This week, Harley-Davidson revealed the final version of its much-anticipated Livewire motorcycle at the huge EICMA show in Italy. The anticipation isn’t there because riders are eager to buy it – it’s fair to say most Harley owners are highly dubious about such a radical departure by their beloved Motor Company – but because this will be the first production-ready electric motorcycle from a major OEM.
Not only that, but it’s Harley-frickin’-Davidson, if you can believe it. Most pundits would have assumed Honda or Yamaha but no, it’s the company that once tried to trademark the potato-potato sound of its V-twins, famous for misty-eyed, dyed-in-the-leather Americana. There’s no potato-potato with an electric motor, or Dave Mann poster of an electric bike whooshing through to Sturgis.
Harley-haters, of which there are many, will say it’s an act of desperation to try something, anything, that’s new, because traditional baby-boomer owners are dying off and not being replaced. Others, however, will call this a shrewd move, because there’s no doubt that electric bikes will be the norm one day. Like it or not, Harley is getting out ahead of Dead Man’s Curve. After all, the company announced in the summer that it plans to attract two million new riders to its bikes by 2027, and that at least half of its owners by then will live outside the United States. It’s not going to achieve that with just more-of-the-same.
Harley is reinventing itself. Yes, it has to if it’s to stay relevant, but it already has something nobody else has: the Harley-Davidson name and mystique, one of the most recognized in the world, right behind Coca-Cola. According to the presentation of its business plan this year, of all the people it surveyed who showed an interest in buying an electric motorcycle, 45 per cent also had an interest in owning a Harley. They don’t know about leaky shovelheads – they only care about experiencing an envied brand.
All this assumes that electric vehicles are on a relentless charge toward mainstream acceptance, and the massive pushes from much larger car companies like General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Toyota and the like will suck bikes along in their wake. But there’s an issue for motorcycles that’s not really shared with cars, and that’s space for the batteries: an electric car can fill its chassis with heavy batteries and keep them low to the ground for better handling, but a motorcycle is far more limited in its design. The original Teslas could travel much farther than their competition because they just stuffed more batteries into the build and charged twice the money, but there isn’t the physical room on a bike.
Motorcycles need even more efficient technology if they’re to travel a reasonable distance but still look stylish and not break the weigh-scale. The original Livewire concept claimed to travel 100 km on its battery and motor when it was shown to the public in 2014, though that was on the “economy” drive setting; switch to “sport” and the distance dropped almost in half.
Since then, technology has come far: the 2018 Zero SR is rated for 359 km in the city and 270 km in combined city/highway. That probably means 200 km purely on the highway, or 10 full charges for most Canadians to get to Daytona. The range isn’t there yet, but it surely will be.
In the meantime, I’m not counting out Harley-Davidson. In fact, I’m really optimistic now for its future, but for all the good looks of the Livewire, it’ll be the ride that counts. Substance over style, every single time, and we’ll all find out soon enough.