A battery-powered Harley? Merely mentioning such an amalgamation is a good way to get unceremoniously removed from your local biker bar, but this oxymoron is making a nationwide tour at this very moment. The prototype LiveWire is an attempt by Harley-Davidson to gauge public interest in an electric vehicle offering.
Where there would typically be a voluminous gas tank and trademark rumbling pipes, there are now batteries and the whine of spinning coils. Harley describes the sound as being far from silent, and its equation of the noise of the motor with that of a jet turbine is indicative of the significant brand challenge that lies ahead.
Harley, a brand often associated with conspicuous consumption, sees an opportunity to get a foothold in a largely untapped market. The company’s president, Matt Levatich, has stated that sustainability is “a core part of our business strategy.” As a result, significant efforts have been made to reduce the environmental impacts in the manufacturing process, but ultimately Harley’s product offerings will have to be impacted, as well.
Harley’s demographic is not your typical green consumer. It skews disproportionately toward middle-aged Caucasian males. And you’re far more likely to see a “Don’t tread on me” flag than a “Green Peace” emblem stitched across a rider’s back. So it’s commendable to see a company such as this attempt to shepherd their surly consumers into greener pastures, right? Well, that’s not exactly what’s going on here.
Harley is often viewed as an American success story. Facing bankruptcy in the early ’80s, the company made an adept turnaround. By capitalizing on their brand and targeting Boomers, the richest generation in history, the brand re-established itself as a market leader. But here’s the rub. Their target is aging out. By age 60, riders begin to lose interest. Motorcycle touring is more strenuous than the average observer would think, and at some point it simply becomes too much for an aging body. Sure, another generation is aging in, but they are smaller in numbers and less affluent. Harley would benefit greatly by broader market appeal.
Thus, the company’s potential foray into the EV market may be more of a business necessity than a sudden change of heart. Not to say they don’t genuinely have good intentions, but the company needs younger buyers. Right now it’s viable and stable in its existing niche, but somebody has to be the market leader for EV bikes – why not Harley? Sure, there are some players in the field already, but no clear leaders.
This is more than simply speculation on my part. Kirk Rasmussen, Harley’s styling manager, stated in an interview with Cycle World this bike is attempting to appeal to younger riders.
Harley is under no illusion its silver-bearded devotees will trade in their rumbling hogs for a sleeker, stealthier, greener model, but they are hoping to augment its declining demographic with a younger, more progressive buyer.
One potential obstacle facing Harley is revealed in Eco PulseTM 2014. People looking for greener products are more and more interested in the companies’ overall environmental records. Will a green buyer discount Harley’s EV because of its other more consumptive offerings (which they in no way intend to abandon)? Can you build a green brand in the shadow of a traditional one?
Time will tell and, ultimately, as Tesla has taught us, what will drive EV sales for Harley is not simply whether it’s green but whether it’s great. Based on the handful of test-drive-based reviews, Harley is off to a good start. For me, however, the big takeaway is that, once again, shrewd companies are seeing eco-friendly products as less of an obligation to the planet and more of an opportunity for business.