It’s about the buzz, not the roar.
With its Project LiveWire — an all-electric, prototype motorcycle that goes from zero to 60 mph in less than four seconds — Harley is aiming to shake up the electric motorcycle game and attract new riders.
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"Project LiveWire reinforces the brand and its dimension," said Mark-Hans Richer, Harley-Davidson's chief marketing officer. "It's really about reinvention. We are taking what is great about America and about Harley-Davidson and we are moving it forward."
Richer rode the electric bike Monday when it was unveiled at an invitation-only event in New York.
UBS analyst Robin Farley said Harley's decision to move into the space is about building buzz for its brand. He said the new electric category won't add to revenues for the largest motorcycle maker, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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Electric motorcycles make up less than 1.5 percent of the total market — only about 5,000 units, according to UBS. The category has been largely dominated by small makers such as Brammo and Zero Motorcycles.Yamaha has also announced plans to enter the market, with its two electric models, the PES1 and the PED1, expected to hit the market by 2016.
As a comparison, Zero Motorcycles hopes to sell just 2,400 of its electrics this year, about 1 percent of Harley's 2013 sales of gasoline-powered motorcycles.
Harley so far has no plans to bring the model electric bike into production.
"Harley is basically trying to demonstrate that they can innovate beyond their core customer and that's been a challenge for them in the past," Farley said.
Still, a recent study by Navigant Research suggests Harley may be onto a trend. The researcher anticipates sales of electric motorcycles worldwide will grow to 1.2 million this year, along with 4.1 million battery scooters.
Robin Diedrich, a senior analyst at Edward Jones, said the electric auto market could potentially mean big bucks.
"The electric car and motorcycle market is a very small niche, but a very fast-growing category," Diedrich said. "If Harley can create a good product and get a lot of excitement around it, you'll have individuals that may not have made the move to electric, considering taking the leap."
But while Harley's Richer said the company has been "very happy with the response so far," several enthusiasts at the company's Canoga Park, California, dealership were critical of the electric vehicles. Many buyers buy Harleys and tune them to make them louder — adding to the adage that "loud pipes save lives."
One Harley owner said he wouldn't purchase the new bike because without the roar of the engine, it wouldn't be a true Harley.
"When I ride a motorcycle, it's that engine vibration, the sound, the kind of visceral experience you get that you can't get with an electric motorcycle," said the California owner. "If I'm going to buy an electric motorcycle, I might as well buy a scooter or something like that."
Project LiveWire will be available for licensed riders to test drive at events around the U.S. throughout the summer. The prototypes get about 53 miles per charge and take roughly 3.5 hours to recharge.
—Abigail Bassett, CNBC.com. Paul A. Eisenstein also contributed to this story. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com