Commentary

Say It Ain't So! Harley-Davidson Plugging In?

Harley-Davidson is going electric. No, no, no! Yes. Maybe. The motorcycle brand of big rumble, chrome (or black, in the case of the Street line) and big internal combustion attitude is venturing into batteries and charge. It's called Project LiveWire, and there's a crowd-sourcing aspect to it, as well. That part is definitely in keeping with a brand that has based many of its marketing campaigns, accessories and features on what its fans like, expect and sometimes demand. 

The company says Project LiveWire is "specifically designed for the purpose of getting insight into rider expectations of an electric Harley-Davidson motorcycle," so it's not ready for the garage outlet yet. It’s not even a beta, it’s pre-pre-beta. 

So on Monday Harley kicks off a national road show to let anyone interested (and licensed) swing a leg over the Project LiveWire bike. The "Project LiveWire Experience" also has a "jumpstart" element that simulates the ride for the unwashed non-licensed. The point is to get feedback. Will people dig it? Or is it, like, "Whoa. That is just wrong," as my daughter is so fond of saying about everything. 

You could have guessed this part: Harley says the tour will travel down Route 66, visiting more than 30 Harley-Davidson dealerships through the end of the year. And you may be wondering — I am — if there are any dealerships actually on Route 66, which is now kind of a reliquary of rusting gas pumps, dinettes, and motels with dried-up pools kids are using as skate parks. I know there's one in Tulsa, but I’ll get back to you. Meanwhile, the company says that next year the show goes to Canada and Europe, so I guess the Canucks have some say.

Matt Levatich, the company's president and COO, said in a release that the project is, indeed, going to be driven by customers. "In just the last few years, we’ve broadened our reach to serve an increasingly diverse society, as well as reinvented our approach to product development and manufacturing." He said products like the Project Rushmore touring bikes, and the forthcoming 500 and 750 Street models are exemplars of a more customer-focused R&D approach.

CMO Mark-Hans Richer said he considers it to be more like getting your first electric guitar than an electric car, which actually isn’t just hyperbole. Motorcycles are inherently emotional, discretionary purchases in the U.S. And they probably strike the same synaptic chords as, say, a vintage Stratocaster. “It’s an expression of individuality and iconic style that just happens to be electric." There you go.

Here's a big question: will riders of the kind you find tooling around Sturgis and Daytona during the Motorcycle Rally and Bike Week, respectively, buy into this? No. They probably won't. But so what? I'm guessing H-D would be fine if a big piece of the owner demographic never even hears about this project. Some of these folks, maybe most of them, aren't really who the company has been wooing in recent years with sub-brands like Street, including the forthcoming 500 and 750, or with marketing aimed more at the X-Games, urban Paul Bunyan, digital, and hipster/maker crowd.  

There's another issue, particularly for H-D: while people who aren't even in the automotive business know that electric cars have powerful low-end torque, meaning sprightly acceleration (thanks, Tesla S), the big question is whether the big sound and big attitude will be missing from an electric Harley. Will H-D, God forbid, have to do what some car companies are doing and have some kind of recorded sound? Richer isn’t saying, but he does suggest that there will be something aggressive about the natural sound of the engine. “The sound is a distinct part of the thrill,” he said in the release. “Think fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. Project LiveWire’s unique sound was designed to differentiate it from internal combustion and other electric motorcycles on the market.” Reporters, including this one, will hear just what that means on Monday, when the company kicks off the event series at its new store in Manhattan at 374 Broadway. Sorry, invitation only.

The company says retail plans are contingent on rider response from the tour, and has launched a microsite at projectlivewire.com, plus social vectors on the usual social sites. Let's see. A Harley-Davidson that sounds like a jet fighter. I'll ask my daughter what she thinks...

Recommend (1) Print RSS