The school of hard knocks never gives out a diploma. You’re never done learning things the hard way if you’re an idiot like me. I recently took a class on what happens when you fail to plan ahead and while I definitely learned something, it was probably something I should have already known to begin with. Anyway, this is the story of how I borrowed a brand new Harley-Davidson LiveWire in Los Angeles and rode it 500 miles home to Reno, Nevada.
Along the way, I did my level best to break the bike, get stranded and die alone in the cold California Central Valley. This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for the kindness of strangers, who helped me fix the situation and get back on track. There is still some good in the world, and this trip actually helped me revive a little bit of the optimism that I’d lost through the course of 2020.
(Full Disclosure: I am attempting to run the entire month of December without burning a single ounce of fossil fuel. To make that a little more possible, I asked Harley if I could borrow its electric motorcycle for the month to test out on our local riding roads. I rode the company’s Street Glide 131 I’d been borrowing down to LA to swap motorcycles and organized my own lodging and fuel/charge to get there and back. This is not a review of the bike, but rather a review of our charging infrastructure and my own mental capacity.)
I planned this trip around a press launch, because why not kill three birds with one stone? I was over in Malibu to test the new 2021 Slingshot, which I can’t talk about until December 8, so I woke up early and rode the loaner Street Glide 131 back to Harley to return it and picked up my next steed. The Gold LiveWire was charged up and waiting for me.
The screen on the bike read 108 miles of range, which I knew would be reduced on the highway, so I plotted a course for a ChargePoint charger 80 miles away and hit the road. The thing about riding an electric motorcycle is that you’re constantly doing mental math to calculate how far you’ve come, how much range you’ve used to get there, how far you have to go, and what percentage over that mileage you’ll need in range to achieve it. Percentages, miles, aerodynamics, topography, all of it adds up to whether you’ll make it or fall short of your destination.
Sometimes that math doesn’t work. As I headed north out of Los Angeles, I was making good time and good range as the Harley is one of the easiest bikes to lane split with. I was keeping a steady 35-40 miles per hour through just above standstill traffic for miles at a time. I knew that once traffic cleared on the outskirts of town that my extremely un-aerodynamic human form would reduce range accordingly at speed, but it didn’t look too bad for a while. At one point I passed a sign that said “Next Services 25 Miles” with three little symbols next to it indicating gasoline, diesel, and EV charging. I had 40 miles of indicated range remaining and I hadn’t been burning miles as quickly as I thought I might. I pressed on, thinking I’d make it to my first charge stop with a handful of miles to spare.
Then the highway started to gain elevation and the miles ticked off much quicker than they had been just minutes before. No worries, I thought, I’ll just slow down a bit. Tuck in behind a semi-truck and keep a steady 60 mph to maximize range. I switched the bike to eco mode and settled into a slow cruise. The climb continued and the range plummeted. With 20 miles to go my range was down to 20. With 10 miles to go my range was down to 6.
That’s when desperation set in. At that point I pulled into the shoulder and set the cruise to 25, hoping I could just make it to the next exit. I ended up running out of juice just 3 miles from my destination, and within a few hundred feet of the uphill turning into a downhill. I started to push, hoping I’d be able to make it to the top and coast down the next half mile or so to the closest exit. But then my savior with a trailer pulled up and asked if I needed some help.
This very nice gentleman didn’t know me from Adam, could tell nothing about me save I was in trouble, he just wanted to help. He offered to help load the bike, strap it down, and haul it those final three miles to the charger I’d intended to use. What a guy! And when we arrived, I offered to buy him lunch or a tank of gasoline, or both, and he absolutely refused any kind of repayment. Man, I owe him a debt of gratitude.
In spite of the help, things got worse from there. In the kerfuffle, I’d neglected to turn off the LiveWire’s flashers, and they stayed on for the whole haul to the DC Fast Charger I needed to make my next jump. Pretty much every electric vehicle has a 12v battery, just like a gasoline-powered vehicle has, which runs things like the lights and the TFT dashboard screen. It stays charged with a DC to DC inverter, which steps down the main motivation battery juice to a constant 12v feed to keep the computer and other operations running like normal. Well, when you leave the bike on with a dead motivation battery stack, that 12v supply runs out very quickly, particularly on a motorcycle with a tiny lithium 12v battery.
When you have a dead 12v battery, there is nothing to communicate with the DC charger to tell it to start charging. As far as the charger is concerned, you’ve just plugged into dead air. A quick call to Harley and they indicated that I needed to either charge up the battery or replace it with a new one. Luckily there was a motorcycle shop just a quarter of a mile away from the charger, so after confirming they had what I needed, I pushed the bike up to their shop doors and got to work disconnecting the old battery and swapping in the new one that I had purchased for $120. Again, thanks to the kindness of strangers, I was able to complete the task with borrowed tools and a free fuse that I’d blown in the process.
In the process of loading the bike onto the trailer, I had broken the right side turn signal clean off, you know, like a dumbass. One of the bike shop techs offered to superglue it back on for me just for the road trip home. Don’t worry, I’ve already ordered a new one from my local Harley dealership and will have it replaced before I return the press loan back to Bar and Shield headquarters.
Okay, so with a new 12v supply, the charger now recognizes that the bike exists. I plugged it into the motorcycle shop’s 110v supply to charge up a couple of miles so I didn’t have to push it back to the ChargePoint charging station. And what do I find when I get there? It’s already occupied by this electric shuttle van. Just my luck, right?
The guy driving the van was extremely nice and said he only needed to get to 60 percent charge to make it to his destination, so after 30 minutes he unplugged and allowed me to plug in. Again, strangers being very kind. It’s almost like individual people are actually pretty okay. It’s large groups of people acting together who are the problem.
Anyway, so the driver tells me that these electric vans are built by a company called GreenPower, which also builds electric school buses and municipal transit buses. This van, called the EV Star, looks a lot like any number of other big transportation vans, but I can’t really place it. The driver said he thought the things were imported from China with final assembly in California. It was nice to talk to him, but after having already been in the area for a few hours, I was itching to get charged and get on the road.
Well, that’s fun. After the bus took off for his destination of Los Angeles, I plugged in and charged for about five minutes before I got an error screen. With several unplug, re-start, re-plug, charge for five minutes, error screen cycles in a row, I called ChargePoint to ask what was going on, and then the machine said it needed to shut down for maintenance. The lady on the help line said that it would probably be two or three days before maintenance would show up. I was pretty much out of luck with about 14 percent state of charge on my bike.
Thankfully the Level 2 chargers still functioned a few feet away, but the LiveWire’s onboard charger isn’t compatible with level 2 charging. It’ll plug in and accept a charge, but it’s either the regular 110v rates or DC fast, there is no in-between. The nearest functional DC fast charger was another 15 miles up I-5, so I plugged into the level 2 to get another few miles of range and then went to go find something to eat. Luckily a very nice local Mexican restaurant was nearby, so I ordered some absolutely kickass quesadilla a la diabla, and thanks to the kindness of a stranger, the restaurant charged my phone inside while I dined in the California-COVID-compliant parking lot dining.
From then on, the ride home was smooth sailing. I knew my range limits, and I knew what massive effect elevation change had on range, so I was much more conservative about my charging distances. It meant more stops than I had planned for and quite a bit more time than anticipated, but I knew from then on I would make it home. After my nice Mexican lunch, I hopped on the near-silent Harley and headed toward the next charger. This time it was in the back lot of a Denny’s restaurant.
I’d picked up the Harley at 8 a.m. I arrived at the Denny’s at 3:30 p.m. Through all of my breakdown, repair, charge, lunch shenanigans, it had taken me seven and a half hours to go 100 miles on one of America’s most electric-friendly thoroughfares. I was already exhausted, but I had several hours to go before sleep, and only about an hour to go before sundown. I let out one long deep exasperated sigh and straddled the bike again for another stint.
The major downside of mixing electric motorcycle travel and the nation’s woefully inadequate charging infrastructure is that there is no way to charge your accessories. Because I was using my iPhone for navigation and music, and a Cardo helmet communicator to broadcast those phone sounds to my ear holes, I had two devices that needed a charge and positively nowhere to charge them. Because all of the restaurants are closed, I occasionally found myself visiting truck stop bathrooms to find an outlet to plug in my gear. Fifteen to 20 minutes of charge at a time was enough to get me to my next stop, but again I was looking for an empty and functional plug like a coke fiend looking for a fix.
Here’s a top tip, all of those chargers in Wal Mart parking lots are totally great, but once Wal Mart closes, you’re in a desolate area with hundreds of 110v three-prong plugs to charge your stuff, but those stores lock them up! With battery life dwindling, I was lucky enough to run into an extraordinarily gracious gentleman by the name of Mayor Rey Léon from the nearby town of Huron, California. He was charging up his Chevy Bolt while attending a Zoom meeting of the county’s mayors, and was so kind to charge my phone and headset in his car. And on top of that he gave me a gorgeous freshly picked pomegranate to eat for dinner, which was about the size of my head.
The major downside of taking this trip on a LiveWire? No place to sit, no place to get out of the elements, and no place to charge devices. The upside? Meeting so many extraordinarily nice people. There used to be an old Honda motorcycle campaign which said “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” but the other H-brand is pretty good at attracting nice people, too.
[Edit: Since writing this, I have been informed by Harley that the LiveWire does indeed include a USB-C charger behind the headlight fairing.]
I had to laugh a little bit seeing this advertisement for Long Way Up on the first Electrify America charger I stopped to use. If you’ve watched the Long Way Up series on Apple TV, you’ll know that messrs McGregor and Boorman had a similarly rocky start to their Harley LiveWire trip. Now, admittedly, their trip went several thousand miles longer than mine, but it felt a bit familiar. It’s a good show, you should probably watch it.
It was in this Wal-Mart parking lot at one in the morning where I decided that I wasn’t going to make it home in one day. I found a cheap hotel in the suburbs of Sacramento to crash for the night instead of trying to brave the Donner Pass at night in sub-20 degree temperatures.
The morning of day two I was up and at ‘em pretty early. Sadly my hotel didn’t have any exterior plugs I could use, so I was forced to head to the nearest charger to get some juice before heading out of the Sac area. I checked my PlugShare app for my options and settled on one at a place called “Golden Bean Cafe” which sounded nice because I needed a dose of caffeine. Well, as it turns out, this charger was in an office park which included the regional offices of a company called Golden Bean Cafe, so whoever created that listing deserves a proper walloping. I was severely disappointed, but if this was the worst thing I’d run into that day, all the better.
Perhaps the best surprise of the trip was this free DC fast charging station at the Donner summit rest area off of I-80 eastbound. It hadn’t been used in a couple of days, as the cord was buried in a foot of snow, but once plugged in I was able to head inside the rest area (mask on, of course) to enjoy a bit of heat while the bike charged up for the last 40 miles of riding to get home.
I pulled into my driveway at 1 p.m. the day after I had left. Considering I had started this journey on the LiveWire the prior morning at 8 a.m., it meant that I had gone just under 500 miles in 31 hours. That averages out to about 16 miles per hour. I definitely won’t be setting any records at that pace. But, honestly, if I hadn’t fucked up, it would have been a much shorter trip. Like at least 7 hours shorter.
The moral of the story here is that patience is a virtue, strangers can be quite kind, things happen for a reason, and sometimes there are things beyond your control. I feel like I have a much deeper understanding of not only this motorcycle but the state of our national charging infrastructure because I took this trip. On a gas-powered bike, I could have easily walked to get a gallon of gasoline and returned to the bike to fire it up and ride the rest of the way to the next gas station. On an electric bike, when you run out of juice, pretty much everyone will tell you you’re shit out of luck, except for the one nice guy who pulls over to help.
I’m thankful for everyone I met on this trip, I’m thankful for every bit of hospitality and kindness they showed to me, and I’m thankful that it didn’t end up much worse. Next time I’ll be the guy who pulls over to help. Pass on any kindness you receive, you never know who is going to reap the benefits.