Quiet. Sleek. Unintimidating. The LiveWire is the antithesis of everything Harley-Davidson has ever stood for. And yet, it is undeniably a Harley.
The LiveWire, the first production electric vehicle from Harley, is looking to redefine an industry that has grown complacent in the face of declining sales.
The country's oldest (116 years) and best-known motorcycle maker, Harley wants "to lead in the electrification of this sport" just as it led with traditional, gas-powered motorcycles more than a century ago, said Matt Levatich, chief executive.
"We are as a company shifting our mind-set from where our first thought in the morning was 'We build great motorcycles' to our first thought having to be 'We build riders,' " he said.
Arriving at dealers in September, the LiveWire is targeting a new audience for Harley — one that is young, affluent and urban, and eager to adopt new technology. And it's hoping to do it with a bike that looks and feels as progressive as the company's new mode of thinking.
Harley, like most other motorcycle companies, is trying to reverse a steep sales decline. It sold 132,868 bikes in the United States last year — down 10% from 2017 and 18% from 2016. It's an industry problem. Domestic sales peaked at 1.1 million in 2006 but struggle to reach 500,000 annually now.
"The millennials are getting in too slow, and the baby boomers are leaving too fast," said Ron Bartels, general manager of Bartels' Harley-Davidson in Marina del Rey, Calif. "We need a new kind of customer."
Bartels' is among the 150 American dealerships, out of Harley-Davidson's 650, that will carry the LiveWire this year. A hundred dealers in Europe will also sell the bike. All of them must install a DC fast charger and train staff to service electric motorcycles. Bartels said his shop had presold seven of the eight LiveWires (retail price: $29,799) it would receive this year.
The industry is banking on electrics.
"For so long, we thought of motorcycles as being these raw, fire-breathing vehicles," said Harlan Flagg, founder of Hollywood Electrics in Los Angeles. "Motorcyclists have done themselves a huge disservice by scaring people away with these ridiculously loud bikes that are obnoxious."
Their electric cousins are easier to ride than the gas-powered monsters. They have no clutch or gearshift, so riders do not need to coordinate all their extremities to operate the controls. They just twist the grip and go. There's no hot exhaust pipe to burn a leg. And they project a friendlier, more eco-conscious image. They're whisper-quiet.
There are hopeful signs for the industry.
While sales are flagging, motorcycle ridership is at an all-time high, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council in Irvine, Calif. Almost 29 million riders swung a leg over a bike at least once in 2018. What's getting the industry in trouble is that the pre-owned market is three times the size of the market for new bikes, the group says.
Electrics could change that. Almost 70% of millennial riders in the council's survey of owners said they were interested in electric motorcycles. But so far, no Tesla of bikes has emerged.
Zero Motorcycles, based in Scotts Valley, Calif, entered the market in 2008. Hollywood Electrics is its No. 1 dealer globally. Still, the shop has sold just 500 of its bikes over the last decade.
Other mainstream manufacturers, including Honda, Yamaha and BMW, have shown electric concept motorcycles, but none are in production.
Electric motorcycles face many of the same market hurdles as electric cars. Buyers must deal with limited range, a lack of charging infrastructure and high prices. Moreover, the young consumers the industry needs are frequently too saddled with student loan debt to afford them.