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Harley-Davidson to launch electric motorcycle prototype

A prototype for what could be the first Harley-Davidson electric motorcycle is being launched next week for Harley enthusiasts to test ride and give the company their feedback, the company announced Thursday. The prototype and testing process are being called Project Live Wire. (Image courtesy of Harley-Davidson)

A prototype for what could be the first Harley-Davidson electric motorcycle is being launched next week for Harley enthusiasts to test ride and give the company their feedback, Milwaukee-based Harley said Thursday.

It's a process that will take months, or even years, and there's no guarantee Harley-Davidson will ever build an electric bike for mass production. Still, Project Live Wire is a big step forward for the company and the motorcycle industry that, for the most part, has been tied to the internal combustion engine for more than a century.

While the bikes being introduced next week, starting in New York, are not for sale, they will log thousands of hours of road time in demo rides across the country and overseas.

"Customers will tell us what they think it will take to make a great electric motorcycle. I am sure we will discover things that we cannot anticipate right now," said Mark-Hans Richer, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the world's largest manufacturer of heavyweight motorcycles.

"It's an opportunity to learn, and we will see where it goes," Richer added.

Harley hasn't revealed the technical specifications of the prototype bikes, but for sure they won't have the syncopated "potato, potato, potato" rumble that resonates from the company's V-Twin engines.

For the electric motor sound: "Think fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. Project Live Wire's unique sound was designed to differentiate it from internal combustion and other electric motorcycles on the market," Richer said.

"When it comes to emotion evoked from sound, it can be distinctive, cool and fun. And we think we got that in the Live Wire," he added.

The demo motorcycles will be at the June 26 "Bike Night" at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Not everyone will get to ride them, and individual rides at the demo locations will probably be limited to less than 10 minutes.

"It's going to be a challenge because we believe there will be more people wanting to ride than we will be able to process in a particular day," Richer said.

A 2014 U.S. tour, kicking off with a journey down the legendary Route 66 highway, will include stops at more than 30 Harley dealerships now through the end of the year. In 2015, the tour will continue in the U.S. and expand into Canada and Europe.

Richer says it's impossible to say when the company would decide whether to move foward with an electric motorcycle in its lineup or drop the idea altogether.

Currently, electric motorycles are limited to distances of less than 200 miles on a single battery charge.

"If we get a lot of feedback from customers who said the only way they would like one of these bikes is if they could ride to Sturgis on a single (battery) charge, that would be a little hard to pull off," Richer said.

Harley will interview thousands of people who take test rides on the bikes, using a standard set of questions about what they like and don't like about the machines.

"The beauty of this is it's something we have never done before, and the challeng of this is it's something we have never done before," Richer said.

The Project Live Wire bike was designed at the Willie G. Davidson Product Development Center, a steel-and-glass building in Wauwatosa, Wis., sometimes called "the bunker," that has motorized window shades to keep prying eyes from getting a glimpse of bikes before they're released to the public.

Some projects there are completed in as few as 12 months, while designing an all-new motorcycle model could take three years. Under CEO Keith Wandell's leadership, the company has greatly reduced the time it takes to get a new bike from the drawing board to the marketplace.

"This was sort of a 'skunk works' initiative done entirely in the basement of the product development center. I wouldn't call it formal development at all," Richer said.

Electric motorcycles are generally more popular in urban areas where they don't cover long distances between charges. Some of the more advanced models, such as sport bikes from a manufacturer named Zero, are fast and have strong acceleration.

Project Live Wire, with its tour of major U.S. cities: "will probably be a little more focused in the urban space because that's the nature of these kinds of vehicles, given you can't really ride to Sturgis and back on it unless you want to do it in short bursts," Richer said.

Find more information and images of the Live Wire motorcycle here.