Few sports and pastimes are as committed to their traditions as motorcycle riding. With companies that have been in business for decades like Harley-Davidson, Indian, and others, the technology has evolved. However, what riders want from their motorcycles has not. They want power, speed, looks, and more importantly for some, sound. They want the roar of a V-twin engine; to feel the rumbling just underneath their seat. They want to go fast, and for everyone around them to know it too. Harley’s CMO, Mark-Hans Richer, sums up the feeling riders want on their bikes saying, “Wow I really feel cool on this, and other people turn their heads when I go by and love the sound, and it makes a statement, and it’s got character and attitude.”
Continued fixation on these traditions has consistently prompted the major motorcycle manufacturers to turn away from exploring the all-electric bike market. In addition, major manufacturers have a lot invested in pistons, valves, clutches, radiators and gearboxes. Therefore, the all-electric technology is simply still too expensive for the average rider. The 2014 Zero SR from Zero Motorcycles, one of the most well-reviewed and praised electric street bikes currently on the market, retails from $17,000 to $19,500, which means that the standard SR is about $10,000 more than a Kawasaki Ninja 650, a solid commuter style gas bike. All of these factors have contributed to an electric motorcycle market that is nowhere near as developed as its automobile counterpart, dominated by small brands in niche markets with comparatively few resources, and little mainstream relevance outside of the very hardcore motorcycle community.
However, things may soon change as both Harley-Davidson and Yamaha have announced their intent to introduce new all-electric bikes to their product lines. On June 19th, Harley unveiled Project LiveWire, its first-ever electric motorbike. Though it’s still considered a prototype, and therefore still unavailable to purchase, the LiveWire will tour Harley dealerships in the US, offering people the chance to test-ride the new bike. The tour is meant to gauge public response to the electric Harley before deciding if and when to begin mass-production for the bike. The company’s COO, Matthew Levatich, said, “”Project LiveWire is another exciting, customer-led moment in our history. Because electric vehicle technology is evolving rapidly, we are excited to learn more from riders through the Project LiveWire experience to fully understand the definition of success in this market as the technology continues to evolve.” Although the bike does currently feature respectable specs, according to TheVerge.com, Harley “stressed that what they care about right now is getting rider feedback — including finding out who this bike is actually for. ‘That’s one of the most interesting things we’re going to learn,’ says Harley marketing Chief Mark-Hans Richer, ‘the breadth of this experience.’ This isn’t a bike for most Harley traditionalists, after all, so the question may be what new, younger riders are looking for.” Yamaha Motor has also begun its own process for developing an all-electric motorbike as well, publishing the following in its annual report for the year 2013: “In sports motorcycles, we are working to create new value with EV sports motorcycles, which we aim to launch in the near future, with the development of the small, on-road sports PES1, as well as the PED1, which are being developed to expand the scope of electric vehicles to the off-road world.” According to Gizmag.com, neither of Yamaha’s two new models look like they’re going to “set the world on fire in their first iterations.” Their electric bikes are likely to exhibit the performance characteristics “of what Zero was doing three or four years ago.” However, with the resources of one of the biggest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, Yamaha can be expected to make rapid gains quickly with the proper motivation.
These moves by these two major companies represent a significant shift in the thought processes and focuses of these companies, and signify trends in the sport as a whole. Although it’s more than extremely unlikely that combustion-engine bikes will be completely phased-out of the market anytime soon, the PES1 and PED1 by Yamaha, and the LiveWire by Harley, are acknowledgements that there is a growing customer interest in electric motorbikes. There is still a significant amount of development needed before they will take off, but with companies like Harley and Yamaha backing the electric motorcycle, that time will be here much sooner than most people would have previously assumed. However, the challenge for these companies is not just technical, but emotional as well. Recreating that feeling of power and freedom with a machine that offers no noise and therefore no bravado is difficult, even for Harley, whose LiveWire “lets off a high-pitched whine that sounds more like an oversized vacuum than a vehicle,” according to TheVerge.com. Harley is determined to deliver on its typical emotional satisfaction with the LiveWire, even if the sound may be totally different, and figuring out what can change riders’ minds is part of what Harley is after as it gets feedback on its electric motorbike. One thing is for certain, with Harley-Davidson and Yamaha leading the charge, electric motorcycles will continue to make rapid progress, and the future will come along with them.models look like they’re going to “set the world on fire in their first iterations.” Their electric bikes are likely to exhibit the performance characteristics “of what Zero was doing three or four years ago.” However, with the resources of one of the biggest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, Yamaha can be expected to make rapid gains quickly with the proper motivation.