Why would Harley-Davidson — the most iconic American vehicle manufacturer — forsake its ancestral home in Milwaukee to open a research and development facility in the San Francisco Bay Area? “The real reason is talent,” Vance Strader, Harley’s chief engineer, tells TechCrunch. “We’re after people who really have a passion for and understanding of electric vehicles and the systems that make them great. [That] sort of culture we’re more likely to get in Silicon Valley — the entrepreneurial, agile, nimble culture.”
As much as Harley-Davidson has achieved cult status over the past several decades, its sales — particularly in the United States — are declining as the average age of new buyers increases. Harley customers are now almost as old as Buick owners.
That distinctive “potato, potato” sound from Harley’s famous V-Twin engine may be like the call of the wild to the faithful, but it will not be part of any electric offerings from the company. Strader says they will have their own distinct aural ambience, “but there’ll be nothing fake about the sound. It will be entirely generated by the vehicle.”
At its new R&D center, Harley “will initially focus on electric vehicle research and development, including battery, power electronics and e-machine design, development and advanced manufacturing,” according to a company release.
In June, Harley CEO Matthew Levatich announced the company intends to offer a range of EVs, including lighter motorcycles and possibly scooters and bicycles. The expanded lineup may appeal to more women than the company’s traditional offerings, which as wonderful as they are, can be ponderous beasts to control at slow speeds. Since that announcement, Harley has made an undisclosed investment in Alta Motors, an electric motorcycle manufacturer that is enjoying a measure of sales success.
Unlike America’s national leaders, who would like to turn the clock back to 1918, Harley has recognized that its business model has changed and it has to adapt or die. Even the Blowhard in Chief can’t order people to buy Harley’s traditional motorcycles. The company is doing what it can to survive in a changing world while ignoring the blasts of opprobrium coming its way from the vicinity of the Potomac.
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