MILWAUKEE - Would a Harley still be a Harley if it didn't have that out-of-my-way rumble and those fat, hydrocarbon-belching exhausts?
Motorcycle enthusiasts are about to find out as Harley-Davidson rolls out an electric bike - a sleek, futuristic version that sounds like a jet airplane taking off.
The public will get its first look at handmade demonstration models at an invitation-only event Monday in New York. The company will then take the models on the road for riders to try and provide feedback. Harley will use the information to refine the bike, which might not hit the market for several more years.
Harleys have long been the bad-boy bike of choice with an image associated with motorcycle gangs, even though most riders are middle-aged and middle-class. The new venture is a departure from Harley's mainstay touring bikes and presents an added risk because currently almost no market for full-size electric motorcycles. The millions of two-wheeled electric vehicles sold each year are almost exclusively scooters and low-powered bikes that appeal to Chinese commuters.
But those focused on electric vehicle development say Harley has the marketing power to create demand, and its efforts to lower costs, build charging stations and improve technology will help everyone involved.
"It does validate what we've been doing; it adds additional credibility to it. It is certainly going to draw more people's attention to electric motorcycles. The marketing horsepower of Harley-Davidson is going to be able to do things for us that we can't do on our own," said Scot Harden, vice president of global marketing at Zero Motorcycles, the top seller of full-size, high-powered electric bikes.
Zero expects to sell 2,400 electric motorcycles this year, a drop in the bucket compared with the more than 260,000 conventional motorcycles sold last year by Harley.
The new LiveWire won't make the distinctive "potato-potato-potato" chug that Harley once tried to patent. Its engine is silent, and the turbine-like hum comes from the meshing of gears. But electric motors do provide better handling and rapid acceleration - with the electric Harley able to go from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds. LiveWire's design places the engine at the bottom of the bike.
"When you ride a motorcycle, it's the movement of the top of the bike side-to-side that gives you agility in regard to making turns. So, if I put weight low in a motorcycle, I can turn faster. I can drop the bike down and make quicker moves," said Gary Gauthier, of NextEnergy, a Detroit-based nonprofit with expertise in electric vehicles.
Jeff Richlen, Harley's lead engineer on LiveWire, put it this way: "Some people may get on it thinking, 'golf cart,' and they get off thinking, 'rocket ship.'"
One hurdle Harley and others have yet to address is the limited range offered by electric motorcycles. Batteries typically must be recharged after about 130 miles, and that can take 30 minutes to an hour.
Harley President Matt Levatich said he expects technology to improve and the company is less interested in immediate demand than long-term potential.
San Jose State University police Capt. Alan Cavallo helped his department buy two Zero motorcycles and said officers have been "super happy" with the quiet, environmentally friendly bikes made nearby in Scotts Valley, California. But he said American riders who like to hit the highway would likely lose patience with the technology as it exists today.
"That's the deal with the cars; you can't jump in a Tesla and drive to LA, it won't make it," Cavallo said, adding later, "People want the convenience of 'I pull into a gas station, I pour some gas in my tank and I go.'"