Sales of electric motorcycles are just a tiny slice of a market that totals about 370,000 road-legal motorcycles a year in the United States, but Harley-Davidson, the proudly American maker of rumbling, brawny heavyweights, is hinting that it would like to change that.
On June 24, the Milwaukee-based company will introduce its Project LiveWire Experience, a travelling event that will offer licensed riders a chance to try an electric Harley. The programme, for which some 30 prototype electric motorcycles were built, heads from New York to Chicago and will then work its way along Route 66 to Santa Monica, California, stopping at dealerships and other locations along the way. Details on scheduling and sites are available at www.projectlivewire.com.
Harley-Davidson is certainly not the obvious candidate to lead the movement towards a whisper-quiet, electron-motivated future. The 111-year-old company has thrived by selling a line consisting mainly of retro-style bikes that recall models from a half-century ago.
In recent years, though, the downturn and the inevitable ageing of its boomer customers made it clear that survival would depend on more diverse market appeal. The company recently introduced two smaller, more modern models, the Street 500 and Street 750, designed to appeal to younger customers around the world.
The LiveWire Project is the next major effort, and one that could put Harley ahead of its global competitors in the race to make a commercially successful electric machine. American companies like Zero and Brammo have introduced innovative and attractive bikes, but the high price of lithium-ion batteries and the small number of brand dealerships has limited growth.
Harley-Davidson says it has no plans at this time to produce and sell the LiveWire to the public. Still, it has clearly made a significant investment in bringing the prototypes up to the expected levels of style, performance and finish necessary before letting the public try them (and then splashing their impressions all over the Internet).
The goal, Harley said, was to create a machine with the personality and desirability that existing electric motorcycles lack.
“It’s ultimately a challenge about whether riding an electric motorcycle can be an emotional experience or only a rational one,” Mark-Hans Richer, Harley-Davidson’s senior vice-president and chief marketing officer, said.
“To be a true Harley, it has to have character,” Mr Richer said. “It has to be cool. It has to make you feel something important about yourself.”
Mr Richer added that a static display of the bike was not sufficient.