With the trend in the motorcycle industry towards ever-increasing levels of electronic management to control engine performance and ride characteristics, some examination should be made regarding the pros and cons of using technology to control all facets of motorcycle performance and handling; in short, to ask the question “Is more better?” A discussion of the practical application of electronic engine and ride management seems to be overdue. In a recent editorial titled “Future Present” from Cycle World’s columnist Kevin Cameron, he wrote this:
“Control electronics are a revolution in themselves, and a revolution that’s not over yet. There’s nothing to stop the transfer of everyting we’ve seen in MotoGP to high-end production motorcycles: throttle-by-wire; virtural powerbands as a matter of making even fairly harsh, racy engines respond smoothly; lean-angle sensors to help estimate tire traction in corners; and yaw control, all of which have been at work in cars for years. All of these can make motorcycles safer to operate…”
While application of electronic management of motorcycle systems may indeed make riding safer, a question to ask is what is the point of producing a motorcycle with a “harsh, racy engine” and then using electronic complexity to tame it’s performance or less than desirable attributes? Besides those generally few riders who could actually use the full potential of an engine with race level performance capabilities (and even a rider with race-level riding skill would have to find an appropriate location to use that performance) where is the real value of this approach where it concerns the largest majority of motorcycle purchasers?
Understanding that in a real world situation that few of us would push a motorcycle to racing limits, the logic begins to get a bit fuzzy when electronic performance management must be employed to insure that those not capable of riding a motorcycle at a MotoGP level are protected from using the full capabilities of such a bike, or to manage the performance characteristics of a race-ready engine. It seems to be a self-contradicting concept. Adding safety and engine performance features are a good thing. Anti-lock brakes are obvious, so is fuel injection. Traction control is a great idea, but as you begin to proceed further down the road, the concept of the practical application of engine and ride control systems begins to become less clear. Of course, as the engineering “trickles down” to other motorcycles, it is understood that the technology will be tailored to the capabilities of the specific bike, and system anomalies will continue to be corrected, but some metric to gauge what functions are ideally beneficial to the rider. And there is another important issue to consider; specifically, long-term maintenance costs to the owner.
While a new buyer may be wowed by all the “bells and whistles” that are becoming standard fare on new bikes, the increasingly higher levels of electronic complication may start to yield diminishing returns when it means a very high cost for motorcycle maintenance and repair. A problem with a throttle cable means an afternoon in the garage, a problem with throttle-by-wire system is an expensive repair at a dealership, where even the simplest maintenance procedures can yield an expensive bill. The required knowledge to understand complex interrelated electronic systems can be outside the capabilities of even the best of mechanics. What about the dealership’s costs for added diagnostic tools, which will inevitably be passed on to the customer? While many motorcycle journalists sing the praises of increased electronic engine and ride management, little attention seems to be given to how the advancing complexity will affect the cost of real-world motorcycle ownership.
In a discussion several years ago with David Hough (author of the Proficient Motorcycling book series) on the issue of electronic engine management, he related a situation where a previously owned Can-Am Spyder had a re-occurring drivability problem:
“I had some electronic issues, one being that the engine would suddenly go into “limp home” mode after about 4 hours on the freeway. The error message on the dash showed “check DPS [Dynamic Power Steering] computer.” I discovered that the leaf spring on the brake pedal was not giving the appropriate “brake off” signal to the DPS computer. I did a little adjusting with needle nose pliers, and solved the “limp home” problem.”
As David recounts, the limp home mode on his Can Am activated on freeway, in a high speed environment, as a result of misadjusted brake spring generating an error message. Should the ‘limp home’ mode have been activated due to a simple mechanical problem with a brake signal switch? Most would probably argue no. David goes on to say:
“I’m not so concerned about complex systems when they are brand new. I’m more concerned about maintainability. What happens to the high-zoot electronic system 5 years down the road, or longer? The owner who has all of his maintenance and repair done at the dealer’s shop will buy a brand that has a nearby dealer, and be clever enough to trade it in as the warrantee expires. But for owners such as myself, who do our own servicing and repair, there is a practical limit to how complex a machine can be.”
And then, there is the flip side of the high-technology coin that is not being addressed; specifically, when a simple and low tech approach would work to increase user functionality of a motorcycle, and yet is not used, possibly because it is perceived by motorcycle manufacturers as a “low rent” solution.
From all appearances and reviews, Honda’s new F6B is quite the motorcycle, but in their effort to reduce weight on Wing-bagger, Honda removed the cruise control system. Although certainly not as “high tech” as electronic cruise control, a throttle locking mechanism fulfills most of the functions of a cruise control system, while adding little complexity and virtually no weight. Some enterprising aftermarket motorcycle parts manufacturer is probably already designing a throttle lock system for the new Honda, but how much better would it be for a company with Honda’s engineering credentials to design their own throttle-lock system for their Wing bagger? The idea would also transfer well to lower cost mid-sized tourers and baggers where adding cruise control would increase the price point.
Does anybody remember when cars had windows with crank handles? What about a manually adjustable windshield for motorcycles? Consider that when using an electrically adjustable windshield, the height tends to be set to one of three positions; fully raised when riding on a highway or interstate, just below eye level in normal riding, and fully lowered for sportier riding. While pressing a button to adjust windshield height is certainly a convenience, a small fold-out crank handle for manual adjustment would accomplish the task almost as easily, and allow the same functionality. A scissor-lift mechanism with a center gear to operate a motorcycle-sized windshield could be of very low mass and light weight, and “crank handle” windows have a very long history of reliability in automobiles. Almost any of the current crop of new baggers and scaled-down tourers that use fairings on their bikes, from the previously mentioned F6B to the V-Star 1300 Deluxe and Victory Cross Country series, could incorporate this idea to add a windshield height adjustment feature without adding the extra weight, complexity and cost of an electric motor.
Electronic engine control and ride management for motorcycles is a trend that will indeed continue to develop as the technology is refined, offering unique solutions to increasing safety for the rider and control of a motorcycle, but in order to be of real benefit, it must also be measured by the metric of “best use” functionality to owners and riders. In addition, in the trend towards increasingly high tech capabilities and higher cost, some very good and simple solutions offering increased functionality and value to motorcycle purchasers are often being overlooked. The best choice may be a balance between high tech and low tech approaches.