One of the exhibits that got the most attention at this weekend’s Moncton motorcycle show (save for the coming storm on Sunday) was the Harley Davidson Livewire. Since I was there with Michael Uhlarik, designer of the Amarok electric motorcycle, I thought it was a good opportunity to get a few words from him post ‘ride’. Over to Mr Uhlarik ….
When Project Livewire was first announced in mid-summer of last year it came as a shock to most Harley-Davidson observers, if you will forgive the pun. The preceding couple of years were all about promoting the company’s vaunted heritage via the Rushmore branded upgrades of its traditional cruisers, a business strategy that was both predictable and wise. Where then, did this light and lithe electric street bike fit into the post recession recovery plan?
When it comes to profitability, Harley-Davidson is by far the most successful brand in motorcycling, converting the lowest number of actual units sold into shareholder heaven. The products, and the marketing formula hasn’t changed much since the rebirth of the company in the early 1990s, and for good reason. Each attempt to introduce something new under the Bar and Shield banner has been met with loyalist derision and market failure (see V-Rod).
So what will make the Livewire any different?
It has been said many times elsewhere that we are facing a demographic sea-change in the coming years, one that will finally shift the bulk of consumer purchasing power away from baby boomers towards younger segments. This spells the end of the direct, living experience connection that brands like Harley-Davidson enjoyed with their customers. Boomers were actually alive when the Sportster was introduced as a contemporary sporting motorcycle, and the last time Harley won national road racing championships.
Appeal to Generation X was driven more by the associations surrounding the American cultural mythologies of the wild west and the macho loner. To millennials in the 21st century, those brand values are abstract to say the least. Designs with references to the 1950s are not merely retro, but antiquated to a generation born in the 1990s, for whom product desire is measured by innovation.
Enter the Livewire. Here is a motorcycle that integrates the very latest propulsion and chassis technology into a modern street fighter that can take to the streets of this century’s urban centres. To the Harley faithful, it is an abomination. Detractors will point out the low range offered by the batteries or argue that anything without the noise and smells of a throbbing V-twin cannot measure up to the traditional Harley-Davidson experience. But those people would be missing the point of Project Livewire.
Firstly, it is a pre-production prototype, so range and charging time are going to change significantly before it hits market. Already, the industry leading Zero SR has over 185 km of all electric highway range, and can charge in under an hour from any of the growing number of public electric car charging stations throughout North America (more than 20,000 as of this writing). It is highly likely that a mainstream manufacturer like Harley-Davidson will easily be able to outmatch the performance of a tiny electric motorcycle start up like Zero.
Secondly, and most importantly, Livewire will be every bit as thrilling and satisfying to a large group of 21st century motorcyclists as Panheads and Shovelheads were to proceeding generations. What brand devotees sometimes forget is that what makes riding a motorcycle such a life-altering experience is its relative . If your point of reference for thrilling mobility is a Hemi-‘Cuda with a 440 six-pack, then Livewire will never be anything more than a blender.
But if, on the other hand, your mobility kick is pedaling through downtown traffic on a carbon fibre fixed gear bicycle while networking on your smartphone, then riding a surging electric bike with direct drive transmission and internet connectivity will most definitely be your bag.
Given who is likely to be alive and buying new motorcycles in the next twenty five years, I think its safe to say that the money makers at Harley-Davidson have hedged with their Excel spreadsheets.