Harley-Davidson’s (HOG) latest model is sure to induce cringes among many die-hard bikers: an electric motorcycle. Project Livewire, now in beta and touring the U.S. to give test rides to Harley fans, boasts zero emissions, far less noise than a standard Harley, and no gearbox. The all-electric motorcycle is missing quite a few of the attributes that make a Harley what it is.
Considering this is a company that famously attempted to trademark the distinctive sound made by a Harley V-twin engine, the electric era won’t come easy. And the electric Harley won’t be the first such motorcycle to reach the market, either.
Other American companies have been producing fully electric motorcycles for a while now. Zero Motorcycles, based in Scotts Valley, Calif., sells an extensive lineup of electric motorcycles, starting at around $13,000. Mission Motors makes the $30,000 Mission R racing bike. The San Francisco company supported the winner of this year’s TT Zero, the electric version of the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race.
Harley’s move into electric bikes brings big-time credibility to the niche, and the company has good reasons to get into the mix. Electric motorcycles are much less intimidating for a novice rider, since they lack the distraction of a clutch and gears. Motorcycle makers, Harley included, are desperately trying to reach women and younger buyers who may lack the traditional rider’s bias toward gas-powered vehicles.
Experienced riders are finding something to like in electric power, too. Not having to worry about the proper gear or perfect RPM allows for maximum concentration on braking, cornering, and acceleration, which in turn allows for more control at higher speeds. Fewer moving parts means less maintenance and repair work.
Harley says one important factor is holding back Project Livewire: Battery technology isn’t quite capable of delivering the range and overall lifespan the company wants. It’s a challenge that electric car manufacturers face as well, but one that two-wheel vehicles may overcome before their four-wheeled counterparts. After all, motorcyclists are traditionally accustomed to a more limited range.
The Zero motorcycle claims up to 137 miles on a full charge (170 if you purchase the optional Power Tank). Even if that’s an optimistic number, it’s still impressive compared with something like a Harley Sportster, which is lucky to get 180 miles on a full tank, according to rider experiences posted on a popular riders’ forum. (And my 1993 Kawasaki Ninja500 will start to run dry at just over 130 miles).
Another advantage for electric bikes comes with the more limited battery, which is smaller and lighter than a Tesla battery and so, in theory at least, shouldn’t take as long to charge via a traditional outlet.
Most bikers who purchase an electric bike will use it for one of two things: city commuting or track riding. It’s a novelty just reaching the early-adoption phase, but it also offers an inexpensive gateway to electric vehicles. Motorcycles cost far less than battery-powered sedans, and they’re easier to park. Slap a Harley badge on one, and it might even become cool.