Shop Talk | Smarter Thank You

Tech Matters

Smart vehicles—meaning vehicles that allegedly make better driving decisions than you—are a very hot topic these days. The technology has been widely adopted by everyone from the safety-crats, who see it as way to make riding safer, to the guys designing MotoGP bikes, who embrace it because it shaves seconds off lap times.

Systems that out-think the vehicle operator aren’t particularly new. The first successful Antilock Brake Systems were adapted for aircraft use in 1928 and tested on motorcycles in 1958, when Royal Enfield experimented with ABS on their 692cc Super Meteor model. A lack of popular support led them to cancel the project.

An outgrowth of ABS is traction control. Although it’s not as popular with the motorcycle crowd as it is in the automotive world (at least not yet), it’s becoming more common all the time. Most high-end adventure bikes now include it, as do upper-echelon sport and sport touring models.

Whether or not it’ll migrate to the cruiser ranks is questionable, but having ridden horsepower overachievers like the Triumph R3, Yamaha V-Max and Suzuki M109 in the rain, I’d have to think there’s some need for it.

Other smart vehicle technologies that may eventually be considered for motorcycle use include ABC (automatic brake control), which automatically applies the brakes if it thinks you’re following the vehicle in front of you too closely, and Electronic Stability Control, a system that helps a driver regain control if the vehicle begins to slide. Then there’s the Pre Crash System, which utilizes radar to warn of an impending crash and takes appropriate measures, like reducing power or applying the brakes, presumably in conjunction with an EBC, or Emergency Brake Control, which takes over the brakes if the black box decides you’re applying them too lightly in an emergency situation.

There’s also Adaptive Cruise Control, which adjusts the vehicle’s speed depending on traffic conditions; Lane Departure Warning, a system that monitors the vehicle’s position and sounds the alarm if the car drifts out its lane, and the driver alert system, which warns the driver if he appears to be nodding off.

…anything that gives motorcycles an edge in performance or safety is always worth considering…

Whether or not electronic intervention is a good thing depends on whom you’re talking to. Valentino Rossi, arguably the best rider ever to sit on a motorcycle, doesn’t particularly like it, claiming with some credibility that it allows a second tier rider to accomplish things he might not otherwise attempt because he knows the electronics will save his bacon. To some degree, I agree with that, and would add that the sophisticated electronics package needed to facilitate things like traction control complicate motorcycles to a degree that many find unnecessary.

On the other hand I feel that anything that gives motorcycles an edge in performance or safety is always worth considering, and particularly so when it comes to high-powered bikes, be they sport bikes, touring rigs or cruisers. As far as over-complication goes, I’d point out that the latest generation of bikes is already pretty complicated and they don’t seem to be particularly troublesome, so the addition of a few sensors shouldn’t create real problems.

Of course, there’s always a dark side to technology, particularly when your motorcycle is outfitted with devices that monitor, record and store information.

Many late model cars and trucks have had the capability to record information about vehicle operation for some time. The info isn’t hard to retrieve, and allows anyone with access to it—like a cop, insurance investigator, or even your local mechanic—to determine exactly what you were doing in the minutes before the engine puked or you wadded the thing up, and trust me on this, if they find you were doing something unseemly, you’re going to have some explaining to do.

Trucking companies currently use that ability to monitor their drivers’ every move through an on-board GPS. Interested parties can find out how fast the driver went, how hard he accelerated, and of course, where he stopped during the course of a day.

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theory nut, it wouldn’t take much to install a “tattle tale” in your motorcycle’s computer that could be used to inform the local cop shop every time you exceed the speed limit.

Frankly, I doubt we’ll ever see that technology; the legal and social implications alone would prove daunting, and it’s not something the average motorcycle manufacturer would willingly install (at least I hope not).

Those issues aside, I remain intrigued by “smart” technology, though how much of it I’d be willing to purchase remains questionable. Despite my interest, I’m not sure I want to ride a bike that’s smarter than I am.