Red Echo

June 20, 2014

Electric Harley?

Harley-Davidson‘s entire brand image is built on nostalgia; their reputation for low-quality engineering is the subject of endless biker jokes. Harleys, the non-Harley-rider will tell you, are expensive, unreliable, old-fashioned bikes for people who care more about style than substance. H-D is literally the last motorcycle manufacturer I would expect to announce an electric motorcycle project. There are no specs, there is no timeline, there is no actual product, just a prototype – but it’s a damn cool prototype and an amazing statement from the one company I’d most expect to be flogging noisy, stinky, unreliable gas-burners decades after everyone else on the highway has switched over to electricity.

My plan, of course, is to buy an electric bike as soon as I can afford one; bikes with enough range to satisfy my everyday needs have been out for a few years now. I’ll keep a big, heavy, luggage-equipped gasoline-powered bike around for road trips, but a svelte, zippy, quiet electric seems like the perfect machine for getting around the city.

Looking toward Tesla and its network of superchargers, though, it’s not hard to imagine a not-too-distant future where cross-country electric motorcycle road trips could be totally practical. For car drivers, the idea of stopping for an hour’s break every couple hundred miles to recharge sounds just barely acceptable, but that’s basically what non-Iron-Butt motorcycle riders do on road trips already. Riding is a lot more tiring than driving; you need time to stretch and rest. What’s more, you can’t use the drive-through; you have to stop for a while when it’s time to eat.

Further, an electric motorcycle’s battery pack is always going to be a lot smaller than an electric car’s, and the bike is going to get a lot more distance per kilogram than the car will, so a hypothetical half-hour break at a Tesla-style supercharger could potentially give your electric bike more extra range miles than your body can take before its next rest.

The problem, of course, is that Tesla is sensibly building their superchargers along major highways, the kinds of big-slab roads motorcyclists tend to avoid; a hypothetical Supercharger-compatible motorcycle might be capable of doing a long road trip, but it might not be the kind of road trip you’d actually want to take.

Harley should license Tesla’s supercharger technology for their electric bikes, then identify the nation’s best two-lane highways, the motorcycle roads everyone wants to ride, and they should build their own supercharger stations in the small towns at either end. I’m thinking of roads like CA 299, the Blue Ridge Highway, and the Cascades Loop. Estimates I’ve read suggest that Tesla’s supercharger stations cost about $100k-$175k; for about half a million bucks, then, Harley could open up the entire Cascade Loop to electric motorcycle riders.

The awesome part is that this is either feasible or very close to feasible with current technology, and once you get past the “electric” hurdle, it actually fits right in with Harley’s market. Brammo’s Empulse has a 10k battery pack, a highway range around 60 miles, a top speed of 110 mph, and a Level-2 top-up charge time of 2 hours… but Harley customers are already happy to pay lots of money for relatively big, heavy, slow bikes, just because they look cool, feel comfortable on long road trips, and have lots of torque. Electric bikes already come with huge amounts of torque – so Harley should just stack that sucker up with a really big battery pack, forget about the top speed, set their designers to work making it look cool, and then give people their road trip kicks by rolling out a network of Level-3 fast chargers.

They will make MILLIONS, and they’ll bring electric vehicle tech to places it would never otherwise go in the process.