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An electric Harley Davidson shows how mainstream EVs have become

There are few brands in the automotive world as iconic as Harley Davidson. The name immediately conjures up images of desert highways and roaring engines producing clouds of smoke. So it’s a sign of just how much the automotive world has changed that even Harley is now producing an electric model.

The company yesterday announced Project LiveWire, effectively a concept bike that will travel down Route 66 and around the rest of the US, visiting Harley dealerships and giving customers the chance to try it out and offer their feedback.

At first, this may seem like a ridiculous idea. Harley Davidsons are known for the noise, feeling and even smell that comes with a petrol engine. But the company claims the electric bike will deliver ‘a new expression’ of this experience, complete with a sound compared to a ‘fighter jet on an aircraft carrier’.

‘Harley-Davidson has reinvented itself many times in our history, with customers leading us every step of the way,’ said the firm’s chief operating officer, Matt Levatich, in a statement.

‘In just the last few years, we’ve broadened our reach to serve an increasingly diverse society, as well as reinvented our approach to product development and manufacturing.

Of course, this is a long way from actually manufacturing and selling electric motorbikes. The project may find that customers and potential customers aren’t interested in an electric Harley.

If I were to be really cynical I might say the whole exercise could be a stunt jumping on the back of trendy topic simply to generate publicity for the traditional Harley product (which I’ve now gone along with by writing this blog).

But even if this is the case, it signals how mainstream the idea of alternative propulsion systems has become. It is now almost impossible to name an automotive manufacturer that isn’t including producing or developing some form of electric vehicle (EV), even if it’s just a concept hybrid.

Ten years ago, even the Toyota Prius was still something of a novelty and the only fully electric cars you ever saw on the roads were micro vehicles such as the G-Wiz.

Now, while EVs remain prohibitively expensive for most individual drivers, gone is the perception of them as repackaged milk floats while the range available to consumers and fleet managers is far greater.

We now have electric 4x4s and sports cars. The arrival of the Tesla Model S in the UK was one of the most talked-about vehicle launches of last year. The start of Formula E, the electric racing series, later this year may help raise the profile of EVs even further.

And Project LiveWire won’t be the first electric motorbike by a long way: the TT Zero has seen emissions-free bikes race in a mirror of the famous Isle of Man TT event since 2010.

The chairman of Ferrari, Luca di Montezemolo, last year said the company would never build an electric car as long as he was in charge, while announcing plans to follow up its €1m euro hybrid vehicle. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a Ferrari with any kind of electric propulsion technology would have been seen as a joke. So who knows what Montezemolo’s eventual successor will allow?

Readers' comments (10)

  • The jet sound just isn't the same at all as two bangs per lamppost......

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  • I have owned about a fistful of H.D.'s and the smoke comes from the rear tire
    The two current ones certianly do. 87 FXR , 09XR1200

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  • This is great but we have several generations of sound addicts. In fact
    when we were kids we used to clip baseball cards to our bicycles that clapped on the spokes so it would sound like Harley!Does the electric come with sound?

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  • Surely in this day and age, the sound of an EV should be selectable, and the volume adjustable. (I just hope they do a better job of the 'motor' sound than mobile phone manufacturers did on ringtones!)

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  • Check out videos on YouTube to hear the sound. It is very futuristic and jet-like. Not as fulfilling as the scream of an engine, but definitely cool in its own right.

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  • The idea of building an inherently quiet machine and then adding synthesised sound is just utterly preposterous.

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  • @Kevin; why is it preposterous? For one you have the pure safety aspect of actually being able to hear the bike approaching. And as Graham says, part of the experience of riding a bike is the noise, the thunder that comes with a massively powerful engine, is a hard thing to beat!

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  • I've ridden an electric motorbike nearly everyday on my way to work and back for the last six years. That's 200+ miles per week.

    Nothing beats the feeling of winding open the 'throttle' and being wound up to speed by a vibration-free high-torque motor with just a degree of gearbox whirr. It puts a huge smile on my face every time I ride it.

    As for the lack of noise - I just applied mild adjustment to my riding style - being more cautious of other road users and pedestrians isn't a bad thing anyway.

    I've now completed 50,000 miles for about 1p per mile.

    It's funny - I now think that bikes don't have to be preposterously noisy to be enjoyable. It would certainly make Sunday mornings rather quieter!

    I think H-D have pulled a neat stunt here; be it for publicity or not. It seems to have 'shocked' a few already.

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  • If the advertisements are to be believed then the noise while different certainly doesn't sound bad.

    An electric bike, with its low weight and small frontal area, seems an ideal vehicle for electrification in fact, so if Harley Davidson can actually make a desirable product it could be the start of something great.

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  • So, hardly mainstream but prominent niche, then?

    As far as noise goes, if they were silent, would motorcyclists be forced to start riding intelligently for once and not rely on other road users to keep them safe?

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