Harley-Davidson Goes Electric: Heresy



An electric Harley-Davidson … heresy! A Harley that is not powered by distilled dinosaur juice. Fighting words! No stinky gasoline … or loud thumpity-thumpity … or foul exhaust! An electrically powered Harley is like a Texas barbecue without a dead pig, Al Gore without a hydraulic lift, or Anthony Weiner without …

A couple dozen handmade prototypes of LiveWire, Harley Davidson’s first electric motorcycle, will soon be handed over for tester evaluation. The company insists it may never, ever put an electric motorcycle into production, but it is not hedging bets and is about to pull the trigger on a marketing blitz. Before making a final decision about going into actual production for its customers, the company says it will wait to hear what the testers have to say.

Mark-Hans Richer is chief marketer and senior vice president of Harley Davidson, the world’s biggest manufacturer of large motorcycles. He fully expects feedback from his testers to uncover issues that have not yet been anticipated. “It’s an opportunity to learn, and we will see where it goes,” he said. Richer and his colleagues will be listening closely as the Harley brand itself may be at stake. Company President Matt Levatich is more optimistic. He expects his company to lead the way in the development of electric vehicle technology, believing that openness to electric vehicles will only increase, perhaps even amongst those most committed to a Harley-centric lifestyle.

The largest market for Harleys is Caucasian men over 34 years of age. However, the times are a-changin, and H-D reports that U.S. sales to its “outreach” customers last year – young adults 18 – 34, women, African-Americans and Hispanics – grew at more than twice the rate of its (hard) core customers. This influx of new blood into the Harley Davidson world is expected to continue so, just perhaps, the heresy of an electric “hog” is not so far-fetched.

The sound signature of Harleys is so highly associated with the brand that it has been famously declared untouchable by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Ever since – and before – the line of “tough guy” motorcycles gained popularity, the arhythmic “potato-potato-potato” sound has been its calling card, its unmistakable announcement of imminent arrival at a biker bar in Arizona, a strip joint in rural Illinois or an attorney’s office in Calgary. So a passionate discussion about the noise generated by an electric Harley Davidson is inevitable. However it ends up sounding, it will have been extremely well researched and hotly debated.

In a pre-emptive atonement to its loyal (and reputably coarse) customers – as if to say “No worries, it’s all good” – Harley Davidson will soon tour a couple dozen LiveWires along the United States’ iconic Route 66 highway. The crusade will stop at more than 30 Harley Davidson dealerships along the way and continue into 2015 in Canada and Europe. Again, actual bikes for sale could be several years away, if at all.

Harley Davidson motorcycles are generally associated with large, tough, I-don’t-give-a-damn white guys. The kind of men livin’ on the edge of the law or, perhaps more accurately, wanting others to believe as much. This is why hogs that smell bad, are brutally loud and sound like they need a tune-up have so much appeal. Consciously and unapologetically, performance comes in second to brutishness.

Enter electric power: Gone are the days when exploding the essences of ancient animals was the only way to achieve mobility. Electric transportation is about computer engineering, microscopic manufacturing tolerances and energy harnessed from its purest form. Precision. Not unlike European trains or – dare it be said – Japanese “crotch rockets” (electric or otherwise).

Harley Davidson will have to create a market out of thin air; one for full-sized, intrinsically-precise electric motorcycles. Although President Levatich acknowledges that he cannot predict his success in this endeavor, he is nevertheless confident of one thing: Any single sale of LiveWire would be highly dependent on the quality of its noise pollution and little or nothing to do with its minuscule atmospheric impact. Although the heretical Harley Davidson electric engine is actually silent, Levatich likens the overall LiveWire sound to a screaming jet airplane on take-off. Which could be just disturbing enough to instigate a demographic-wide conversion.

Opinion by Gregory Baskin

Associated Press
Los Angeles Times
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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