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Without the range and the rumble, Harley-Davidson finds e-motorcycles a hard sell

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In a convention hall, people gather around a black and gold Harley-Davidson electric motorcycle on a stand.

True Harley lovers find the LiveWire too quiet. "They want it to make that noise when they’re coming down the road,” says Casey Harrold, marketing manager at the Tobacco Road Harley-Davidson dealership in Raleigh, North Carolina. David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

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Harley-Davidson told investors on Thursday that it had a pretty good close to 2022. Global motorcycle shipments were up 18% in the fourth quarter compared to the year before.

But the news was not so great for LiveWire, Harley’s electric motorcycle business. Revenue there was down by 28%. Harley spun out LiveWire into a separate entity last year, though it still owns most of it.

GMC’s all-electric Hummers and all-electric Ford F-150s are flying off the shelves, and demand for electric scooters is strong too. So what’s different about electric motorcycles?

When the Tobacco Road Harley-Davidson dealership in Raleigh, North Carolina, was carrying LiveWire bikes a couple of years ago, there were customers who wanted to check them out. 

“They see how fast it is, how nimble it is, how easy it is to shift,” said Casey Harrold, the dealership’s marketing manager.

But for true Harley lovers, there was often a deal breaker: “They miss the sound,” Harrold said. “They want that rumble. They want it to make that noise when they’re coming down the road.”

While Ford can market its all-electric pickup truck to traditional pickup drivers, there’s just less natural overlap between LiveWire and Harley riders, according to Jefferies analyst Anna Glaessgen. 

“The person who is buying a Harley-Davidson — everyone can picture in their mind — is not necessarily the same person who is going to gravitate towards an electric, sportier type of bike,” she said.

In 2021, more than a third of people who bought electric motorcycles were new to motorcycling, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. 

The electric market overall is growing, led mostly by nonlegacy brands like Zero Motorcycles. But there are some strong headwinds. Literal headwinds.

“We call it the ‘meat flag,'” said Seth Weintraub, the publisher at the EV news site Electrek.

The human riding the motorcycle is a big aerodynamic drag, which strains the electric battery, he said. “So at highway speeds, no real motorcycle gets more than 100 miles of range.”

Those range-draining meat flags mean electric motorcycles aren’t great for joyriding down the coast on the weekends. They’re better for urban day trips, which means “you’re competing with e-bikes,” Weintraub said.

Or scooters, which are typically cheaper and don’t require a special license to operate. 

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