With the advent of the programmable ECU, the Mikuni jet and needle futures markets on the Nikkei exchange tumbled, thus triggering what came to be known as the Great Float Bowl Recession. Mechanics everywhere celebrated.
“There is nothing permanent except change” —Heraclitus, pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher and renowned curmudgeon
Heraclitus was best known in his day for advancing the notion that the only constant is change, and equally well known for his grumpy, cantankerous attitude about almost everything else, why, we don’t know; maybe he had issues with, “change.” It’s currently seven degrees outside, it’s January, and I’m reading about yet another innovation coming down the pike in advanced motorcycle technology that promises to improve all of our lives. The depths of winter seem to be the time of year to unveil what the next big thing is in motorcycling; change is in the freezing air, it’s that time of year when I find Heraclitus a sympathetic character.
It started with the early hickory and iron “safety bicycles”, into which someone felt compelled to stuff a steam engine, presto-chango we have a “moto-cycle.” Time passed of course, and it has evolved into this:
According to various UK sources, Isle of Man (IoM) electronics rule changes purportedly will prevent eight-time TT winner Ian Hutchinson from competing in the 2014 IoM. This is an explicit admission that that bike is not competitive without the custom aftermarket electronic control unit (ECU) the team wants to run. Put another way, the same chassis, the same peak horsepower and torque figures on a dyno, and that accomplished racer CANNOT be competitive without THAT specific black box because if the rider cannot relinquish throttle control duties to that aftermarket ECU rather than the stock Yamaha’s, he simply won’t be as fast. Relinquish control. This begs the question, “Who is doing the riding here?”
“The kit systems from other manufacturers already contain strategies for rider aids, traction control, and anti-wheelie for example, whereas the Yamaha’s isn’t that advanced, so we would be at a distinct disadvantage, especially when it comes to putting in consistent 131mph laps where a full electronics package is necessary.” —Milwaukee Yamaha team owner Shaun Muir
“What does the IoM rule book and some pre-Socratic guy have to do with me?” you might wonder, well, a lot actually. If you read Kevin Duke’s recent article on evolving technology, “Best New Motorcycle Technology of 2013,” you saw a good explanation of the changes that have already occurred, and innovations likely coming our way, most notably active suspension, in the near future. These innovations are going to be available, if they aren’t already, on the bikes you buy. Currently, traction control that had been reserved for big bore sport bikes has trickled down to the 600 class with the 2013 Kawasaki ZX-6R getting a three-level big-brain gription system. An optional ABS system is available on the Honda CBR250R – a tiny 250cc bike – the better to keep the insurance adjuster away.
Advanced electronics are becoming ubiquitous. And by and large this is a good thing, you want an unfair advantage on the street, any edge you can get is good. But there is a tradeoff, and I just want to recognize that before our sidestands are automatically deployed when we come to a stop and shut off the motor.
X-Box motorcycle games aren’t becoming more motorcycle-like, motorcycles are becoming more X-Box like.
Fly by wire technology in aircraft has changed the pilot’s role in the equation. The final arbiter of what is possible in flight is not the pilot anymore, it is the black box, and now we bear witness to the same sort of innovations increasingly arriving in the two wheeled world. Muir as much as admitted this when he stated a black box contains “strategies for rider aids.” A box now has strategies – ride-by-wire in all its glory. Will wonders never cease.
What was deft throttle control is now to be supervised by traction control, anti-wheelie control, engine-braking control, launch control, and a choice of engine map profiles to alter power delivery, true ride-by-wire technology. Two fingered braking on the edge of adhesion yields to anti-lock braking systems, all these small diodes presumably arranged in such a way to save us from ourselves. Slipper clutches make blipping the throttle to match revs on a downshift unnecessary. X-Box motorcycle games aren’t becoming more motorcycle-like, motorcycles are becoming more X-Box like.
Enter active suspension: You and your dumb springs are just along for the ride. This is not only going to change bikes, it’s going to change the way we ride, you can see it at the highest levels in MotoGP right now if you look at rider positioning in the corners. It may even change if you ride, just listen to Sean Muir complain about the new IoM rules.
I know these advances will result in fewer brake lock-ups, less high sides under throttle, and a reduction in inclement weather mishaps on the street. In short, these technological advances will help keep riders upright, and I am an ENORMOUS advocate of that. Rider safety should be paramount. And lowering the barriers to new riders should take priority as well. These electronic advances accomplish all of that. But they do so by diminishing the rider’s role in this whole dance. What had been a monogamous motorcycle marriage for two now has an interloping third-wheel black box with its own “strategies” for cryingoutloud! Just a box, a very smart box, a box that probably doesn’t cuss like a sailor when it can’t find its 17mm deep well socket.
Which gives rise to another related issue. I love working on stuff, I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. As in break open the box that contains tools rather than, “strategies,” and really get to know the bike because you can go over it, and have gone over it, with a fine toothed torque wrench. It’s very satisfying. To me it’s part of being a motorcyclist. You never hear anybody trundling to the Piggly Wiggly for a box of Cheeze-Its and a liter of Pepsi in their Prius referred to in any way so as to imply a relationship with that machine. I’ve never seen a carist, or an automotist. And motorist? Who has ever described themselves as a motorist? Working on a motorcycle is part of establishing that relationship, and it’s very rewarding, it is, or was anyway, part of being a motorcyclist. And there was a time where if you didn’t wrench, you often didn’t ride.
Look, I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking I’m some sort of unrepentant Luddite, and yes, I suppose there is something to that. I miss wing windows in trucks and K&N Superbike bars, I like analog gauges. But I don’t want to return to the days of sitting on a dark roadside with a Mini Maglite clutched in my teeth cleaning points with a matchbook cover. I couldn’t care less if my dwell meter ever moves from its appointed place on the wall again. Re-jetting a bank of carbs to work with a new pipe only to still be too lean, or too rich, or too whatever, and having to pull them off and do it all over again is time consuming and a royal pain in the ass.
These days you simply download a map on your laptop, pop a cord into your Power Commander, load it up and see what you have. If it doesn’t work? No big deal, go download another map, or get a reputable tuner with a dyno and some know-how to make a custom one for you. No dirty hands, no wrestling with banks of carbs and cursing at airboxes. This is indeed progress. But I do appreciate the inherent simplicity of what used to be motorcycles and the joy that came from working on them. And therein lies the rub – you COULD work on them. You could change spring rates and damping in your completely inactive forks by, amazingly enough, simply popping them open and putting new springs in them and playing with different fork oil weights. See? I’m not an Orthodox Luddite, I’m just conflicted.
It’s one thing to make bikes more competent – by the mid-90s top shelf 600 supersports were blowing-away what had been TZ750 track records all across North America – it’s another thing entirely to take the duties of riding out of the rider’s hands.
Occam’s Razor, thus named for Franciscan friar William of Ockham, a 14th century logician and reputed BMW airhead enthusiast, states, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Basically, if you have two competing solutions for a problem, the simplest one, the most elegant one, is the correct one. There is a lot of truth to the phrase ‘simple is good,’ that Occam was a smart guy. And while it may be true that bikes are getting more technologically advanced, they most certainly are not getting simpler. As to how necessary all these advances are is for everyone to decide for themselves. It’s one thing to make bikes more competent – by the mid-90s top shelf 600 supersports were blowing-away what had been TZ750 track records all across North America – it’s another thing entirely to take the duties of riding out of the rider’s hands.
And maybe that is what it gets down to, weighing the merits of these advances in the face of simplicity lost and rider duties delegated, and arriving at where you fit into this Brave New World. While I applaud the advances and recognize how much “better” off we are today, I can’t help but feel we might be leaving something of value behind from the days when things were simpler; you took pleasure in mastering things like two fingered front braking while blipping the throttle through downshifts, standing a bike on its nose late braking into a corner modulating the lever, and feeling the back end step out at the exit knowing the only throttle control you had was you and your right wrist. No black box did that, you did, when you did it right it was rewarding, and the reward was entirely yours. You, and only you, were riding that bike.
There is something artful about riding a bike well, it takes years to become good at, a lifetime to try to master, and you never quite get all the way there but it’s a challenge to try. And caring for that bike like the dance partner it is is part of that relationship. But 2014 is a new year, and technology just tapped me on the shoulder, it wants to step-in on this dance. I have mixed feelings about that, and I can’t help but have a strong inclination to dance with what brung me.