Is active suspension the next leap in motorcycle performance?

Dailies, Galleries -


Right now superbikes are faster than ever before not just because they’re lighter and make more power, but because electronic rider aids like traction control, wheelie control, ABS and launch control are making that performance more exploitable. That suggests that the next big step in performance could be similarly non-traditional. Could it be continuously adjusting suspension damping?

Active damping control has been around in cars for a while, enabling a soft ride in non-performance conditions, then tight response and good body control in corners and while heavily accelerating or decelerating. BMW thinks automatically adjusting damping control front and rear could bring similar benefits to motorcycles while also helping tailor performance to varying rider weights.

BMW was already the first company to offer electronically adjustable damping and spring rates. Riders of late-model BMWs will be familiar with the ability to select one-up, two-up, luggage and their style of riding through dash or bar-mounted buttons. That adjustable spring rate was particularly neat, you can read about it here.

Now, they’ve begun talking about a semi-active system called Dynamic Damping Control that could automatically handle the above while instantly adapting to changing conditions and performance requirements.

A variable ring gap adjusts damping rates.

According to BMW, the system, which is still under development, collects data from “engine control, ABS control unit, sensor box (DTC), and the spring travel sensors” which then informs the control of valves in the front and rear suspension that alter damping rates.

This works as the motorcycle accelerates to prevent squat: “When the rider accelerates, e.g. when leaving the city limits, the valve in the rear strut is actuated more strongly owing to the changes in dynamic wheel load distribution and in the drive torque. Once the target speed has been reached, valve actuation drops back to its original level (less power supply than setting off). Information flows from the throttle grip via engine control to the DDC control unit, and from there to the damping valves.”

To firm up the suspension in corners: “When the rider takes a series of corners, both damping valves are actuated more strongly with increasing inclination – starting from the low power supply – until the vertex is reached. When the vehicle returns upright between two corners, the actuation of the two damping valves constantly drops to the original power level with decreasing inclination. When the motorcycle turns into the second corner, valve actuation again rises proportionally to the angle of inclination and again drops from the vertex value. Information flows from the sensor box (DTC) to the DDC control unit, and from there to the damping valves.”

YouTube Preview Image

As the bike brakes, to prevent dive: “When the motorcycle brakes, e.g. at a rail crossing, the actuation of the front damping valve increases proportionally to the deceleration so that the damping forces and therefore riding stability increase as a result. In this case,
Dynamic Damping Control DDC analyses both the dynamic phase of braking, until constant deceleration and wheel load distribution, and the subsequent static phase.”

And when the motorcycle encounters bumps, to soften the ride: “When the motorcycle is passing over the rail crossing (here representing all types of uneven road surfaces), the valves in the front and rear dampers are actuated (powered) proportionally to the respective compression travel. In this case, information flows the front and rear spring travel sensors via the DDC control unit to the valves.”

There’s also a suggestion that instead of selecting preset variable for one-up or two-up riding, the system will be capable of detecting and ideally programming itself for varying loads.

So how could this increase performance? Well, the benefits of preventing dive and squat should be obvious, maintaining suspension geometry through braking and acceleration is something engineers have been trying to achieve with funny front ends as long as the motorcycle has been around. Doing so, or at least reducing dive and squat somewhat, while retaining the superior feel and easier adjustability of telescopic forks would be quite the coup.

The facility to instantly offer ideal damping setting for individual conditions would also be an advantage. Bumpy corner followed by a smooth corner? The suspension will work in both, delivering optimal feedback and control for each.

Of course, it could also enhance comfort on notoriously uncomfortable performance bikes, allowing a marginally softer ride while cruising without sacrificing control in corners.

When will we see active, or at least semi-active, suspension on bikes? “The suspension damping system DDC will be introduced to the first BMW Motorrad series motorcycles in the near future.”

  • the_doctor

    Hoodoo! That is so unpossible.

    Anyway, it sounds pretty radical, and this is yet another reason to love/hate the future of motorcycling.

  • Tony

    Would it be safe to speculate that Ducati most have some sort of ‘sport’ version of the electronic controlled suspension on the new Multistrada in the works?

  • Thom

    On one hand , isn’t it great that all this technology can be miniaturized enough to now work on a Motor Cycle ?

    But on the other hand , isn’t all this new technology taking something away from the whole Motor Cycling experience , like fun , skill , rider involvement etc ?

    Having seen what’s happened with High Performance Automobiles these days , substituting higher and higher speeds and performance to the detriment of the enjoyment/involvement of driving I’m not so sure what I think .

    All I know is you can now drive a $200K- 200 mph plus car at 95% of its capabilities and be bored senseless once the drive is over . Whereas a 150 mph car a decade ago , driven full out could leave you speechless .

    • Critter

      The saying is, “driving a slow car fast is more fun than driving a fast car slow.”
      Look at James May hitting the buggati veyron’s top speed (253mph?) on top gear. It’s downright boring. Its so advanced and so well designed that it hardly feels like your going fast.

      Hitting 120mph in a beater early 90′s VW Jetta, on the other hand, feels like your some sort of stunt driver barely defying death…

      • Sean Smith

        Going really really fast in a straight line until the vehicle can’t go any faster is always pretty boring.

        Comparing cars to motorcycles doesn’t really work anyway. Where are the Formula 1 repli-racers? We have them in motorcycling, but the best the car world can muster are large luxury pseudo-sports cars that are equivalent to something like an FJR1300 or K1600.

        • Alex

          I disagree:
          Caterham 7
          Ariel Atom
          KTM x-bow
          Shelby Cobra

          There are also some very track oriented cars, it just tends to be that the blend of drivability and performance is usually more skewed towards drivability since cars are generally expected to be more livable than something that requires headwear and armor before operating.

          • Sean Smith

            Nope. Those would be equivalent to something like a speed triple at best.

            Where is the car that will cut lap times within a second or so of an F1 car with a mildly built factory motor, upgraded suspension, race bodywork and sticky tires? Even if such a car did exist, it would likely be based off of a car that had a trunk, full bodywork, A/C and stereo from the factory.

            Pick any liter-class bike, perform those changes, plop a world-class rider on top and bingo, you have a bike that would make Suzuki’s MotoGP machine look like a ten year old 600. Modern bikes are that good.

            “But what about the Ariel Atom 500?!?”
            Sure it’s quick, and fun ad he’ll too. But it’s lacking a racing pedigree and I bet it would have it’s doors blown clean off by a real open wheel car. It’d be like trying to campaign a Ducati Monster S4RS is WSBK.

            Without racing to develop chassis design, traction control, aerodynamics, engines and tires, modern sports cars have become bloated underperforming toys for rich guys.

      • rohorn

        What ISN’T boring on TV?

      • David

        “Hitting 120mph in a beater early 90′s VW Jetta…, barely defying death…”

        And, you probably are!

  • ursus

    As I understand it, Lotus started this in the 80′s. I recall reading their system could be set to identify an object in the road and lift the striking wheel over the object without disturbing the ride.
    I am very curious what active, powered suspensions could add to motorcycles. The semi-active stuff is neat.

    • Joe

      It was Bosch, they used a Lexus LS400 as a demo car. that was the one that could lift a wheel over an object, but that was the 90′s.

      Lotus may have started it in the 80′s though for all I know.

  • Greg

    I think I appreciate and trust technology until I read something like this and I get freaked out and try to wrestle control back from the robots.

    It’s gonna do WHAT to the suspension in the middle of a curve!? Or when I slam on the brakes!?

    But, then I remember that ABS was introduced at some point and the thought of brakes releasing and then grabbing again when you needed them the most probably freaked people out then too.

    I ride a 70′s motorcycle and the truth is, I’d probably die on that thing on a curvy road or trying to stop faster than on a bike with this type of technology.

    As much as the technology will likely make current riding styles and capabilities a little more boring, it will also open the door to things that people just can’t do today.

    So yea, 200 mph becomes no big deal, then you get passed by someone with more skill and having more fun going 250 and the whole bar gets raised. I think it’s remarkable and a good thing. It’s progress and innovation, the same way we got all the machines we love today.

  • jonoabq

    Sooo…it’s cool and all, watching the development of the technology. But as speeds come up for Joe average due to electronic intervention, crashing become a potentially greater yard sale, body parts a-flyin’. There are days when I want the technology, but my most satisfying rides are typically on days when “I” get it all right, not the “computer”.

  • soban881

    I started the day with Jalopnik, and this turned into watching youtube videos of Senna and Villeneuve just tearing up tracks without much in the way of driver aids. Wheels locking and smoking everywhere while performing phenomenal passes as the back end steps out. There will always be a part of me that puts older drivers on a higher pedestal than those of my generation because of what they can achieve despite the limitations of their vehicles.

    I’m so torn – I couldn’t believe how much better my sv650 became when I did some suspension mods, but there is something so visceral about flogging an old bike around. This technology sounds fantastic, but there are some days where I want to be the only controller of my machine. I’m gonna have to be a quasi-luddite. I’ll need at least two bikes: A modern example of excellent design, and a fire-breathing two-stroke with an electrical system that can barely power the headlight.

  • rohorn

    About time. This should do to damper adjusters what fuel injection did to the box of jets.

  • Joe

    Is active suspension the next leap in motorcycle performance? If BMW is doing it, then it probably is.

  • Critter

    This sounds about as good as anti-dive forks from the early 80′s. great… until you hit a rough patch of road while hard breaking.

    Accelerate hard on rough pavement and its still going to stiffen the rear? Same with cornering? wont that make it less able to handle those bumps?

    I’ll believe its a performance gain when its widely used in race bikes… Until then I think it sounds a bit gimmicky.

  • gino

    do we really need this crap, long live old school

  • Gene

    What about keeping it running? My local dealership (Orlando Yamaha – teh suck) literally cannot match the direction arrows on the tire to the the direction arrows on the rim, so I have to do all the maintenance. I pray the ABS on my FJR doesn’t die, because it’s a unrepairable $1200 block of aluminum.

    • Sean Smith

      That’s an easy fix: a couple of braided stainless lines and a new master cylinder will take care of it ;)

      • BMW11GS

        also try ebay….and those things are as non-serviceable as they would like you to believe, it just takes a little extra thought but because they fail so infrequently you dont really ever get enough people to really spend the time and effort to repair them.

        • Gene

          Yeah, for that amount of coin, you can believe I’ll take a crack at fixing it. I got put into a guardrail when the ABS/power brakes on my Camaro died, after the dealer tech wouldn’t replace the wheel sensor like I asked. Oh well, at least the lawsuit paid for half of my house, and my lawyer’s fancy BMW.

  • Dan

    I know the future of motorcycling lies in this higher tech, computer controled, wiz bang trickery without a doubt but how can we arrive at that future while living in a world of planned obsolescence?
    Our automotive engineers don’t design stuff to last forever. The tiny sensors and gizmos are not designed for extreme longevity, they are designed to sell at a profit. They want you to buy a new bike every five years or so and with that in mind it seems to me that the further we go down this road the less reliable these machines will be.
    To design a machine that is built to last and rebuilt forever, more or less, would be akin to shooting themselves in the foot.
    An interesting conundrum…

    • rohorn

      And I suppose you posted this from an Apple IIe that you rebuilt?

      • Ted

        I posted this from a $200 piece of telephone technology, a price I’m willing to shell out very two or three years. Talk to me about a $16,000 motorcycle and my story changes.

        • rohorn

          Please name ONE year/makke/model of motorcycle with allegedly evil, unreliable, and unobtainable technology that can’t be ridden anymore?

          NAME ONE!!!!!!!!!!

          Clueless dipshits have been bitching about the evils of solid state ignitions since points went away, unrepairable wheels since one piece wheels came on the market, the loss of kickstarters, and EFI, ABS, etc… since they were introduced. The only difference is the decade and the subject – the stupidity remains constant.

          What HAS changed is that there are equally clueless dipshits who claim that there is/they are the “tech savvy” generation. BULLSHIT! I’m sick of “tech savvy” dipshits who bitch about tech – from tech devices. I’ll believe technology is bad/unreliable/”planned obsolescence”/(FUD) when HFL becomes released as mimeographed flyers posted on lamp posts. And when the messages are sent in on parchment via messenger pigeon.

          If old shit is your thing, then what do you expect to be reported? I’m seriously thinking that an awful lot of “motorcyclists” are simpleminded daydreamers fantasizing for the headline “Honda Scraps Entire 2012 Model Line And Re-Introduces Entire 1973 Model Line”. And no, all the pissing and moaning from mom’s basement/mass transportation/public library is going to make that happen.

          If you want a braindead $16,000 motorcycle, then buy a Harley.

          • Joe


            • BMW11GS

              totally agree. There are ton of classic bikes out there to grab and wrench on

          • Sean Smith

            A harley with ABS and fuel injection?

            • rohorn

              I was wondering who would point that out!

              • Wes Siler


                • Ted

                  Having trouble typing with the busted arm there Wes?

          • Mark D

            I, for one, am disappoint that there aren’t kick starters anymore.

            They’re so badass!

          • Ted

            I’m not referring to a motorcycle being unusable or unreliable because of technology like this. I just don’t like driving/riding a vehicle that I can’t personally repair down to the smallest nut and bolt.

            The local Ducati dealer can’t reliably replace a gas tank without spilling gas all over the place and using the wrong o-rings. I don’t trust them to change my oil, let alone fiddle with whizz-bang gadgets such as this.

            • rohorn

              I know what you mean. That’s why I think it is a subject worth learning and mastering.

              I’m confident that the tech savvy minds behind HFL know that and intend to expand the minds of their tech savvy subscribers!!!

          • tomwito

            Well said! Ever notice how everyone hates the looks of the new model until the next new model comes out? Then it’s “I like the way the 2010 looked, WTF (fill in brand)”!

  • Richard

    It was Lotus that first experimented with fully active suspension (no springs – just hydraulics and sensors). At the time the whole passenger seat area was filled with computers. It totally eliminated body roll – kind of by definition. But before you imagine this on a motorcycle think how much power it takes to LIFT (and lower it back down) a wheel over a brick at freeway speed (i.e. millisecond response time)…

    • ursus

      Yes. It would take alot more power. But when my pillion is cutting diamonds I must have the smoothest ride possible.

  • Dan

    Ash on Bikes’ article on BMW’s system mentions a rumor that ohlins is working on something similar for the 1199. Since ohlins prototypes have been spotted on a few (other) test bikes already, it certainly sounds plausible. Heres a similar system on a CBR:

    Sadly, looking at the spy shots of the ducati in production trim (blurry as they are), the electronic-fork wizardry is visibly absent. Even though they look about right, the bike in the SBK spy photos wouldn’t likely be wearing electronically-adjustable forks because they’re banned under SBK rules.

  • Keith

    I too ride a couple of ’70′s bikes and when I step on the “new” ’99 St1100 I am grateful for the updated technology.
    ABS will be on my next bike and as for 2 up touring, bring on the automatic suspension!
    And not all this tech is for higher speeds. A lot of it relates to safety as well.
    As I look around at the lack of driver skills, a little more safety technology wouldn’t hurt.

    • HammSammich

      “As I look around at the lack of driver skills, a little more safety technology wouldn’t hurt.”

      Personally, this is exactly what’s wrong with cars today (at least in the US). In the absence of proper driver training, safety has had to be “engineered” into the vehicles. That, more than anything else is why cars are boring and inefficient. I’m not a Luddite when it comes to motorcycle technology for performance, but let’s not fall into the same trap as the automobile world. I would argue that, in general, motorcyclists take training far more seriously than do car drivers. Rather than seeing technology as a replacement for skill, let’s continue to focus on developing our skills and add in new technologies. And let’s definitely keep pushing for better training for the cagers in their “Goddamned 2-ton murder machine(s).”