Harley-Davidson made transportation news this week when they announced their new motorcycle prototype—the electric-powered Livewire—and the promotional tour that will present it to the public… and quite possibly introduce the future of motorcycling to America.

Comments so far (every place except the Livewire promotional site, that is) have been both expected, and predictable.  Naturally, die-hard Harley enthusiasts have criticized its lack of the things that made Harley famous (or infamous), most notably its (actually) trademarked loud and rumbly engine; the usual argument between the “loud pipes save lives” bunch and the “no scientific evidence backs that claim” crowd has surfaced in multiple places.  People have also attacked the specs on the Livewire, the very limited range and wimpy performance specs.

Most of these people are completely missing the point.

Harley Davidson LivewireH-D is not showing off a new bike, soon to be gracing their showrooms.  The Livewire is a design study, designed to gauge public interest in electric-powered motorcycles, and to start conversations about what the public likes and doesn’t like, what works and what doesn’t, etc.  It’s a prototype only… a PR tool.

H-D, not being completely stupid, is looking to the future… a future where the Boomers who have driven the current 1950s Harley culture all the way into the 21st century—a culture that saved H-D from oblivion once already—have finally passed away.  A future where foreign motorcycles, more innovative than H-D, already a major segment of the market and more popular with the young and the rich, tightly hold onto their place in the market.  A future where the public demands high-technology things like electronic ignition, traction control, anti-lock brakes, emissions controls, programmable dashboards, USB ports and automatic transmissions.

A future where the public is being presented things like this.

Honda CTX1300 Deluxe
The CTX1300 Deluxe. Modern, beautiful, powerful and fun; Honda’s vision of the future of motorcycling in the US.

Harley is wisely jumping into the market of the future with both feet, trying to figure out what culture they will be serving next, and how they’re going to do that… just as the other bike companies are doing.

You meet the nicest people on a Honda
circa 1963 Honda ad: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”

And as H-D is the most visible promotional vehicle for motorcycles in the US, it means more Americans are going to be presented with the future of motorcycling, from H-D, and from any other motorcycle company that wants to compete with them.  In other words, the other bike companies may turn up their US promotional machines to be heard alongside H-D.  This could be the opening salvo of a new push to sell motorcycles to the American public, a push not seen since the 1960s.

And as these bikes will be more practical, presenting much better mileage, cleaner and less-polluting engines and modern technology to drivers, they may have a major impact on general driving and commuting in America.  Experts and environmentalists have been saying for years that our commuting culture would greatly benefit from switching from big, 4-8-seater vehicles with a single occupant, to more efficient single-seat vehicles; they would save fuel, lessen traffic, lighten accident-caused damages and require less infrastructure and materials to maintain.

Honda Vultun
The Honda Vultus: A new bike designed to evoke the iconic bike from Akira, and a great commuting platform.

Harley is smart to recognize that the future of motorcycling is poised to dash right out of their hands, if they don’t keep themselves relevant to the next generation of motorcyclists.

Although I’ve never been a big Harley fan, I’d look forward to seeing one of the Livewires in my area, as well as the chance to comment further on it to H-D.  Personally, I’d rather see bikes designed for long-distance and commuting duty riding, rather than their cafe-racer-styled prototype.  And when is someone gonna clue H-D to the fact that belt and chain drives went out with disco… it’s time to embrace shaft drives, baby!

And chrome?  So 1950s.  Move on.