The recession was really what brought Harley-Davidson into the 21st century. “Since day one, we’ve been trying to transform the company in a way that is going to make us stronger and more sustainable in the future,” said CEO Keith Wandell in a telephone interview last week to Bloomberg. “That’s what we said we wanted to do four years ago and, voila, here it is.” “There was 107 years of inertia” said Matt Levatich, 48, Harley’s president and chief operating officer. Today, some 2014 Harley models feature a voice-activated and touch-screen GPS system, the first on a production motorcycle. When the bike is getting low on fuel, the system finds the nearest filling station and maps out directions on a 6.5-inch (about 16.5 centimeters) screen the rider can control by voice, touch or joystick. You can touch control your iPhone playlist the same way, with or without gloves.
The global recession has been a loud wake-up call for Harley-Davidson. Revenue dropped by almost a quarter from 2006 to 2009. Wandell spent his first year at Harley-Davidson cutting costs, speeding development and putting in place a plan to crowd ource advice on the features bikers and HD dealers (a first time ever involvement of the network in new product planning ) wanted to see on the new models. Last year, the company staged focus groups and clinics in the US, in Europe and Japan to evaluate the competition and its own prototypes strengths and weaknesses. The process, known as the Rushmore Project, resulted in 21st century high tech features that nobody expected being offered by a company whose culture is rooted in tradition.
The 2014 Touring line of motorcycles, Harley’s priciest and most profitable models, is rumored by dealers to be on a very good early start. For sure, the new infotainment system and the electronically linked front and rear brakes that shorten stopping distance will remain. Infotainment will evolve in sync with new sound, telephony and mapping technologies. The question mark is about the new twin cooled engine system conceived to lower the temperature of the air in the exhaust pipe. It was an urgent necessity for Harley to offer a solution to the most frequent complaint of unbearable exhaust heat radiating to the tourer rider and even passenger during hot days or when the bike is idling.
My sources tell me that Harley still consider the system “experimental” and will evaluate its future depending of bikers appreciation, of technical and maintenance issues that may or not appear with time. At this time, there is no decision made to extend it to other models. With or without it, Harley’s mentality has already shifted. From inertia – the marketing attitude of they will buy what we produce – to a process of balancing an iconic traditional look with high tech features that the traditional and new generation of Harley bikers already want. It requires flexibility and the ability to shorten the product development process. Harley is more than ever ready to bring innovations, this new product development cycle having been already shortened from 6 to 3 years. But many are wondering. Has Harley-Davidson been transformed for the better? How the company is going to continue to transition to modern motorcycles, with what kind of new high-tech features and all this without scaring its core clientele? (photos @ hd)