Trizzle’s Take – The Acceptance of Electrics?

Harley-Davidson's endorsement has suddenly made electrics acceptable.

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Here at MO, we like to think of ourselves as early adopters of electric propulsion for motorcycles. We’ve published several road tests of e-bikes, even as far back as 1998 with the EMB Lectra Electric Motorcycle. Admittedly, that bike was more a toy than motorcycle, but even then, we understood it was a glimpse into the future. Fast forward 16 years to our most recent e-bike test, where we pit a Zero FX against a Suzuki DR-Z400SM and the e-bike actually beats its gasoline-powered counterpart. Talk about progress.

Electric motorcycles have come a long way, and while there are many sympathizers (evangelists?) for the cause, still, the general reaction we get from these stories (judging by the comments you, our readers, leave) is one of negativity, denial, and, well, sometimes downright hatred.

Project-LiveWire_AF_DARK-633x518

As far as I can tell, now that the might of Harley-Davidson is behind electric motorcycles with Project Livewire, acceptance of e-bikes has turned a new leaf.

However, I noticed a funny thing when we published the Harley-Davidson Project Livewire scoop, Dennis Chung and I collaborated on. Generally speaking, the response to The Motor Company embracing the future and adopting electrics has been surprisingly positive. Some of the responses I’ve seen are of people who might have been on the fence about electrics, or even motorcycling in general, who appear to have latched on to the Livewire as their entryway into ditching gas or getting on two wheels in the first place. Finally, a major manufacturer has designed a motorcycle that looks futuristic and sharp, and it just happens to run on batteries instead of dead dinosaurs. The Livewire appeals to a whole new group of riders, a group unlikely to have considered the brand in the past.

This was exactly the plan. The biggest group of detractors, naysayers, and overall haters of Project Livewire – as far as I could tell from social media – have been diehard gas-powered enthusiasts and H-D traditionalists, all of whom love the rumble of a V-Twin engine. Thing is, Harley’s core products aren’t going anywhere. What is going somewhere is Harley’s core customer base. You know where they’re going? Closer towards the grave. Father time hasn’t lost a battle yet, and every motorcycle manufacturer is well aware it needs to attract the younger generation if it plans to stay alive – now even more so than ever, in this internet, social media, video game, and otherwise electronically-connected world we live in.

Zero FX vs. Suzuki DR-Z400SM

As long as we’re on two wheels, who cares whether it’s gas or electric? Variety is the spice of life! Photo: Evans Brasfield

Electric motorcycles have their limitations – range, charge time and price chief among them – which seem to be the main thing keeping potential buyers at bay. All are understandable concerns, but who better to solve these issues than Harley-Davidson? With the kind of resources available to them, the potential for dramatically increased range without spending too much time plugged in is there.

Ultimately, if Livewire succeeds, other OEMs will be forced to jump in the race, accelerating e-bike advancement at a rate unheard of in the internal combustion age, thereby driving down cost. The beauty of this is that, no matter the potential success of e-bikes, our beloved gas bikes aren’t going anywhere. At least not for the foreseeable future. This could create an amazing amount of diversity in the market, which ultimately means more motorcycles on the roads. That’s a win, if you ask me.

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  • pdad13

    “Electric motorcycles have their limitations — range, charge times and price…”

    You answered your own question.

    I understand the excitement in some quarters for e-bikes, but the fact is that they don’t make sense for most riders, at least in the U.S.

    Eliminate at least one of of the limitations above, and they’ve got a fighting chance.

    H-D can give electrics a boost, but let’s recognize that you’re seeing a lot of initial euphoria about the prospect of a major manufacturer getting on board. H-D doesn’t have a magic battery that will cure the biggest problem for e-bikes. Its resources can help, but a real leap in battery technology may not come for several years. There are lots of people working on it.

    The Livewire is a looker, but it’s not a production bike and I have my doubts it will be unless H-D gets some ironclad positive feedback. In any case, based on what we’ve learned about it, it’s going to need significantly more development.

  • Luke

    The evolution over at Zero is amazing. They make strong improvements every single year and Brammo isn’t far behind. I think HD and their resources will move things forward by larger steps, just not as often.

    Make no mistake though, this IS a production bike (in all but minor details). Nobody of HD’s size would let consumers get on a bike they weren’t confident about. This is a marketing tour, not a “lets see what people think” tour. You can take that to the bank (Brand Management is my day job). If they were to say “no” at this point, the only effect would be pissing off people who want it.

    So, it’s going to happen. You can be sure that Honda isn’t far behind and probably Suzuki as well. The differences will be interesting. All of them are going to try to create “city machines”, but HD’s dealer network isn’t really strong with those buyers – look at any list of the “top 10 bikes for commuters” and you probably won’t see any HDs. HD’s sales staff will have to sell to both their traditional buyers AND these potential new buyers without alienating or talking trash about either. They have a lot of work to do. But as a Brand Manager, I have seen HD do amazing things already, and I think they can pull it off. I just hope the bike has a name that harkens back to the some small light HD…maybe American Lightweight, Sprint, or Super 10? (I’d love Racer or Model T, but those probably have issues).

    I said this before in the other thread. This is the ONLY HD I would ever think of buying. But the look the sales people and customers will give me when I show up for my test drive in my TU250 will probably be one of confusion.

    • pdad13

      Luke, I respectfully disagree. While this is unquestionably a marketing/PR tour, the bike is not production-ready. It has a claimed range of 53 mixed-use miles, which equates to about 30 at high power. That’s not a production bike.

      The chassis and running gear look more or less finished but H-D itself has said that this bike is really developmental, “…Livewire 1.0…” Take that with a grain of salt, but it doesn’t sound like it’s ready to be built yet.

      Instead, it seems to be it’s a trial balloon that involves very little risk and much reward in the form of positive PR and some new brand energy. I think it has a fair chance of being built, but I wouldn’t take it to the bank yet. If they were so sure about this bike, there would be no need for the dog and pony show while tipping off everyone what they were up to in the process.

      P.S. I’m in the same business as you are.

      • Luke

        Here’s my thinking Pdad (and nice to talk to another brand person!)… I don’t see this as a trial balloon. Too much work has gone into it at this point and if they kill it, they will piss off a whole lot of people. Now those people aren’t current HD customers, so the actual near-term pain would be low. But showing people something they want and then not letting them get it would be a very public failure. They didn’t do this type of thing with their recent big pushes, even though they keep talking about how much customer input they used. This type of public failure in a company has big repercussions. People get fired, the company gets the reputation as only being backward looking, the CEO takes a big personal value hit (at a time when Tesla is run by a rock star), etc…

        The bike will certainly change a bit in final form. It’ll likely look a little less extreme, be designed to easily add the ability to carry stuff (commuters need that), it’ll have more range (they are probably low balling goal numbers now so that they come out looking better than expected even they end up at 95 or so). Etc…

        I think production will likely be the biggest challenge. HD can’t make money selling 1000 units of a brand new model like this. They need to have at least a modest hit out the door or it will die in the cradle. Expect lots of buzz over the next year along with modern style ads with a tag line like “yea, that’s MY Harley” and images of a dad on a cruiser with his son/hipster on the Lightwire (and potentially show them swapping keys at some point).

    • VeganLondonMan

      Well, though the value of Harley’s bikes is endlessly debatable and polarizing (I personally like several of their models), nobody can argue that they don’t know how to manage a Brand. They are pros at that. BTW that TU250 is a cool little machine.

  • john burns

    It got a lot of people’s attention directed toward Harley-Davidson didn’t it, who normally look the other way. Maybe some of them also notice the new Street 750? Bait and switch?
    I read it looks really “producton ready” though final specs re power and range are still to be determined.

  • VeganLondonMan

    The idea that electric bikes don’t burn fossil fuels is misleading. A huge percent of the electricity that charges these will be generated by burning coal, oil, and natural gas, and a huge percentage of that generated power is lost in the transmission lines. That said, I would love a little electric commuter.

    • DickRuble

      Very pertinent comment. Let’s add the energy and resources required to produce the Li+ batteries (rare earths), the rare earth magnets needed for the motor, and the costs of recycling those batteries (environmentally problematic) and only then let’s compare usage costs.

    • Jason

      Yes, the vast majority of the electricity produced in the USA comes from fossil fuels. However, your statement about transmission line losses misses the mark. “EIA estimates that national electricity transmission and distribution losses average about 6% of the electricity that is transmitted and distributed in the United States each year” I wouldn’t call 6% a huge percentage.

    • Razedbywolvs

      I don’t care if it puts a big whole in the Ozone or not. I want it because gas is never going to stop going up and electricity can be made at home. Ride for “free” and no maintenance is what is appealing to me.

    • Razedbywolvs

      I don’t care if it puts a big whole in the Ozone or not. I want it because gas is never going to stop going up and electricity can be made at home. Ride for “free” and no maintenance is what is appealing to me.

  • Steven Holmes

    Price. That’s the only reason I wouldn’t yet get my grubby little hands on an electric bike. Battery tech is exploding like the early days of the PC, and I think it’ll only be a matter of (a fairly short) time before you can make the trip from Portland, OR to Cali. on a single charge. Make for a whole new breed of Iron Butt-ers.

    Hell I’d try out one of Zero’s products just to experience the experience if it weren’t for the price! I wonder what a truly smooth ride (no engine vibe) feels like, or moving down the highway with no engine noise. Ninja bikes (sorry Kawasaki, your bikes aren’t stealthy enough to be “ninja”), seriously quiet.

    I say bring the change, bring the technological evolution. Things will get stagnant if change is held back. Trust me, the old stuff will still be around long after Electric is mainstream (says the man who makes knives with a COAL forge) so all the IC guys that hate on EV’s should just chill and enjoy their mounts.

    • DickRuble

      Quiet bikes? Now that’s a concept. Count on the v-twin brains to figure out a way to make them sound like a lawn mower with after market parts.

      • Steven Holmes

        I could just see it… High powered speakers and sound bytes, Gran Turismo style. LMAO
        Want that Patented H-D sound. buy the app!
        I’ll make mine sound like Huey, or an F-18… that’ll mess with folks.

        • Luke

          The image of a bike with the whoop-whoop of a Huey made me laugh out loud. Throw in some doors music to complete the picture.

          • Steven Holmes

            YES, perfect! win!

  • DavidyArica Freire

    I’m all for electrics. Give me a bike that has a reasonable range 100 miles (hardcore riding) and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg then I’m all in. I’ll still have my N300 for the long hauls.

  • http://joeymink.com Joey Mink

    Electrics are awesome — they allow more focus on riding and less on technological side-effects (I’d love to lose the noise, vibration, and need to set my foot for a shift as I’m decelerating into turn 5). But the price point is too high to compete with my Ninja 250. Anyone railing against electrics either enjoys the nostalgia or doesn’t care for the operational benefits that come with a simpler user interface.

    As for Harley and their electric, I’m like WTF? They wouldn’t maintain the XR1200 here in the states, but they think they’ll make waves with this? I’m mostly confused. Maybe they are scared of Brammo/Mission/Zero the same way some of the auto manufacturers seem scared of Tesla?

    I don’t get it, but I don’t have to. I just need to get rich and mount a Mission RS!

  • coma44

    You can keep you’re “juice box” bikes. No engine no sale here.

    • LS650

      ‘Juice box’ bikes? Is that supposed to be pejorative? It sounds more like something a 12-year old would say in the schoolyard at recess.