Life on bikes

Is motorcycle technology going in the right direction?

Marc takes a look at motorcycle technology and wonders if it makes for better riders and why so many bikers simply don’t want to adopt it.

I read a copy of EasyRider magazine in the early 80s. I didn’t know any better back then.

People used to send letters, on actual paper, to magazines. Unbelievable I know but it was the internet of the time. In the letters section, there was some debate along the lines of; ‘Ahh got overtook on the highway bahh some muhfukkin rice burner, mustuh bin doing 80 miles an hour! Well a coupla miles further on ahh passed the same sumbitch broke down on the side of the road. His muhfukkin digital onboard computer had packed in, and there was nuthin’ he could do with it ‘cept wait fer someone to come pick him up.’

‘If’n Ahh break down on ma hawg ahh can fix her up mesself. Ya just cain’t do that with them Jap bikes. Yee-Har!’

‘I’ll sell mah hawg and buy a cage the day Harley Davidson make a water-cooled motorsickle’

I’m only exaggerating slightly.

It’s difficult to argue with the logic. Breaking down in the desert could be a slow death sentence, being able to get your bike going unaided could be a lifesaver.

But now here we are living in the future with water-cooled, fuel injected Hawgs with computerised engine management systems. There never was any mass abandonment of Harleys because of advances in modern engineering. If anything their sales are stronger as a new generation of middle management hipsters buys into the American Dream of keeping a Harley in their garage.

That bullshit reverence for good old bikes isn’t limited to Harley owners of course. Sit in any biker’s sushi bar, and you’ll hear the same kind of opinions on all makes of bike.

What I don’t hear people say is ‘Oh I stopped riding motorbikes when they brought in electronic ignition, that was a step too far for me.’ Or, ‘I never started riding bikes because I want full control of the ignition advance/retard and I much prefer having no brakes, suspension and a leather belt final drive over these modern chains or shafts.’

There’s a lot of guff talked about an alternate way of life, the free-thinking biker spirit unhampered by convention but actually, there’s a lot of very very conservative thinking. Nostalgia is good, all change is bad.

The thing is people don’t really have a preference; they’re just born into an era with certain prevailing technology. It becomes familiar, and they get emotionally attached to it and dislike when it changes, that’s just human nature. I’m getting upset at the moment about the change from FM to digital radio. I’ll still be able to listen to the radio and it’ll sound better. I just don’t like the change being forced on me. What people really, really dislike is when change is forced upon them. Especially when it’s by evil draconian government regulations.



Complexity over simplicity

The argument against having something so complex that you can’t fix it yourself is a strong one.

Like many people I’ve cursed through the pain of punctures, snapped chains, blown fuses and once even a melted CDI unit leaving me stuck at the side of the road. But if that bike had worn out contact breaker ignition instead of capacitor discharge would I have been able to fix it? No of course not, I’m completely incompetent. I did what anyone else would do. I called the AA and got trailered home. And yeah it cost me a fortune and a lot of aggravation to find a second hand CDI unit.

I envy people with mechanical skills who can fix a broken crank with a fag paper and bit of coathanger wire. Every single time I’ve broken down the story has been the same. There was no way on Earth I could have repaired it even if I’d had a workshop full of tools and enough parts to build an entirely new bike with me. So for me and maybe other people, the argument for mechanical simplicity doesn’t hold water. No matter how simple the machine I still have to get someone else to fix it when it goes wrong.

Progress

Whether we like it or not technology marches on.

Bikes from the dawn of motorcycle history were for people who liked tinkering with machinery in their sheds, spending more time spannering than riding. Since then every improvement in design and technology has contributed to more riding time and less struggling-to-get-the-fucker-running time.

As bike tech has become more sophisticated, parts have become less easily repairable or even accessible. But they have also become better, so although breakdowns happen they’re less commonplace. Ask anyone who’s owned old British bikes. As time goes on the trend is toward lighter, faster, more reliable and efficient bikes than in the past. That makes them MORE FUN. That’s the trade-off. More fun and reliability at the cost of less self-sufficiency and, you might argue, less involvement for owners. Of course, you can still buy unreliable old bikes and play with them in your shed if that’s your thing.



Technology, regulations and manufacturing

One piece of technology leads to another, then another, and another, then suddenly things come together, and you have a real change. Fuel injection, water cooling and ABS have been around for decades. But add in microprocessor engine management with Ride-By-Wire throttle control and suddenly cruise control, traction control, rider modes, ‘cornering ABS’ ‘lift control’ (whatever the fuck they are), along with improved power and fuel consumption all become easier to build in. The ECU is the central piece of the jigsaw. Put that in place and suddenly riding a bike becomes a rather different experience. Some people might not want all that technology thinking, justifiably, that if it goes wrong they can’t fix it and it’ll cost a fortune to repair. Or because they’re emotionally attached to their familiar older bikes. But these things are here to stay. Euro 4 regulations on emissions, noise and safety have forced manufacturers to incorporate those gizmos into all new models. And Euro 5 will be along in 2020.

Does new technology or regulation put people off? Personally, I was a bit miffed when I discovered I couldn’t turn off my MT-07’s headlight. But I found a positive side to it. I get slightly fewer cars pulling out in front of me than I did on my old bikes.
Generally, the only big gripe from potential owners seems to be the lack of a throaty exhaust note, and that’s easy enough to fix. New bikes are, if anything, more exciting and desirable than ever and there hasn’t been an exodus from biking because of new technology. People are enthusiastic for new bikes.

 

motorcycle technology
© Triumph | Old school looks hide away ride modes and traction control

Triumph noticed that more mature customers might baulk when confronted with an aggressively angular new bike bristling with all the latest gadgetry so tailored their faux classic bikes to make them less threatening to those of a slightly old-fashioned persuasion. Check out the fake Amal carbs on modern Triumphs that hide the computer controlled fuel injectors behind a nostalgic facade. These retro-styled bikes have all mod cons tucked discreetly away. Traction control and rider modes are all there but the only telltale is the little LCD on the traditional round clocks.

Younger riders seem eager to adopt new developments and in fact, might not enjoy the authentic vintage experience of prodding a kickstart lever to find the compression spot ten degrees BTDC before kickstarting an old bike with the choke set to three-quarters open and using one-third throttle. In the rain. Over and over and over again.

Building the perfect motorcycle is easy. Dream up your design, pay highly skilled engineers to create every piece by hand and then sell them for £200,000 a piece so collectors can lock them in bank vaults as investments. Easy! You don’t have to worry about practicality, economy or reliability. *cough* Lotus *cough*



Big manufacturers have to work differently. They assess how much credit their target consumers can access and then design alluring bikes with enough excitement, reliability and economy to tempt customers into parting with their hard-earned cash.

Designing the bike is just the visible end product of a massive process. Behind the scenes, manufacturers have to create the whole supply, manufacturing, distribution, sales and servicing systems to satisfy that market while still making a profit.

Every component, every detail of design is a compromise between performance, safety regulations, cost, reliability and type approval. Then they have to ensure a supply of spares long after each model has ceased production.

I don’t think we riders and customers see enough of that mammoth task to appreciate the difficulty or sheer scale of it. I constantly hear ill-informed twats starting a one-sided conversation with ‘Well, where Kawasaki has gone wrong these days is ..’ Blah.
You try designing a bike that does everything and pleases everyone.

On the flip side, I wonder if manufacturers have enough contact with us buyers. I was part of a focus group last year, the first time in my biking career that anyone from the industry has asked me what I think. But it was to gather opinions on a potential new model that sounded like it’s almost ready for production. They were asking ‘What do you think of these wheels, do you think this looks like a premium product?’ They weren’t asking open questions like ‘What do you want or need from your next bike?’

The good vs the bad

Technology isn’t automatically good just because it’s new. A few models I remember in the early 80s came fitted with spring-loaded side stands. Lift the bike upright and the stand flicked up on its own. Or if someone nudged the bike, or if there was a slight breeze.
That committee-designed safety feature must have sounded great in theory but didn’t last long because it was obviously bollocks. A lot of other ideas got discarded along the way for the same reason.

When I look around bike shows, I see old Japanese bikes that have been upgraded. Fuel injection and electronic ignition kits are common. Twin disks replacing the single one that was originally on the front. Upside down forks and upgraded suspension aren’t unusual. These things are standard on new bikes and they’re obvious choices for custom builders.
Unless you’re preserving a classic bike, why would anyone deliberately hang on to crap, old technology when there are better options?

Bad technology is frustrating, unreliable, fiddly, expensive and pointless. Bad technology gets between the rider and the ride.
Good technology contributes something useful, adds to the enjoyment, reliability, economy and safety. It enhances the ride and life in general.

No one really notices good technology because it disappears from view. It becomes the standard, obvious choice. In the same way, people stopped noticing flat-screen tellies and mobile phones, telescopic forks, disk brakes, electronic ignition and fuel injection became ubiquitous because they’re simply better. Even Royal Enfield adopted them for their range of living fossils.

We’re participating in an evolutionary process that shapes bike design by voting with our cash. By not buying bikes with obviously crap features, or at least buying them dirt cheap, removing the garbage and adding the good stuff that’s missing. In some ways, the only feedback that manufacturers get is when showrooms are full of heavily discounted bikes that no one wants.



Development

Technology comes in waves. For example, Japanese companies concentrated on engine development in the 60s and 70s bringing in reliable, powerful multicylinder units that no one could previously have dreamed of. But it took them until the late 80s for chassis, brakes and suspension tech to catch up.

motorcycle technology
© KTM | KTM’s 790 is dripping with technology

The current focus of development seems to be the electronics package. The hot new kid on the block KTM’s 790 comes with maybe the most comprehensive list of features yet.

Ride modes
Track modes
Launch control
Slip adjuster
Traction control
Quick shifter
Cornering ABS and Motorcycle stability control

I don’t know what half of that shit does, but I’m sure all the other manufacturers will try to compete by adding newer and smarter features. It’s early days, some features will fall by the wayside and more useful ones will emerge. It’s part of the evolutionary process of sifting the good from the bad.

Benefit?

A mate of mine scored himself a VW Golf GTE hybrid company car with all the new toys. Each feature offered some benefit but came with an added new downside. Radar Controlled Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Assist sounded pretty fancy. Turn them on behind a lorry that’s going your way and the car will stay the same distance behind the lorry even as the speed changes while gently keeping the car between the white lines. The driver can sit back and take some selfies, update their status, catch up on Netflix and send a few tweets until the satnav tells them their junction’s coming up.

My mate tells me he turned off the motorway in that mode. Suddenly the guiding lorry was no longer in front, and the car remembered the speed it had been doing when the cruise control was activated and jumped forward straight toward the roundabout. My mate needed a change of pants and now admits that car made him a much worse driver. When it inevitably died due to a software problem VW had to send a technician over from Germany because no one here was qualified to look at it. Such are the problems faced by early adopters.

While it’s all very interesting, I wonder how valuable some of those rider aids are on new bikes. If people actually need traction control, ABS, anti lift and slipper clutches to prevent them stacking their bike then how the hell are they riding? Do all those aids make them more or less skilled riders? Is it better to teach people to ride competently or just assume that everyone rides like a moron and equip them accordingly? Will there come a time when this stuff becomes compulsory?

Tell you what KTM. Hows about you do a ‘primitive’ version of the 790 without all that stuff and knock a grand off the price eh? I’d be interested to see the difference.



Control

I ride a Triumph Tiger 800 which came with ABS, On and Off Road rider modes, fly by wire throttle and traction control. I was open minded and I’ve got very few gripes.

Maybe I’m old, but I just don’t like the traction control. It would be fine if I could turn it off. At first glance, it appears that you can. But turn the ignition off and on again and the traction control comes back on. If there’s a way of making that any more annoying, I can’t think of it.

Thing is, I like pulling a little wheelie or wheelspin on take off. I like sliding the back wheel out a little when I pull up outside the chip shop. I like a little squeak from the tyre when I drop two gears and dump the clutch. All the new rider aids are chipping away a lot of the things that I enjoy about riding a bike.

Don’t get me wrong I’m all in favour of safety. But it’s not like I’m 17 and this my first big bike. If these gadgets have to come with the bike, then I’d like to have control over them. And I mean control in minute detail. I’d like to keep the ABS on the front but turn it off on the back, turn the traction control off permanently, unless if it’s raining. If there have to be rider modes, then I’d like to define them myself. The KTM 790 has modes like ‘Street’ and ‘Sport.’

My modes would be more appropriately named; ‘Rain/Snow/Ice’ ‘No Rush, it’s a lovely day let’s just enjoy the ride’ ‘Economy’ ‘Giddyup!’ and ‘OMG are those guys following me?’

That level of control is possible, but it would require either a gigantically complex menu system on the clocks/display or a connection to a laptop, phone or tablet.

Connectivity

I think connectivity is one answer.

It would make my life slightly easier if I could wake up in the morning, glance at my phone, which is connected to my bike and see whether I need to get petrol, put air in the tyres, how long it is to the next service, what the condition of the battery is, or how many more years it’ll take to finish paying for it. And if all those rider assistance gizmos are compulsory, then I’d like to be able to edit their settings from my mobile.
Since there’s already an Electronic Control Unit in most new bikes, and as microprocessors get more powerful and cheaper each year, more sophisticated ECUs are only a matter of time.

Zero Motorcycles already have a connected app that offers genuinely useful customisation and statistical info.

KTM’s MyRide app links the owner’s phone to the bike (although you need to have an extra little electronic module fitted to the bike) for control and display of navigation, phone calls and music. I love the idea of having sat nav appear on the bike’s display and do away with a having phone mount bolted to the handlebar, but I can’t see much good resulting from having phone calls and playlists routed to the riders’ helmet while dodging homicidal white van drivers.

Are these sales gimmicks or useful technology? Bit of both at the moment but it won’t be long before this kind of thing becomes universal. It just needs to be as non-distracting as possible. And don’t, for fuck’s sake, forget your password.



Integration

I think the next piece of the jigsaw will be having a full smartphone/computer built into the bike instead of relying on the owners’ phone. Having a 4G connection and satnav capability built in would open up some interesting new possibilities.

If the GPS is built into the ECU, then a stolen bike would be very easy to find, and removing the ECU would obviously stop the bike running.

The ability to remotely disable the bike might be something to consider, but that’s a mighty big can of worms to open. Who would have that control?

Maybe the most persuasive function might be accident alerts. If the worst happens and someone’s lying helpless in a ditch in the middle of nowhere, the bike would realise there’s been a whoopsie and reassure the fallen rider that it’s called an ambulance. And the cops, and your mum.

I hate to be the one to say it but, ‘Smart bike.’

Other features could be built on that foundation. Warnings when the rider’s too close to the vehicle in front, automatic braking in the event of an obstruction, Ice and oil spill detection. Intelligent auto-dipping headlights.

Built-in front and rear cameras could provide a nice rear view on the cockpit screen, and those rotten elbow inspection mirrors could become a thing of the past. Cameras could also continually record what’s going on. In the event of an accident, the cops could pull all recordings from all vehicles in the area at the time. That would be great for nailing negligent or drunk drivers who cause accidents but of course if the rider’s been naughty that would show up too. New swings and new roundabouts for everyone. There would be the same worries about security and privacy that we already face from our phones and computers.

Adding all that stuff would be relatively easy. The technology already exists. It’s just a case of adapting it, getting legal and customer approval. Will it be good or bad technology? It’s better to start debating this stuff early rather than allow it to take us by surprise when it suddenly becomes compulsory.

The future

The worst-kept secret in motorcycling history is gaining credibility at the moment.

All over the world advertising executives are spilling smashed avocado down their Live To Ride tee shirts, spluttering that they’ll sell their hogs the day Harley Davidson release an electric bike.

Whelp, change is coming, and it’s exciting! Non-polluting bikes with massive amounts of torque and really low maintenance are the future. Yeah, range and charge time aren’t going to be great for a while, but it will improve. And being simple electric motors, maybe, just maybe we’ll be able to have reverse gear without any added complexity and cost.

You can stick with your old bike if you want but the cool kids will adopt the new motorcycle technology.

Petrol engined bikes will be around for a long time, but they will gradually go the same way as steam trains, cassette players and phone boxes. They’ll be something for enthusiasts to work on in their sheds and ride on a sunny Sunday.

And it’ll be great! In the not too distant future bikers will stand around outside the McAstronaut Food Vend-o-Rama moaning about the rain and homicidal autonomous white vans, discussing the merits of different battery types, how many solar panels it takes on their roof at home to power their bike and the custom brushes they’ve installed in their motors or whatever turns out to be the quickest way to fuck up a perfectly good electric bike for the sake of a slightly faster getaway from the traffic lights.



What really matters

Next time you hear some narrow-minded beardy old twat, or yourself, banging on about how ‘They don’t make bikes like they used to’ and ‘You won’t catch me on one of those’ Or that these newfangled gizmos will never catch on because they’re too expensive and you can’t fix them if they go wrong, remember they said the same thing when the internal combustion engine started replacing horses. Ask them if they’d really prefer to go back to the days of slow, unreliable bikes that wouldn’t start, pumped carcinogens and carbon monoxide into the air, needed endless constant attention to keep them running and then, thanks to shitty old drum brakes, wouldn’t stop. Or if they’re just stuck in a cosy rosy nostalgic fog where anything outside the golden summer of their youth seems alien and frightening.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter how many cylinders you’ve got or whether your bike runs on petrol, diesel, LPG, electricity or unicorn tears. Everything that makes riding a motorbike enjoyable will still exist regardless of what arrives in the future. The bike and the technology only ever exist to make the ride possible.

It’s not important what you ride. The only thing that’s important is enjoying the ride.

Yee Harr!




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The Author

Marc Ryan

Marc Ryan

A bike nut since he was 17, Marc was forced to lay off the bikes for over 10 years, on doctor's orders. Finally given the nod he thought he'd ease himself back in gently on an XL 250 but promptly bought an SV650 which made him shit his pants for the first month.
He also writes his own random meanderings at his own blog, http://isontheroad.wordpress.com