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Harley-Davidson to Go All Electric – Say What?

    All electric Harley line-up! What is that all about? It turns out that is what Harley-Davidson CEO Jochen Zeitz told the magazine, Dezeen, about the company’s future in a recently published interview.

    How do we wrap our heads around that one? There are so many concerns, it is difficult to pick where to start.

    Before getting to what was said in the interview, we will look at the source. Dezeen is a UK-based design and architectural magazine. The comments were not made to a motorcycle publication or to Forbes. But then again, Dezeen claims to be the world’s most popular design and architecture magazine with three million monthly readers and six million social media followers. Some of them probably ride motorcycles.

    There are number of reasons why openly discussing an “all electric” future for Harley-Davidson is concerning but let’s start with the obvious one. The vast majority of current Harley-Davidson customers have little interest in owning an electric motorcycle. Why do we think this? Those customers already indicated they had little desire to own an electric motorcycle and certainly did not embrace the Harley-Davidson LiveWire – which is/was a well engineered, excellent motorcycle and, most importantly,  available at dealerships for purchase unlike most of the plethora of other electric motorcycles that are somewhere in development and taking deposits. The LiveWire is/was about as good an electric motorcycle as consumers could purchase and yet it still required discounted pricing to clear the last of the Harley-Davidson branded bikes from showrooms. As a ride, the LiveWire was almost as enjoyable as time aboard a recent Road King or the Pan America. It was electric but still very much a motorcycle.

    Zeitz appreciates that Harley-Davidson needs new customers. We know the traditional demographic has been aging out for a while now. But they aren’t gone. The traditional, or existing, customer needs to believe that what they are buying now is the company’s focus and not an eventual afterthought because it does not represent the future. It is the current customer who makes the future, whatever it may be, possible. Even the possibility of eventual abandonment has to denied unless it is so far in the future it can be relegated to “one day it might happen” but even that is an iffy proposition. To come right out and say that a completely electric line-up is the ultimate future may be acknowledging longterm goals but it risks alienating the riders paying the current bills.

    electric harley parked on a city street

    Though a great idea to get ahead of a electric curve that most agree is inevitable, the LiveWire was not a bright beacon for the future of Harley-Davidson. To emphasize the point Harley-Davidson went out and created an entirely new company “LiveWire” with a head office in California to brand and sell the new electric product – which is how we got the LiveWire One or as we like to call it, the LiveWire LiveWire. That bike will be followed by the upcoming LiveWire Del Mar S2 and presumably further LiveWire models ranging in size, purpose and price.

    The plan was that LiveWire bikes were to be sold in stand alone dealerships and not LiveWire/Harley-Davidson dealerships. You can’t go much further than that model in separating two motorcycle brands. The entities are even further apart than Toyota is from Lexus or Nissan is from Infiniti. Most consumer know the latter are divisions of the former but that does not seem to be the goal with Harley-Davidson and the LiveWire brand. It appears to be complete separation. Somewhere along the way Harley-Davidson must have commissioned extensive market research and discovered that future buyers would be less inclined to purchase an electric motorcycle if it was branded a “Harley-Davidson”.

    Which brings up the other concern. In the interview Zeitz spoke of new aspirational customers who want to be riding Harley-Davidson product. But what brand is it exactly if the future is all electric? The Harley-Davidson brand or the LiveWire brand? The latter has about one year of accumulated history and only one current bike – that didn’t start as a “LiveWire” product. This was discussed when it was announce that LiveWire would be its own brand. Why would you dismiss 120 years of the history and brand equity Harley-Davidson has built  as one of the most recognizable companies in the world if you believed consumers would eventually buy an electric Harley-Davidson branded motorcycle?  Would it not have been better to push through that resistance for the longterm good rather the questionable short term gains? Right now it is LiveWire who? It hasn’t been Harley-Davidson who? since sometime shortly after 1903. Oddly in the article there is no mention of “LiveWire” as company building and selling electric motorcycles – it is all about Harley-Davidson building and selling electric motorcycles.

    Dezeen appears to be a forward thinking magazine about both the now and the future of style and architecture. Some things come to fruition and others are probably flights of fancy or futuristic aspirations. Zeitz does say that the move to all electric is a distant thing but just how far distant isn’t said. Yes, eventually all transportation might be electric – or it might be hydrogen powered or it might be fusion powered. Or maybe even antimatter and dilithium crystals. We don’t know what all the options are because the future is uncertain. Right now the strong push it towards electric but saying that we will all be riding electric Harley-Davidson might be the same as saying we will all be riding  in flying cars sometime in the future. Harley-Davidson, as all motorcycle companies need to do, has to look toward the future but hitching your sidecar to one future so publicly when so much of the brand is about tradition is a very risky move.

    The management at Kawasaki said kind of the same thing a few months ago when unveiling a trio of electric motorcycles but it was also emphasized that Kawasaki would continue building ICE motorcycles for as long as there was consumers demand. Zeitz reportedly said that Harley-Davidson wouldn’t be leaving petrol behind any time soon either and measure the transition in terms of decades. Well that is good because with current technology both saddlebags and the top case would need to be densely packed with batteries if an electric touring bike was going to get you through a long  and silent day on the highway.

    Perhaps it was the medium and not the message that caused the problem here but you have to believe the CEO of Harley-Davidson would know his comments about a very different version of his company’s future would get out to the rest of the world rather than stay within the confines of a design and architecture magazine and its audience. Perhaps he was embracing the big picture and “future thought’, which is what he has to do as CEO, but the big picture has different implications for different audiences.

    So why was the magazine talking to Zeitz? It likely started innocently enough in a discussion about architecture and a British firm, Heatherwick Studios,  winning a competition to design a motorcycle plaza / amphitheatre outside the Milwaukee headquarters of the Harley-Davidson. That seems pretty straight forward – and the place does sound impressive.

    But at the bottom of a different article about that project is the following statement from the writer describing the company for which the plaza was being built:

    One of the world’s best-known motorcycle brands, Harley-Davidson is marking its 120th anniversary this year. The company is in the process of evolving into an all-electric brand and launched its first electric motorcycle in 2018.

    Yeah, wow. That is what I thought too. That is the message that will be going out to a lot of people both inside and outside the motorcycle world. On the other hand, if you stick your little toe in the swimming pool, you are in the process of getting wet.

    (The articles in Dezeen regarding the interview, the Harley-Davidson plaza and others can be found on the company’s website.)

    wondering about the plug in for an electric Harley parked in the wilderness


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