The Future is Here… and Badass: The Electric Harley

harley_livewireThe Harley Davidson enjoys a rather unique place in American culture, one that is characterized by images of the open road, a sense of freedom, and the sound of a deep, earthy growl. Which is why, when the company released a teaser video earlier this month showcasing Project Livewire, many people were understandably nervous. After all, electronic vehicles seem just fine when it comes to the Toyota Prius, the Nissan Leaf, or anything in the Tesla catalog. But this is Harley Davidson, right?

In this case, the challenge arises from the fact that electric engines are usually silent. In the case of a Harley Hog or a Chopper – or any other classic brand names that scream Hell’s Angels, leather jackets and anarchy – the engine is an iconic part of the brand. 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.

harley_livewire1Jeff Richlen, the chief engineer for the new prototype bike, explained:

When we went into this, we had to consider all of our products are grounded in three things–look, sound, and feel. The sound is the most important, and we didn’t want to lose that. We didn’t want a silent product… The first time we spun up the gears and ran the motorcycle we knew we had something special. 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.

When addressing the reason for the project, Richlen admitted that the company’s main motivation wasn’t trying to improve the sustainability of their bikes, even though motorcycles produce more tailpipe emissions than cars. In the end, he claims that the company is looking to the possibilities of the future, and electronic engines are at the forefront of that. And while cars are well represented, the potential for motorbikes remains largely unexplored. Going green was merely a biproduct of that.

harleyIn the teaser video, things open up on historic route 66. A Harley drives by, only it doesn’t sound like a Harley. It’s quieter, more like the jet engine of a very small plane. Over the summer, Harley-Davidson will take the new LiveWire bike on a 30-city tour of the U.S. to get customer feedback. Richlen has extended an invite to anyone who doubts the power of the bike to come on out try the bike for themselves. The real test, he says, is in the twist of the throttle:

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? There may be people who get on this thinking ‘golf cart’ and get off it thinking rocket ship.

So if you happen to live in a city where the Harley tour is stopping, and have a love of bikes that borders on the erotic, go check it out. And be sure to check out the teaser video below:


The Future is Here: Google’s New Self-Driving Car

google-new-self-driving-car-prototype-640x352Google has just unveiled its very first, built-from-scratch-in-Detroit, self-driving electric robot car. The culmination of years worth of research and development, the Google vehicle is undoubtedly cuter in appearance than other EV cars – like the Tesla Model S or Toyota Prius. In fact, it looks more like a Little Tikes plastic car, right down to smiley face on the front end. This is no doubt the result of clever marketing and an attempt to reduce apprehension towards the safety or long-term effects of autonomous vehicles.

The battery-powered electric vehicle has as a stop-go button, but no steering wheel or pedals. It also comes with some serious expensive hardware – radar, lidar, and 360-degree cameras – that are mounted in a tripod on the roof. This is to ensure good sightlines around the vehicle, and at the moment, Google hasn’t found a way to integrate them seamlessly into the car’s chassis. This is the long term plan, but at the moment, the robotic tripod remains.

google-self-driving-car-prototype-concept-artAs the concept art above shows, the eventual goal appears to be to to build the computer vision and ranging hardware into a slightly less obtrusive rooftop beacon. In terms of production, Google’s short-term plan is to build around 200 of these cars over the next year, with road testing probably restricted to California for the next year or two. These first prototypes are mostly made of plastic with battery/electric propulsion limited to a max speed of 25 mph (40 kph).

Instead of an engine or “frunk,” there’s a foam bulkhead at the front of the car to protect the passengers. There’s just a couple of seats in the interior, and some great big windows so passengers can enjoy the view while they ride in automated comfort. In a blog post on their website, Google expressed that their stated goal is in “improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.” Driverless cars could definitely revolutionize travel for people who can’t currently drive.

google_robotcar_mapImproving road safety is a little more ambiguous, though. It’s generally agreed that if all cars on the road were autonomous, there could be some massive gains in safety and efficiency, both in terms of fuel usage and being able to squeeze more cars onto the roads. In the lead-up to that scenario, though, there are all sorts of questions about how to effectively integrate a range of manual, semi- and fully self-driving vehicles on the same roadways.

Plus, there are the inevitable questions of practicality and exigent circumstances. For starters, having no other controls in the car but a stop-go button may sound simplified and creative, but it creates problems. What’s a driver to do when they need to move the car just a few feet? What happens when a tight parking situation is taking place and the car has to be slowly moved to negotiate it? Will Google’s software allow for temporary double parking, or off-road driving for a concert or party? google_robotca

Can you choose which parking spot the car will use, to leave the better/closer parking spots for someone with special needs (i.e. the elderly or physically disabled)? How will these cars handle the issue of “right of way” when it comes to pedestrians and other drivers? Plus, is it even sensible to promote a system that will eventually make it easier to put more cars onto the road? Mass transit is considered the best option for a cleaner, less cluttered future. Could this be a reason not to develop such ideas as the Hyperloop and other high-speed maglev trains?

All good questions, and ones which will no doubt have to be addressed as time goes on and production becomes more meaningful. In the meantime, there are no shortage of people who are interested in the concept and hoping to see where it will go. Also, there’s plenty of people willing to take a test drive in the new robotic car. You can check out the results of these in the video below. In the meantime, try not to be too creeped out if you see a car with a robotic tripod on top and a very disengaged passenger in the front seat!