A prototype for what could become the first Harley-Davidson electric motorcycle is being launched next week for Harley enthusiasts to test ride and give the company their feedback.
It's a process that will take months, or even years, and there's no guarantee Harley-Davidson will ever build an electric bike for mass production. Still, Project Live Wire is a big step forward for the company and the motorcycle industry that, for the most part, has been tied to the internal combustion engine for more than a century.
While the bikes that will be introduced next week, starting in New York and Milwaukee, are not for sale, they will log thousands of hours of road time in demo rides across the country and overseas.
"Customers will tell us what they think it will take to make a great electric motorcycle. I am sure we will discover things that we cannot anticipate right now," said Mark-Hans Richer, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the world's largest manufacturer of heavyweight motorcycles.
"It's an opportunity to learn, and we will see where it goes," Richer added.
Harley hasn't revealed the technical specifications of the prototype bikes, but for sure they won't have the syncopated "potato, potato, potato" rumble that resonates from the company's V-Twin engines.
For the electric motor sound, "Think fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. Project Live Wire's unique sound was designed to differentiate it from internal combustion and other electric motorcycles on the market," Richer said.
"When it comes to emotion evoked from sound, it can be distinctive, cool and fun. And we think we got that in the Live Wire," he added.
The demo motorcycles will be at the June 26 "Bike Night" at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. Not everyone will get to ride them, and individual rides at any of the demo locations will probably be limited to less than 10 minutes.
"It's going to be a challenge because we believe there will be more people wanting to ride than we will be able to process in a particular day," Richer said.
A 2014 US tour, kicking off with a journey down Route 66, will include stops at more than 30 Harley dealerships now through the end of the year. In 2015, the tour will continue in the US and expand into Canada and Europe.
Richer says it's impossible to say when the company would decide whether to move forward with an electric motorcycle in its lineup.
Electric motorcycles currently available can't travel long distances between battery charges, which could be an issue for Harley riders who enjoy touring.
"If we get a lot of feedback from customers who said the only way they would like one of these bikes is if they could ride to Sturgis (SD) on a single charge, that would be a little hard to pull off," Richer said.
Harley will interview thousands of people who test ride the bikes, using a standard set of questions to gather rider feedback.
"The beauty of this is it's something we have never done before, and the challenge of this is it's something we have never done before," Richer said.
The Project Live Wire bike was designed at the Willie G Davidson Product Development Centre, a steel-and-glass building in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, that has motorised window shades to keep prying eyes from getting a glimpse of bikes before they're released to the public.
Some projects there are completed in as few as 12 months, while designing an all-new motorcycle model could take three years. Under CEO Keith Wandell's leadership, the company has greatly reduced the time it takes to get a new bike from the drawing board to the marketplace.
"This was sort of a ‘skunk works' initiative done entirely in the basement of the product development center. I wouldn't call it formal development at all," Richer said.
Some electric bikes, such as sport bikes from a manufacturer named Zero Motorcycles, are fast and have strong acceleration.
Harley hasn't yet revealed details about the performance of its bike but says it will be impressive.
The market for electric motorcycles, especially in the U.S., is small but could easily grow if manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson, Honda and others come out with attractive, powerful yet affordable bikes.
"It's just going to add credibility to what we have been doing," said Scot Harden, vice president of global marketing for Zero Motorcycles, based in Scotts Valley, Calif.
As battery technology improves, the new bikes should be able to travel farther between charges.
"The big breakthrough will come with the next generation of battery chemistry, and that's probably still three years away, from a production standpoint," Harden said.
Harley views electric motorcycles as more than basic transportation. As with its other bikes, the company strives to pull at the heartstrings of enthusiasts through styling as well as performance.
"We are trying to go for emotion here, and not just be about pure function. I don't just love to ride this bike. I love to look at it, too," Richer said.
Many Harley enthusiasts, though, are loyal to traditional motorcycles with styling cues from a half-century ago. They're not likely to warm up to a radically different bike, especially if it can't go very far between charging cycles.
The sound and feel of the motor underneath them also is part of the attraction, said Leslie Prevish, a former Harley-Davidson executive who now has a consulting business focused on marketing to women and diverse audiences in the outdoor and motor sports industries.
Harley dealerships will be the key to whether the company is successful with electric motorcycles, since many of the sales people are hard-core motorcycle enthusiasts, according to Prevish.
"Harley corporate can spend millions of marketing dollars, but if their dealers aren't able to build relationships with these new audiences and close the sale, it will fail," she said.
The Live Wire bikes bear some resemblance to the Buell brand of motorcycles that Harley owned for more than a decade before it dropped the brand in 2009.
Buell sport bikes were aimed at a younger crowd more interested in speed and performance than long-distance riding comfort and traditional styling. The bikes weren't a good fit in Harley dealerships dominated by touring and cruiser motorcycles.
"Buell is something that Harley never really wanted to put their name on because they felt the risk involved was huge," said Chaz Hastings, a former Harley-Davidson corporate employee who now owns Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, a dealership on Milwaukee's north side.
The experiment with electric bikes could have a different outcome, though, according to Hastings.
"It will create talking points in the showroom, will be all over social media and regular media. Who knows … in 20 or 30 years, motorcycles might have to go this way. I just feel that Harley is getting ahead of this," Hastings said.
"If anybody can make this cool, it will be Harley-Davidson," he added.
-MCT/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel