On June 24, the Milwaukee-based company will introduce its Project LiveWire Experience, a travelling event that will offer licensed riders a chance to try an electric Harley. The programme, for which some 30 prototype electric motorcycles were built, heads from New York to Chicago and will then work its way along Route 66 to Santa Monica, California, stopping at dealerships and other locations along the way. Details on scheduling and sites are available at www.projectlivewire.com.
Harley-Davidson is certainly not the obvious candidate to lead the movement towards a whisper-quiet, electron-motivated future. The 111-year-old company has thrived by selling a line consisting mainly of retro-style bikes that recall models from a half-century ago.
In recent years, though, the downturn and the inevitable ageing of its boomer customers made it clear that survival would depend on more diverse market appeal. The company recently introduced two smaller, more modern models, the Street 500 and Street 750, designed to appeal to younger customers around the world.
The LiveWire Project is the next major effort, and one that could put Harley ahead of its global competitors in the race to make a commercially successful electric machine. American companies like Zero and Brammo have introduced innovative and attractive bikes, but the high price of lithium-ion batteries and the small number of brand dealerships has limited growth.
Harley-Davidson says it has no plans at this time to produce and sell the LiveWire to the public. Still, it has clearly made a significant investment in bringing the prototypes up to the expected levels of style, performance and finish necessary before letting the public try them (and then splashing their impressions all over the Internet).
The goal, Harley said, was to create a machine with the personality and desirability that existing electric motorcycles lack.
Its ultimately a challenge about whether riding an electric motorcycle can be an emotional experience or only a rational one, Mark-Hans Richer, Harley-Davidsons senior vice-president and chief marketing officer, said.
To be a true Harley, it has to have character, Mr Richer said. It has to be cool. It has to make you feel something important about yourself.
Mr Richer added that a static display of the bike was not sufficient. We didnt want this sitting on a turntable somewhere, with an attractive model standing around handing out brochures, he said.
The LiveWire was designed and developed in Harley-Davidsons Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, product development centre and hand-built in the centres basement.
Harley is not disclosing the range, power, acceleration or top speed of the experimental LiveWire machines.
Were not getting into spec wars at this time, Mr Richer said. The point is how you feel riding it.
As it happens, the character of an electric bike aligns well with the expectations of Harley customers, who are used to engines that cruise happily at low rpm.
An electric motor creates a lot of low-end torque, Mr Richer said. We find people very pleasantly surprised by that.
The demonstration bikes will be charged using 240-volt Level 2 chargers, taking about 3.5 hours to fully replenish the battery pack, according to Jeff Richlen, chief engineer of product development.
While he would not reveal the capacity of the lithium-ion battery pack, the charging time and the motorcycles overall weight of 460 pounds suggest a pack of 12 to 14 kilowatt-hoursa little less than a Chevrolet Volt.
The silent operation of electric motorcycles is an attraction to many customers, but in this respect, as in so many other areas, Harley-Davidson has gone its own way. The electric motor, which can be seen as a machined-aluminium cylinder under the bike, is positioned fore-and-aft. The gears it uses to send power to a single-speed transmission are intentionally designed to make a distinctive sound. The final drive to the wheel is by a belt, typical of gasoline Harleys.
It sounds like a turbine when you are on the bike, Mr Richlen said. And from the side, as it goes past, it sounds like a jet.