Future Bikes Are On Their Way - The Shape (And Sound) Of Things To Come

Motorcycle design hasn't changed much in the last 100 years. Pour gasoline in, ignite, and blam, things start turning and that sweet exhaust note starts singing. Most powertrains we see rolling on the road today are based on ancient principles and old physics. There have of course been innovations and renovations to our beloved motors. Metals have gotten lighter and stronger, electronics more reliable and sophisticated, and itty bitty computer chips do the mechanical thinking. But now we ride on the precipice of a propulsion revolution and have to pause and wonder: Where the hell is this road taking us?

The signs are all around us. The revolution is not born of wallet-draining gas prices or a green, granola-munching love for the environment; it is something far more basic. It is our federal government, or more precisely its league of eco-do-gooders, the EPA. Of course protecting our environment is a good thing, but the high profile of motorcyclists makes us an easy target for whatever's wrong with the transportation world.

With mounting pressure to run clean, lean and green, alternative fuels and new technologies are coming online. Carburetors are nearly extinct, air-cooled motors appear endangered (clunky radiators are taking over) and the feds look more than happy to shove a fuel cell up our butts. Will internal combustion go the way of the dodo bird?

"The automotive industry leads the way for technologies that can be applied to motorcycles," says Jason Hoeve, engineering manager for Victory Motorcycles. "We kind of ride on their shirttails." This effectively lets the auto boys do the long-range R&D.; "There's about a five-year lag, so motorcycle tech is not cutting-edge," Hoeve adds, "but if it's in a car you can pretty much figure it will someday end up on a bike."

Among the alternative energy sources that include hybrid, electric, fuel cell, diesel, biodiesel and even a back-to-steam effort, some are much more adaptable to motorcycles than others, Hoeve says. While there doesn't appear to be much threat of solar-powered bikes, Jetsonian sky-bike plutonium-pellet drive or-at the other extreme-Fred Flintstone-like footpowered contrivances, it's unlikely any motorcyclist looks forward to the day he hits the starter button and waits for an idiot light to tell him his engine is on.

"Yes, let's hope that won't happen," Hoeve says. "Diesel doesn't seem likely to see action because of motorcycle power demands; it doesn't offer the kind of performance motorcyclists want. But a hybrid system seems quite possible, especially as fuel efficiency becomes more of an issue, although we have yet to see a correlation between gas prices and bike sales. In more short-range, urban settings I can also see an electric motorcycle working." If you follow the auto lead, a hybrid bike may be closer than we think; the four-wheel version of that technology is already on the road.

**Show Me What Ya Got **
Bike manufacturers get jumpy when asked to make forecasts. In the ultracompetitive business of manufacturing motorcycles, any information about possible future products is held within a micrometer of the vest. The OEMs won't comment on what boots they'll be offering next year, much less what they have up their leather sleeves. It's understandable; any market advantage can mean the difference between a good financial quarter and shareholder panic. The fear of spilt beans runs so thick they don't even want to discuss the feasibility of alternative power, even less what shape it might take between two wheels.

But some suppliers will talk-a little. Mike Parker, vice president of business and corporate development for Ontario-based Revolution Rotary Engines, says, "We have certainly looked at motorcycles as a viable product. We could, for example, provide a more practical hybrid engine than a larger conventional four-cylinder engine. This can translate well for motorcycles. A rotary has far fewer moving parts, is lighter and smaller, has a superior power-to-weight ratio, is more fuel efficient and offers more bike-design possibilities." Parker cites a single-rotor, 35- to 45-hp unit that displaces 294cc and weighs 33 pounds (block alone) as an engine that could be a nice fit for motorcycle application.

Revolution Rotary Engines supplies 22- to 300-hp engines to OEMs and is currently working on a twin-rotor unit that will produce about 100 hp, according to Parker. He offers that low emissions, low vibration, high torque and high-revving rotaries are well suited for bike applications.

Simon Warburton, product manager for Triumph Motorcycles in Britain, agrees that government pressure will steer future motorcycle design more than any other force. "Many of the changes we will see in the next few years will be in response to legislation on exhaust emissions and safety, rather than to consumer demand." Warburton predicts. "In a few years all bikes will be ride-by-wire, and variable valve timing will become more common. Both of these technologies can give improvements in fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.

"There will be more use of biofuels," he adds. "Their compatibility with current engine technology and distribution networks gives biofuels a big head start in the battle for future transport power, the biggest obstacle being the production of methanol. It's clear we can't produce enough by growing plants in fields, but I wouldn't bet against alternative manufacturing methods being developed.

"Electric vehicles with big batteries aren't solving the problem, just shifting emissions from the vehicle to the power station. While a power station may be more efficient than a small internal-combustion engine, there are huge losses in transmitting power along hundreds of miles of power lines.

"Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are almost certainly not the answer due to huge problems in producing, distributing and storing hydrogen. Lighter weight will become more of a goal. It currently is an issue for sportbikes because of the performance implications. It will become more important for cruisers because of its impact on fuel consumption and exhaust emissions."

While manufacturers look into their crystal balls and struggle with foggy choices that may make or break their future, we may be looking at a shakeout that hasn't been seen in the industry since nearly a century ago-when the U.S. boasted more than 100 motorcycle makers. Coincidentally this was about the last time transportation technology took a leap. But will motorcycling also be shaped by a changing political climate?

"Nobody here is an engineer, so we can't predict what powertrains will win out," comments Lance Oliver, the AMA's special projects editor. "Our mission is not going to change because the bike changes. The good thing is that bikes will have the same advantages over automobiles they do now, such as using less energy and less room, and their lighter weight makes them easier on roads. These qualities will carry over no matter what powers them."

Beyond the traditional advantages motorcycles offer a traffic-clogged, fuel-challenged society, Oliver says the battle will continue to ensure that bikes are considered a practical and acceptable aspect of our government's transportation strategy. "As more motorcycles come online their place on our roads comes more into play," Oliver adds.

"Weight is the enemy when it comes to alternative energies, so bikes may make good sense for these applications. That may make motorcycles even more attractive, especially in cities where electric or hybrid technology would be more practical," Oliver says. Meanwhile, more fuel-efficient and quieter bikes might make the AMA's job easier.

"One area of concern for the future of biking is the alarming growth of sound ordinances popping up around the country. These laws have come down hard on us," Oliver says. "Ever-more-quiet motorcycles and less legal leeway to modify them appear to be on the horizon."

Among the motorcycle industry heavies leading alternative moto-tech is Honda. The factory has built a few prototypes, including a fuel-cell scooter. Adapted from Honda's automotive technology, the FC Stack has been miniaturized and redesigned. This concept vehicle was based on a 125cc scooter, which gives it some commuter appeal in urban areas.

The factory has built other commuter fare, such as an electric moped and a hybrid scooter. The Moped-EV is driven by a nickel hydrogen battery located inside an aluminum frame and is powerful enough to climb a 12-degree incline, according to a spokesman.

The 50cc hybrid-scooter prototype uses an alternating current generator with an idle-stop function, fuel injection, an electronically controlled belt converter and a parallel hybrid powertrain with a direct rear-wheel-drive electric motor. That's a lot of technology for a little bike. But perhaps it serves as a model, as with the fuel cell and electric bikes, for something that could be much bigger with broader application.

Even more radical, however, is Honda's back-to-the-future effort to harness steam power. The Rankine cycle-cogeneration unit is designed to use engine heat to produce energy for hybrid applications. According to Honda, a Rankine unit generates three times as much electricity using engine heat as the regenerative braking system alone. A Rankine unit basically transforms the motor into a sustainable steam engine. The engine heats compressed water, producing steam that turns a generator. Cool, eh? No word from the factory as to whether the prototypes will make it to market.

Meanwhile, Suzuki will release a concept bike it calls the Crosscage, built in a partnership with a British company called Intelligent Energy. The machine burns hydrogen but reportedly emits just water as exhaust. No comment from the factory regarding consideration of this bike for production.

Grassroots Greenery
While megafactories armed with vast resources roll inexorably toward tomorrow's tech and a global market thirsty for powertrains that sip fuel, it doesn't prevent mom-and-pop shops, tinkerers, mad scientists and garage geeks from taking their own imaginative shots at building a better mousetrap.

Case in point: the Gray Eagles, a ragtag band of retired engineers from Harley-Davidson and Outboard Marine who have built a fuel-injected, turbo-charged biodiesel prototype they claim gets 80 mpg on the highway and can top 100 mph. The bike is converted from a gas-burning '88 H-D FXRS and is being shopped to potential customers such as Harley and the Pentagon, according to the Grays.

In a novel approach, researchers at Georgia Tech are working on a system to capture, store and recycle carbon monoxide from vehicles to prevent the pollutant from finding its way into our good air. The eggheads are trying to build a zero-emissions car that doesn't burn fossil fuels. The process would trap carbon emission in the vehicle for later processing at a fueling station. The carbon would then be shuttled back to a plant where it could be transformed into liquid fuel. Pretty space-age stuff, but if successful it'd nip energy-reserve problems right in their pesky buds.

But if that isn't green enough, how about banana power? An Australian company, Growcom, is digesting final plans to build a plant that makes biomethane out of bananas. The process essentially eats banana waste and poops out the natural gas, which then can be used to "flatulate" our way down the highway, adding new meaning to the phrase "in the wind."

Bob Lutz, the General Motors vice chairman who once declared global warming "a total crock of sh*t," is moving forward on lithium-ion battery technology he expects will power the anticipated Chevy Volt within two years. Lutz is not acting out of any sudden environmental enlightenment: "I'm motivated more by the desire to replace imported oil than by the CO2 [argument]," he says.

Which means that if necessity is the big mother of invention, market pressures will surely be our salvation. If Hoeve's auto-to-bike principle holds up, we'll be riding whisper-quiet battery bikes by about 2015. Sort of like the ones we played with as kids. I liked to add my own motorcycle noises-I mean sounds.

Honda hybrid scooter.
Enertia by Brammo Motorsports
Honda Moped-EV