We knew when Polaris Industries (NYSE:PII) bought Brammo in January that it planned to jump-start the arms race in electric motorcycles, and the introduction of the new Victory Empulse TT means it made good on that promise.
All revved up
Although rival Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HOG) says it would rather get it right than be first -- last year it unveiled the prototype Project LiveWire e-bike, but a production version won't be ready till at least 2020 -- it's likely still a bit jealous of its competitor, which is proving much more game at manufacturing and marketing motorcycles than was previously believed possible.
Even so, bragging rights in the e-bike market may not amount to all that much.
But nowhere to go
According to market analysts at Navigant Research, "worldwide sales of electric motorcycles and scooters are expected to grow from 5.3 million annually in 2015 to nearly 6 million by 2024." Most of the sales, though, will be in China, which accounts for 98% of the market, and the vast bulk of two-wheeled electric vehicle demand is actually for scooters, not motorcycles.
Currently, one of the world's leading e-bike manufacturers is Zero Motorcycles, and while it enjoyed record sales in 2014 with even greater growth expected this year, it's only anticipating some 2,400 bikes will be sold, or about the number of big bikes Harley sells in two days.
It's true that the entrance of a traditional bike manufacturer like Polaris (and eventually Harley, Yamaha, and Honda) could change that dynamic and accelerate interest (and sales) in the niche, but we're not talking about game-changing results from any of the manufacturers.
A spark, not a lightning bolt
For example, even though Harley-Davidson is confronting declining bike sales and shipments as its core customers shy away from making big expenditures on expensive discretionary items, it still sold more than 89,000 motorcycles in the second quarter. Even if it had a production LiveWire ready to go, the total number it would sell would be minuscule.
Similarly, Polaris' motorcycle division accounted for just 14% of its total quarterly revenues. It's making more money selling parts, clothes, and accessories than it does motorcycles. Electric bikes may be an interesting niche business, but right now, it's little more than that.
But let's also not discount the value of Polaris being first to market. First, it is "getting it right." Whereas the demo LiveWire has only a 50-mile range on a battery charge (with greater distances promised when it goes into production), the Empulse TT can hold a charge that can take you almost twice as far, and it shouldn't be long before battery technology increases that range sixfold.
There are two battery specifications, a "level 1" charging system that takes up to almost nine hours to recharge the bike's battery, and a "level 2" that can do the job in less than four hours.
At under $20,000, the e-bike is also within reach of many big-bike buyers, and now that there's a major manufacturer of them, we can expect to see that price come down in the future.
The need for speed
Regardless, buyers will most likely be interested in performance, and the Empulse should be able to deliver, with top speeds in excess of 100 mph from a permanent magnet AC induction electric motor that peaks at 54 horsepower and 61 foot-pounds of torque. It gets its power from a Brammo Power lithium-ion battery and traces its lineage to the Empulse R racing bike, which topped out at 145 mph and set an American-made bike lap record of 111.62 mph earlier this year at the Isle of Man TT Zero race.
Polaris Industries has successfully resurrected the Indian Motorcycles nameplate, stolen market share from its larger rival, and now beaten Harley-Davidson to the punch with a production-level electric motorcycle that delivers. It's true that e-bikes will remain a niche category for some time, but by being first to market, Polaris can stake its claim to some prime real estate that may not be so easy to take away once competitors finally decide to show up.
Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Polaris Industries. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.