Mark Buche, 28, is just the type of guy Harley-Davidson (HOG) wants buying its bikes.
He wears vintage selvedge denim and Persol sunglasses. He trims his tawny long hair at an old-style barbershop in Long Beach, California, and camps in Big Sur with his 1975 Honda CBR and a few similarly inclined twentysomething friends.
Hog-riding fat cats they’re not. But with their old cafe racers and leather jackets scuffed more from use than the demands of fashion, they’re far from dilettantes. And motorcycle companies like Harley are targeting them with a provocative idea: Why not make an electric motorcycle that is as fast and good-looking as its conventional counterparts?
“Everybody is very concerned with getting this new young rider,” said Mark Hoyer, the editor-in-chief of Cycle World, on a recent phone call. “And younger people are realizing these electric bikes are genuinely fast. In fact, with the kind of performance electric motorcycles have these days, anybody who rides would be impressed.”
No one thinks electric bikes will save the industry — or that the industry even needs saving, although sales have been gradually declining since record highs in the early 2000s — but they will be a key factor in attracting the next generation of enthusiasts. The folks at Harley-Davidson certainly think so: Earlier this year they unveiled Project LiveWire, a futuristic 74-horsepower electric motorcycle prototype that goes 53 miles between charges and hits 92 miles per hour at top speed. If 53 miles seems paltry as far as road trips go, that’s because it is: “You can barely get out of town on that,” Hoyer pointed out. But Harley says it’s a start. Company reps are testing reactions to the bike from enthusiasts and prospective riders alike over the next few months, but doesn’t plan to actually produce LiveWire in volume.
For many young riders, the aesthetic of the bike is essential, and response on LiveWire’s low-slung body has been mixed.
“I’m not completely sold on the design, but I definitely want to try it,” Adam Kallen said recently outside his Brooklyn-based motorcycle coffee shop, Jane Motorcycles. Kallen owns a Ducati and offered one caveat: “It has to sound good. That’s non-negotiable. Until then, the jury is still out.”
It’s true. While the near silence of Tesla’s Model S affords it a certain futuristic élan that bolsters the sedan’s appeal, the low whir of electric motorcycles, on the other hand, can act as a detractor. Many people buy motorcycles precisely because they like their guttural roar. They like to feel the rumble of the handlebars as they release the clutch and open that throaty engine.
Hear The Roar
Critics of electric motorcycles say the sound of a traditional bike’s engine alerts drivers and pedestrians about its proximity, while a silent bike is easily overlooked. Proponents counter that if a rider plans to rely simply on the sound of the engine to protect him from a collision, he’s already not riding safe enough. What’s more, they add, the quiet nature of electric bikes makes them perfect for riding through close-quartered city streets and back-road trails because they don’t disturb the neighbors, whether human or animal.
Harley-Davidson has fabricated a distinctive sound for the LiveWire bike so as to uphold that audio covenant with hog loyalists. And it’s hardly alone in this battle to become the Tesla (TSLA) of motorcycles. Within the last year, electric bikes have become significantly more powerful, smoother and longer-lasting than the first electrified attempts that started appearing five years ago — those early Zeros, Brammos, and obscure Chinese makes were closer to glorified Vespas than anything Ducati or Triumph would build.
In contrast, Zero’s latest, the $17,000 SR, has highly tuned suspension and power-train technologies, not to mention a motor that hits 60mph in 3.3 seconds. A seven-hour charge gets a range of around 130 miles. Brammo’s $11,000 Enertia Plus gets 434 MPGe (that’s electric miles-per-gallon equivalent) with a top speed of 60mph, and the $30,000, 160hp Mission R racer has a top speed of more than 150mph with a sub-3-second, 0-60mph sprint time. Earlier this year the Italian firm Energica, led by its young CEO, Livia Cevolini, debuted the $68,000, 134hp Ego 45 superbike (0-60mph in 2.9 seconds). It charges in just three hours.
“The electric bike does all of the things I ride for — without any of the drama.” Scot Harden, vice president of global marketing for Zero Motorcycles said last month in New York. “I ride for the excitement, the thrill, the acceleration, the sense of control, the sense of freedom. The Zero Streetfighter gives me all of that. What it doesn’t give me is loud noise, vibration, heat, exhaust fumes, or oil stains in the garage. Plus I don’t have any routine maintenance on the power train. I don’t have to work on it. I just basically ride it.”
Room For Growth
The idea is that these electrics, with their 100-plus-mile- range, zero emissions, and gearless twist-and-go acceleration are perfect both for urban and off-road fun. And that their silent, maintenance-light sensibility might attract new riders, particularly women, intimidated by the heavy clutches and grimy responsibilities associated with café racers and street bikes.
There’s certainly room for growth: Even though their numbers have increased by double digits since 2003, women represent only 25% of motorcycle riders nationwide, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Last year BMW, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Piaggio, Suzuki, Triumph, and Yamaha sold 561,000 bikes nationwide, up from 557,000 in 2012 but down a staggering 53% from the 1.2 million sold in 2006. This year motorcycle sales remain relatively unchanged, according to MIC, which tallied 139,922 new units sold in Q1, 17 units higher than the same period in 2013.
A Delicate Balance
But if electric bikes hope to play a real role in boosting the bottom line, they’ll have to reach that delicate balance between batteries that can offer enough power for long rides but that are also relatively lightweight and affordable enough for regular consumers. Current price premiums on the smallest, strongest, best lithium-ion batteries pump MSRPs up tens of thousands of dollars, forcing those bikes far out of reach for the average consumer. Add to that the fact that gasoline-powered motorcycles are already fuel-efficient — a Ducati Monster 696 gets 40 MPG on a 4-gallon tank, plenty of room for long adventures without frequent pit stops — leaving some to question whether an electrified bike is even necessary.
Of course, for young riders with discretionary income and a thirst for novelty, those things don’t matter so much. Just ask Buche.
“There is a different tool for each job,” he said grinning over coffee in a West Hollywood cafe. “Some motorcycles are magic bullets that do everything really well, like a Swiss Army knife. But even if it’s your favorite bike, you’re going to park it sometimes. Electric motorcycles are really fun. I want them to come in a serious way — and quickly.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Hannah Elliott in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org To contact the editor responsible for this story: Justin Ocean at email@example.com.