Harley-Davidson Inc. (HOG:US) is considering a green hog. It wants to know what you think about that.
The motorcycle maker, whose storied highway cruisers are as loud as they are large, will take 22 electric bikes on a U.S. tour starting next week to solicit reactions that will help shape the environmentally aware vehicle’s development.
Or not. Depending on the feedback, the no-exhaust Harley may never make it out of R&D, said Mark-Hans Richer, chief marketing officer of the Milwaukee-based company.
“It’s how we like to explore product, through the eyes of our customers,” he said in an interview. “We couldn’t imagine this sitting on a turntable at a show with models handing out brochures. It needed to be something real, something that customers could have a first-hand experience with.”
Two fleets of the prototypes will be demonstrated in more than 30 cities starting June 24 in New York, the company said in a statement. People will be able to take the bike for a spin or sit astride one hooked to a machine that’ll simulate the riding experience, Richer said. The tour will continue next year in more U.S. cities and in Europe and Canada.
While Richer declined to comment on the electric bike’s power pack, or how many miles it can go without a charge, he said the prototype has a Harley sound. Unlike the classic rumble, it’s “high-toned, but still very strong,” he said, sort of like a fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier.
“Whether it’s riding by or you’re riding on it, the sound needed to have an emotional character,” he said. “When you hear it go by, you say, ‘Wow. That’s cool.’”
For much of its 111-year history, Harley sold choppers as fast as it could to buyers it knew well: wealthy, middle-aged American white men. The recession changed that.
Revenue in 2009 fell almost a quarter from a year earlier. Chief Executive Officer Keith Wandell, hired from auto-parts maker Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI:US), cut costs and pushed Harley to try to expand its customer base to women, younger drivers, non-whites and non-Americans.
After receiving 25 percent of its revenue from outside the U.S. in 2006, the company said it now forecasts 40 percent of sales will by this year be in foreign markets, which is where more than half of its dealerships are located.
Harley also changed how it develops new models, using focus groups and clinics and opening up test-runs to a wide circle of consumers and dealers in the U.S. and overseas.
Results hit the market last year with the Touring line, equipped with voice-activated and touch-screen GPS systems, and the Street bikes, Harley’s first lightweights in decades.
If Harley does go green, it’ll compete against a handful of companies, including Brammo Inc. and Zero Motorcycles Inc. Global sales of electric motorcycles are expected to grow slightly, according to a report from Navigant Research, to 1.4 million annually in 2023 from 1.2 million this year.
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