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Blue Dog Diaries: Future shock

By Terry Roorda

How do you feel about electric motorcycles? And by “you” I mean current Harley riders and the legions of Milwaukee traditionalists who constitute the very backbone of Harley’s customer base both now and going forward. And by “electric motorcycle” I mean specifically the newly unveiled LiveWire. That’s the multi-million dollar question Harley-Davidson has posed with the pronouncement of a year(s)-long exploratory road trip to 30 domestic dealerships with a European swing following that to gauge customer response, gather suggestions, listen to criticism and then, supposedly, decide on that basis whether or not to actually bring the LiveWire to market.

I have a sneaking hunch that Harley’s going to get an earful.

In campaigning the LiveWire, Milwaukee has waded full-stride into a niche market if ever there was one, and a niche that’s already populated with several determined companies—Zero, Brammo (in which Polaris Industries holds a stake) and Mission. And my personal response to the entire subject remains the same as it has since those three companies sprang up pretty much in my back yard over the last decade—Santa Cruz, Portland and San Francisco. And that response can be described as “skeptical” at best, and “utterly baffled” at the other extreme.

The EV technology has put me into something of an existential quandary, and has since Zero first burst on the local scene and invited us to test the vehicle. Now, since the machine is an American motorcycle, and thus within the editorial purview of this publication, it was also so far outside our usual range of coverage and way outside our technical comfort zone, that it was easy to dismiss as a novelty targeted at an entirely different audience than we serve.

And even more than that consideration was the more fundamental bewilderment at how any vehicle with a total riding distance potential less—even significantly less—than 100 miles before requiring a time-consuming recharge could ever be of any practical value to a serious motorcyclist.

As Editor Kleiman observes in her outstanding coverage of the LiveWire rollout in New York City, her experience in the saddle, and her description of the bike’s functional specs in the August issues, we’ll need to learn an entirely new lexicon of terms to engage the subject authoritatively. It’s a lexicon that includes things like kilowatt hours, radial flux permanent magnet brushless motors, three phase motor controllers with regenerative deceleration, stage I and II charging facilities, and so on. (It brings to mind Roy Scheider’s ashen expression upon seeing the great white in Jaws and uttering, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” only in this instance upon seeing the LiveWire it’s, “We’re gonna need a bigger vocabulary.”)

Even as battery technology progresses apace, propelled by the finest minds in the field, that progress remains modest at best, and costly. (EV pioneer Elon Musk, the brains behind the Tesla electric sports car, famously said that putting a man on Mars is a likelier prospect than the development of an economical battery capable of sustained mileage—though he believes, dreamily, that both are inevitabilities.)

Once you’ve taken the leap of faith and decided that range is not a deal killer for you personally and go comparison shopping among the various EV offerings in the showrooms with the expectation that Harley-Davidson will in all likelihood join the fray, the LiveWire has a couple of aces in the hole that bode well for its acceptance, the first being the incalculable value of The MoCo branding, and the second being the undeniable beauty of what they’ve created. In the looks department, it is a standout; it is an eye-popper; a block of obsidian exuding that badass Milwaukee attitude—only without the heavy-metal thunder.

What remains to be seen is whether or not the star power of the brand is transferable to an EV consumer base currently comprised of the kind of well-heeled young urbanites whizzing between their SoMa loft and their cubicle at the Google campus in San Francisco with a stop off at Starbuck’s and a Greenpeace rally—or so the stereotype goes.

Their numbers are growing, and as urban centralization and battery technology continue to increase, so will that market pool. All that’s missing is any indication of even a modicum of sentimental or visceral response to the Bar & Shield among a demographic more likely to be streaming The Big Bang Theory on an iPhone than watching Battleground Phoenix on the fatback tube, and there’s the real possibility that in the warp speed Moore’s Law culture of the techie urbanite, Harley’s entry into the EV game came a few years late and a few kilowatt hours short.

Jet Turbo Harley-Davidson FXR RC Toy

Strictly speaking, however, that assessment would be inaccurate since despite Harley’s promotion of the LiveWire as the company’s first electric motorcycle, that’s not entirely true. I’ve been operating an electric Harley bike for over 20 years—a 6.0v Jet Turbo FXR, to be exact. It’s proven super quick, completely reliable, and utterly indestructible despite numerous spills and collisions. In actual fact, the Jet Turbo was outsourced by Harley-Davidson to Tyco, is radio controlled, and would fit into a shoebox—a container that, coincidentally, would also hold every last thing I know about EV technology.

It’s all right here in the diaries…

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