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An electric Harley Davidson for new millennials?

Konstantin Sheiko
February 1, 2018

The Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire was the brand’s first electric motorcycle prototype. It was displayed to the media in June 2014. Harley CEO (2209-2015) Keith Wandell said the model was part of an effort to reach a more diverse group of riders, including “18 to 35-year-olds, women, African-Americans and Hispanic riders”. 

The Fox Sports commentator hailed the new electric motorcycle as “the most radical departure in the 111-year history of the brand”. Other industry observers saw the development of the LiveWire, and the potential development of an electric product line as part of a shift towards “people who might not ordinarily be drawn to Harley's traditional loud, heavy, expensive motorcycles” and “the product of a painful corporate revolution long in the making”, as Harley brings out new technology and reaches out to a wider customer base. 

The LiveWire made a big impact when it was unveiled in 2014. Harley ended up making dozens of prototypes. They let industry people ride them, give them feedback, and it was even featured in movies - an all-electric motorcycle prototype was used in the Avengers series, Age of Ultron, in a scene where Black Widow drops out of the bottom of a jet fighter astride a Harley-Davidson LiveWire. Some experts even predicted that an electric Harley-Davidson could become a status symbol like the Tesla Model S.

The natural next step would have been to bring the vehicle to market, but that never happened. The LiveWire was an awesome-looking concept, but in retrospect, it was really just a concept to gauge the interest of the market. The all-electric concept had only about 60 miles of range, which was lacking compared to other models already available at the time from competitors like Zero Motorcycles. It was also claimed that the bike could reach the speed of 0-60 mph in 4 seconds.

But it also showed that one of the most iconic motorcycle companies, obviously heavily entrenched in internal combustion engines, is at least looking at other powertrain technologies. It took them four more years after unveiling the LiveWire project to green light an electric vehicle for production, but better late than never. 

Harley-Davidson finally confirms that it is bringing its first electric motorcycle to market. The company announced, “It will invest more aggressively to lead in the application of electric motorcycle technology”. The first electric motorcycle to come out of this new strategy will hit the market “within 18 months” the Milwaukee-headquartered motorcycle manufacturer has said. 

Harley-Davidson Chief Financial Officer John Olin announced that the company plans to spend $25 million to $50 million per year over the next several years on electric motorcycle technology. The goal is to be the world leader in the electric motorcycle market. According to Olin, “Our brand stands for freedom and independence and personal freedom, and we think the brand is fundamentally sound”.

According to Matt Levatich, president and chief executive officer of Harley-Davidson, “The EV motorcycle market is in its infancy today, but we believe premium Harley-Davidson electric motorcycles will help drive excitement and participation in the sport globally. As we expand our EV capabilities and commitment, we get even more excited about the role electric motorcycles will play in growing our business”. However, he did not confirm if the first electric Harley-Davidson will be based on the LiveWire project or an all-new bike.

It’s also still not clear if Harley-Davidson is developing the technology for its electric range in-house or with an alliance with a new strategic partner. Harley-Davidson executives will market the production version of the electric bike to a broad spectrum of buyers, basing the plan on research from the 12,000 people who rode LiveWire. “The universal appeal of that product was the most astounding aspect of that initiative, Levatich said about LiveWire. “It gave us a lot of confidence that electric motorcycles have broad-based appeal…they are going to sit alongside existing Harleys and garages as much as they are going to create new interest in the sport”. 

The experts agree that an electric motor might be a tough sell for the hard-core Harley bikers, but the company hopes it could also open up the product to a new market. The announcement comes even as Harley-Davidson declares that it will close down its Kansas City factory and consolidate production around its York, Pennsylvania plant. Harley-Davidson will cut 260 jobs from its production ranks, losing roughly 800 positions in Kansas City, but adding 450 positions back to its York facility. Harley-Davidson sales have been less than enthusiastic, with sales in the fourth quarter slipping by 11.1 percent in the USA and 9.6 percent worldwide. 

“I don’t think there is a way forward for Harley,” says Kevin Tynan, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst for the automotive industry. He continues, “Investment in the tech will be funded by a dying business, and they are basically starting from scratch. Either they shrink to demand and be what they have always been or they sell out and pursue some weird future-mobility business model that does not promise anything - even if they were capable of pulling it off.” 

Today Harley-Davidson is one of the few major manufacturers to commit to a production electric motorcycle. So far, only KTM has introduced an electric version of a production model of its off-road range, though BMW Motorrad also has an electric scooter. It is clear is that the future of Harley-Davidson may not revolve only around the tradition big v-twin engines, but will go on to include motorcycles which may not make any trademark v-twin sound at all. 

And this is the ultimate irony in the Harley announcement is that it comes from a company that built its image on the loud, outlaw-style rumble of its engine and the decidedly un-eco-friendly look of its choppers and road cruisers. Where the 32,000 new Harley-Davidson buyers in the U.S. last year probably bought their first hog in large part for its patented loud sound, the electric Harley will undoubtedly have to be quieter. 

At any rate, the appeal of an electric bike is not mutually exclusive with one running on a conventional internal combustion engine. While the thumping sound of the latter is undeniably alluring, the flying feeling provided by the former matches it for pure riding thrill. This might increase the respect that the brand gets, with Harley demonstrating that it does low-tech heritage alongside cutting-edge technology. If they can do both, it will save the company.