Harley-Davidson has been toying around with the idea of an electric motorcycle for about four years now, but yesterday the company committed to putting one into production. There are no specs just yet, but Harley executives say to expect it to hit the market “within 18 months.”
The new bike will presumably build on the somewhat meager performance specs of LiveWire, the prototype electric motorcycle Harley-Davidson rolled out back in 2014. That bike was able to go from 0-60 mph in under four seconds, which was impressive, but it was limited to just 55 miles of range in “economy” mode. Electric motorcycles have come a long way in the few years since then, so it’s likely that Harley-Davidson’s first production bike will be far more capable.
Unfortunately for fans of the legacy bike brand, the announcement of the futuristic product was a side dish to some really troubling news for Harley-Davidson. The company announced that it’s closing a factory in Missouri, which will end about 800 jobs, and that it’s consolidating another plant in Pennsylvania by about 260 jobs.
The motorcycle market has lagged in recent years, and Harley-Davidson has suffered. The company saw sales dip 6.7 percent in 2017, and is projecting a continuation of that decline in 2018.
A switch to electric, even for just one bike in the lineup, is no sure bet to save Harley-Davidson. Adopting electric technology may seem like a foregone conclusion in traditional passenger vehicles, but a huge part of the experience in riding a motorcycle comes from the sound and feel of a combustion engine. Harley-Davidson tried to head this potential problem off when it introduced LiveWire back in 2014 by developing an artificial sound that whined as the riders cranked the throttle, but it wasn’t exactly enough to thrill the people who rode it.
Still, a few small companies like Zero Motorcycles have found early success in building electric motorcycles for riders who are curious. I rode Zero’s DS ZF6.5 late last fall, and it’s wild fun — the instant torque of the electric motor, combined with the total lack of gears, makes for a giddy and futuristic riding experience that almost makes up for the fact that the range (about 60 miles) is still not equal to that of a traditional bike. If Harley-Davidson can find a way to make an electric motorcycle sound as good as it looks and feels, maybe the next announcement won’t be accompanied by more bad news.