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This week, Harley-Davidson unveiled Project Livewire, a unique prototype electric motorcycle they’re taking on a tour of the world to see what riders think of it. What does this surprising move by the mega-brand mean for the motorcycle industry? A lot, we think.

This week, motorcycle manufacturing giant Harley-Davidson announced what may become a genuinely game-changing addition to its line-up.

And by “game-changing for Harley-Davidson,” I don’t mean a slightly updated engine based on decades-old technology, or an appearance package to an existing platform, like the company’s Sportster variants, the Forty-eight and the Seventy-two.

No, this is a truly unprecedented – and frankly, very unexpected – turn for the brand known for its iconic V-twin powered cruisers with that loud, signature Harley sound. This is a bike that is actually quite the opposite of both; a sporty, battery-powered electric standard.

 

harley davidson livewire electric motorcycle side view

Dubbed “Project Livewire,” the electric bike is technically still a concept (even though H-D has a small fleet of them for test rides, with an unusually refined appearance for a prototype.) After four years of development, they have released the Livewire to the public as a market research exercise, promoting the bike at Harley-Davidson dealerships across the country to solicit feedback from the brands loyal customer base.

This bike really is an unexpected turn for the company that has built a brand on tradition and, frankly, is not known for innovation. The last truly revolutionary Harley was the V-Rod, introduced in 2001 as the first hog ever powered by a liquid cooled, overhead cam powerplant, developed jointly with Porsche. But even that bike retained the Harley-Davidson essentials: V—twin engine, cruiser styling, and a thunderous exhaust note.

 

harley davidson livewire electric motorcycle new york release

The Livewire, however, really is absolutely nothing like H-D has ever rolled out before. Among electric bikes – a tiny, but rapidly growing portion of the motorcycle market – its characteristics are typical: tons of torque and hard acceleration, but a limited range, and no clutch or transmission. With 74 HP, it goes 0-60 in about 4 seconds, and tops out at 92 MPH, putting the Livewire about on par with its competition in performance (though it lags far behind them in range.)

Where the electric Harley does manage to set itself apart, however, is by playing to the brand’s strengths; distinctive looks and sound. On paper, there are some impressive players in the electric motorcycle segment, but styling doesn’t tend to be their strong point. This makes the sporty and handsome Livewire – reminiscent of the aggressive Ducati Monster – a clear standout in the looks department.

 

harley davidson livewire electric motorcycle display

Just as we would expect from Harley Davidson, they paid a great deal to the motorcycle’s sound. Described as sounding like everything from a fighter jet to a vacuum cleaner by its fans and critics, there is one way to describe the sound everyone can probably agree on – interesting.

The sound, in fact, is not a natural byproduct of the normally quiet electric motor; as Michelle Kumbier, Harley-Davidson’s SVP of Motorcycle Operations, said in an interview: “the sound you hear is an engineered sound that we put into the product…that we feel is very muscular in its own way.”

Starting this Tuesday, Harley-Davidson has begun touring the country to showcase the Livewire in 30 major dealerships throughout 2014. While they are adamant about calling this “market research,” the showcase – an electric extravaganza, with a fleet of test bikes, a computerized ride simulator, and scheduled press and media events – is strangely reminiscent of a new product release.

And this new battery-powered hog isn’t just being promoted in dealerships; Harley-Davidson has also released several very cinematic commercials advertising the Livewire, and sources say the bike will be featured in the upcoming film Avengers: Age of Ultron, ridden by none other than Scarlet Johansson. Considering all the spectacle being created around the Livewire – if this is a “market research exercise,” then I’m one of the Sons of Anarchy.

 

harley davidson livewire electric motorcycle scarlett johansson The Harley-Davidson Livewire is being rumored to have it’s big-screen debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron, ridden by Scarlett Johansson.

But all the buzz Harley-Davidson is building around the exciting new product does beg a few questions. Harley is calling it a “customer-led movement,” but what customers are they referring to – existing Harley loyalists, or riders of other brands? Or are they trying to open up a new market entirely?

Will the Livewire convince die-hard, gasaholic bikers that electric motorcycles can be cool? Or will it convince a new generation of environmentally conscious tech-lovers that Harley’s aren’t just status symbols for the middle-aged? (Or both?)

And most importantly: will mega-brand Harley-Davidson’s entry into the emerging electric motorcycle market have an elevating effect on the segment, and help it go from marginal to mainstream?

I rode and reviewed an electric motorcycle last year (the 2013 Zero S), and I thought it was amazing – totally unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in almost a decade of riding. As a rider and true motorcycle lover, I fully believe electric bikes will have their place in the motorcycle world.

Being the first major brand to release an electric bike, I think Harley’s bold move will ultimately be good for the consumer; it elevates the concept, brings attention to electric motorcycles (according to Forbes, Zero’s web traffic doubled the day Livewire was released), and puts other big brands on notice. Whether the Livewire flops or sets the new standard in electric bikes remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: the mainstream electric motorcycle is now “a thing” (even if it does kinda sound like a vacuum cleaner.)

Curious about what else the electric motorcycle market has to offer? There’s a lot out there, from the wickedly fast Zero SR, to the wild and agile BRD supermoto, to the $70,000 racing machine, the Mission RS. Read about them here!

 

harley davidson livewire electric motorcycle

What do you think H-D’s Livewire will do for the electric motorcycle market? Would you buy one?

 

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