at LiveWire and think Harley-Davidson plans to abandon gas-powered bikes. Richlen says LiveWire is an acknowledgement that the future will include the need to adapt to alternative power sources — and Harley-Davidson plans to be a leader in that future. “It’s not about being green,” he says and then adds, “If it is about being green, it’s bad-ass green. The reality is, it’s not about saying to the world that somehow we had this epiphany that we need to be more environmentally conscious. There is definitely a sustainability pillar within our corporate strategy. But this is really about providing the freedom to ride for generations to come.”
The idea of electric power may be jarring for Harley-Davidson traditionalists, who are used to the iconic rumble of the V-twin engine. But LiveWire’s performance converts skeptics in a hurry. It goes from zero to 60 mph in fewer than four seconds, rockets from 60 mph to 80 mph in fewer than two seconds, and hits a top speed of approximately 93 mph on a test track.
“Even though it’s not a production vehicle, everyone who gets on it just loves it,” Richlen says. “You may get on thinking it’s going to be like a golf cart, kind of slow. You get off thinking ‘rocket ship.’”
LiveWire isn’t on the market. Harley-Davidson produced approximately 30 prototypes to take on tour around the world and allow its customers to test drive and provide feedback.
LiveWire is the biggest project Richlen has worked on since joining Harley-Davidson 12 years ago. But his work there provided something even more important — ironclad late-life bonding with his father, Larry.
Richlen grew up tinkering with mechanical things. While a teenager, he spent most of his energy working on four-wheeled vehicles. Hanging on the wall in his home office, right next to his Marquette diploma, is a photo of Richlen standing in the victory lane with a young Jeff Gordon. Richlen was a mechanic for a Milwaukee-based, grassroots-level auto racing team that fielded cars for Gordon a few years before Gordon became a NASCAR superstar.
Richlen’s parents supported his racing hobby, but motorcycles were off limits. They said, ‘You buy a bike, you’re out of the house,’” he remembers. “They knew I would buy something with more power than I was capable of reasonably handling.”
Richlen, who earned his undergraduate degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering in 1993, worked a handful of engineering jobs before joining Harley-Davidson. If his parents had reservations about his new job, they didn’t last long. Soon, he and his father began riding motorcycles together. His mother, Vonnie, wanted to ride, too. “My parents were both self-employed, and they had their businesses and kids to take care of,” Richlen says. “So they weren’t, I would say, the closest couple. Well, motorcycling brought them together in a very, very profound way. That was really cool to see unfold. It got to the point where if my dad was polishing up the bike, my mom was packing. So they took a lot of trips together, and they really connected later in life in a great way.”
Richlen and his father bought their first bike together, intending to share it. That was never going to work, of course, because they both wanted to ride. So they bought slightly different versions of the Harley Ultra Classic and began taking trips together, including an annual journey to the Indianapolis 500. For Harley-Davidson’s 100th anniversary in 2003, they bought identical bikes. “When we rode together, he really liked how we’d pull in together and people would say: ‘Wow, they’re twins. Are you guys father and son?’ So from that point forward, we always bought twin Ultras,” Richlen says. “It was an annual ritual. We’d go to the dealership together, we’d buy them together, we’d take them home together.”
Larry passed away suddenly in 2008. Although he wasn’t alive to see his son lead one of the most high-profile projects in Harley-Davidson’s history, Jeff’s brother, Dan, Bus Ad ’91, knows their dad would be proud. “He couldn’t have been more proud of the fact that he’s got two boys that went to Marquette and, then, that we both have enjoyed and have been extremely fortunate to have very successful careers,” says Dan, who works in marketing in Chicago.
The brothers were among the first members of their immediate family to attend college. Larry, a Vietnam veteran and self-made small business owner, saw to that. “He wanted to make sure we never had to go through the struggles that he had to go through, so he pushed us from day one,” Dan says.
Richlen credits his father for pushing him to graduate studies. Without his MBA from Marquette, he says there is no way he would have been able to lead a project of LiveWire’s magnitude. “I was tired of being very technically competent … but I would sit in business meetings and have no clue,” Richlen says. “Finance, marketing, econ — no clue. The terminology, the principles, I felt like such a dummy. Marquette made me really smart, and I am eternally grateful.”
Getting a sneak peek behind the curtain at Harley-Davidson’s Milwaukee-area product development center requires an invitation — and a willingness to maintain secrecy. Before entering visitors must agree to have stickers placed on their mobile phone cameras so they can’t take photos. The second floor of the facility is an open and expansive room, decorated in industrial-chic style and filled with engineers working on designs for new products. Several motorcycles are parked in the middle of the room.
After working his way up the ladder designing electronic accessories such as radar detectors, MP3 players and navigation systems for Harley-Davidson, Richlen took over as chief engineer on Project LiveWire in 2012. “Coming to the team was amazing,” Richlen says. “Just a tremendously talented group of committed, all-in, highly technical, highly talented engineers and designers.”
Harley-Davidson began doing market research on customer interest in an electric-powered motorcycle in 2011. One thing was clear from the start: Taking the gasoline-powered engine out of an existing bike and replacing it with an electric motor wasn’t an option. To take full advantage of electric power, LiveWire had to be designed from scratch.
The biggest issues the LiveWire team faced were weight and space, according to Richlen. Although technological advancements might make rechargeable high-voltage batteries smaller and more lightweight in the future, building an electric vehicle with today’s technology involves putting fairly heavy and bulky batteries on board. Heavier means slower. To respond the LiveWire team had to cut weight in other areas. They designed a frame — essentially the bike’s skeleton — with lightweight aluminum. It weighs 14 pounds or about a quarter of the weight of other Harley frames. The whole bike weighs 463 pounds, which is approximately 30 pounds lighter than any model in Harley-Davidson’s current product lineup. There are some technical challenges still to overcome. In early feedback, customers expressed a desire for a longer range between recharges. The current LiveWire prototype can offer about 50 miles between stops.
Despite the growing popu-larity of electric vehicles, U.S. infrastructure isn’t quite ready to support the technology. Imagine a day when gas stations will have recharging outlets beside gas pumps. Plus, Richlen says, if Harley-Davidson does bring an electric bike to market, it will have to live up to the company’s high standards.
“The secret sauce of Harley is the interaction between styling and engineering,” Richlen says, “because styling creates this vision and engineering brings it to life. When you put those two together, it’s really what makes us magical and special compared with other people in the industry.”