The Harley Davidson Livewire Initiative – What’s It Mean?

About four years ago, Harley Davidson took a trip around the United States with a few bikes.  Electric bikes.  The project at the time was dubbed Livewire and in the last couple of months, Harley has actually greenlighted the development of a true electric bike.

Now, I remember that tour and while there was a little buzz about it, most of us really thought it was like those great concept cars you see at car shows – nothing they’ll ever actually make, but the technology they develop will help the company to build better systems in existing platforms.

Four years later, though, and Harley has announced they are going to be producing an electric bike for sale within the next 18 months.

Like you, I’m a little confused.

Harley made its bones by building big, loud bikes that fed into a rebel image and resonated with riders from the post-WWII era to the baby-boomers to younger folks who appreciated the classic lines of real American craftsmanship.

Electric bikes don’t really fit into that image.  In fact, if you had to pick an antithesis to the outlaw biker image that Harley has sold for four generations, the electric vehicle owner might be a pretty good place to start.

The way I see it, there are two really good things that can come from LiveWire:

First, Harley is going to have to push the technology they currently use far beyond where they have ever been.  That’s good for us as owners, because new methods and systems are going to be brought to market, even if we still ride V-twins.  Frame designs, the metallurgy, braking – all these things that bikes all have in common should, in theory, have to be considered and as the aftermarket digests this research, it is going to trickle down to us.  A generation ago, hot rodders didn’t have any desire to use fuel injection or computers in a street car that didn’t originally have one, now the vast majority of old rods I see at shows have fuel injection and are sporting at least basic engine management computers.

I see some of the LIveWire R and D helping us all, no matter how far back your bike goes.

The second thing I see – and you’ve read it here plenty of times – is that Harley is opening up a new market that it desperately needs.  Let’s face it, the Baby Boomers aren’t buying any more bikes – and they have been paying the bills in Milwaukee for a long time.  With LiveWire, Harley is going to attract folks who couldn’t care less about the Milwaukee 8 but like the idea of electric cars and bikes.

We’ve all seen the success of Tesla and that brand’s ability to attract buyers without even having cars to sell.  I’m betting that the electric bike market won’t be driven by Harley Davidson as a name brand, but based solely on quality and functionality.  If Harley can bring a bike to market over the next 18 months that has the type of build quality and design that reignited the brand in the early 1980s, then we might see a whole new industry open up for Mother Davidson.

So what does LiveWire look like?  The stills I’ve seen are all “posed” so it’s tough to get a lot of detail.  What has been released so far is that the platform is fast enough – 0-60 in about four seconds – and that, right now, range is about 50 miles.  As I’ve been following the “electric” trend now for a few years, I suspect that the final product they release will have a bit more range than that, but likely not too much.

And to all you guys with Iron Butts, understand, we, as riders, aren’t who Harley is selling too.  Maybe our kids, maybe the guy we used to beat up in high school, but most assuredly, not us.

THAT is the biggest change here.  Thirty years ago, when Harley started selling a lot more accessories in their showrooms, it was still stuff that riders might use or wear.

Electric bikes though?  Sure, a few guys that ride will buy them, but for the most part, I can’t see how the two markets will ever meet – and that, to me, is the real challenge that H-D has here.  The fellow that rides a V-twin may very well be environmentally conscious, but his bike really isn’t.  The person that opts to buy an electric vehicle, in general, is doing so as a statement based on their beliefs.

There’s an old country song that mentions the idea that “a man can’t stock two shelves” and the concern for me is that, as Harley enters into a radically different market and “goes green” they may not be able to reconcile the two sets of owners they are looking for.

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