Autos

Harley-Davidson's electric motorcycle signals a big change for the legendary, but troubled, company

Key Points
  • Harley-Davidson has been previewing its LiveWire electric motorcycle in the United States and Europe.
  • The motorcycle maker is in the process of remaking its business to meet its ambitious goal of attracting 2 million new riders in less than 10 years.
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle
Source: Harley Davidson

Legendary but struggling American motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson is taking a big step toward its ambitious goal of getting millions of people excited about riding motorcycles again.

The company gave Europeans their first look at its LiveWire electric motorcycle at the influential EICMA motorcycle show in Milan, Italy on Tuesday. The move is part of a drive to become a world leader in electric and hybrid motorcycles, and to attract a new kind of customer to the storied American brand.

It is also a radical departure for Harley-Davidson, which has mostly been known for more than a century for its loud, brash motorcycles known as "hogs." The image has become so much a part of the brand that the company's ticker symbol is HOG.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle
Source: Harley-Davidson

But the company has signaled it is time for a a change as the market for bikes continues to age, literally. Almost half of all motorcycle riders are 50 or older.

Harley-Davidson has especially struggled. Most recently, the motorcycle maker released third quarter earnings that beat expectations, but showed the company actually lost market share.

"Harley is in a tough spot here, where their core constituency is getting older and they are having a tough time attracting new people to the sport," said Raymond James analyst Joe Altobello. Many view motorcycles as dangerous and difficult to operate, for example.

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How big Harley-Davidson is

In recent years, the company has made an all out effort to attract more riders overall, including younger ones. The company unveiled a 10-year plan in 2017 to attract 2 million new riders by 2027. In addition to investing in electric bikes, the company has set up schools around the country to teach neophytes how to ride.

Electric motorcycles are expected to be a significant part of this strategy, but the company has also indicated it may expand into scooters and even bicycles, Argus Research analyst David Coleman said in an Oct. 26 research note.

"The expanded lineup may have greater appeal for women customers than the company's traditional motorcycles," Coleman said. "We also believe that this wider range of models will help to attract customers who might otherwise prefer to purchase a 'fully custom' motorcycle."

Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle 
Source: Harley-Davidson 

Electric bikes have a few technical advantages over gas-powered motorcycles. There are no gears to shift, which could make them more palatable to beginners intimidated by the idea of having to change gears while in motion on a motorcycle.

Electric motors offer peak torque immediately from a standstill. That means all the motor's power is available immediately, giving the bike extremely rapid acceleration. In contrast, internal combustion engines need to shift gears as a car or motorcycle increases speed, slowing acceleration. This is why an electric car such as the Tesla Model S P100D can go from 0-60 miles-per-hour in a lightning fast 2.5 seconds, making it one of the quickest accelerating vehicles on the planet.

That said, Harley has acknowledged its new direction may raise some eyebrows, particularly among enthusiasts used to the low-end growl of its classic internal combustion motorcycles.

The LiveWire does create a sound, but it is an entirely different one, more futuristic an emblematic of the bike's electric powertrain.

Here is what it sounds like:

The LiveWire is the first of several motorcycles Harley plans to introduce to refresh its lineup over the next several years.

The LiveWire model is expected to debut in 2019 and will be sold at select dealerships in the United States and Europe through the end of the year. The company will release the bike's price in January.

it will be a new avenue for Harley-Davidson, but the company will already have some competition. Several manufacturers are at work on electric bikes. One that has received a large amount of attention is California-based Zero Motorcycles.

2019 Zereo Motorcycle
Source: Zero

That company debuted its 2019 lineup at the end of October. Founded in 2006, the company already sells 4 different models.

Of course, even without competitors it remains to be seen whether any company can make money on electric motorcycles, given the high costs of developing electric powertrains for cars, Raymond James analyst Joe Altobello told CNBC. He also wonders whether marketing a motorcycle that is easier to ride will be enough to attract the ridership Harley-Davidson is hoping for.

"I think Harley is doing what they need to do: trying new things," Altobello said. "Just continuing on the same path is not smart, given what has transpired in the last fours year. The industry has declined year over year, at least in the United States. I am just skeptical that it is going to be enough to really reverse course."