Harley-Davidson to unveil electric motorcycle prototype

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Harley-Davidson has introduced its first electric motorcycle, a sleek, futuristic bike that sounds like a jet airplane taking off and can go from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds.

The bike isn’t in production yet. Instead, the public will get its first look at handmade demonstration models at an invitation-only event tomorrow in New York. The company will then take the models on the road for riders to try and provide feedback. Harley will use the information to refine the bike, which might not hit the market for several more years.

The venture is a risk for Harley because there’s currently almost no market for full-size electric motorcycles. The millions of two-wheeled electric vehicles sold each year are almost exclusively scooters and low-powered bikes that appeal to Chinese commuters. But those focused on electric vehicle development say Harley has the marketing power to create demand, and its efforts to lower costs, build charging stations and improve technology will help everyone involved.

“It does validate what we’ve been doing; it adds additional credibility to it. It is certainly going to draw more people’s attention to electric motorcycles. The marketing horsepower of Harley-Davidson is going to be able to do things for us that we can’t do on our own,” said Scot Harden, vice president of global marketing at Zero Motorcycles, the top seller of full-size, high-powered electric bikes.

Zero expects to sell 2,400 electric motorcycles this year, a drop in the bucket compared with the more than 260,000 conventional motorcycles sold last year by Harley.

The new LiveWire won’t make Harley’s distinctive “potato-potato-potato” chug. Its engine is silent, and the turbine-like hum comes from the meshing of gears. Electric motors also eliminate the need to shift gears and provide rapid acceleration and better handling. LiveWire’s design places the engine at the bottom of the bike.    

“When you ride a motorcycle, it’s the movement of the top of the bike side-to-side that gives you agility in regard to making turns. So, if I put weight low in a motorcycle, I can turn faster. I can drop the bike down and make quicker moves,” said Gary Gauthier, of NextEnergy, a Detroit-based nonprofit with expertise in electric vehicles.

One hurdle Harley and others have yet to address is the limited range offered by electric motorcycles. Batteries typically must be recharged after about 130 miles, and that can take 30 minutes to an hour.

San Jose State University police Capt. Alan Cavallo helped his department buy two Zero motorcycles and said officers have been “super happy” with the quiet, environmentally friendly bikes made nearby in Scotts Valley, California. But he said American riders who like to hit the highway would likely lose patience with the technology.

“That’s the deal with the cars; you can’t jump in a Tesla and drive to LA, it won’t make it,” Cavallo said, adding later, “People want the convenience of `I pull into a gas station, I pour some gas in my tank and I go.”’

Harley President Matt Levatich said he expects technology to improve and the company is less interested in immediate demand than long-term potential. True growth in electric vehicles also will require common standards for rapid charging and other features, as well as more places for people to plug in. Harley expects to play a role in that, he said, noting that its dealership network could provide charging stations.

“We think that the trends in both EV technology and customer openness to EV products, both automotive and motorcycles, is only going to increase, and when you think about sustainability and environmental trends, we just see that being an increasing part of the lifestyle and the requirements of riders,” Levatich said. “So, nobody can predict right now how big that industry will be or how significant it will be.”