Watson On: The Rise Of The Machines




Are the machines taking over? It seems that every new motorcycle release now includes a list of tech acronyms a mile long. There’s TC and ABS, of course, but now DDC, EAS, DAC and dozens of others. Does anyone know what they actually mean or what they really do? And, do we actually need any of it?

Now, I’m what you would probably call “old school.” I like my motorcycle to have as few frills and extras as possible. Give me a seat, a gas tank, a set of bars and engine and that suits me just fine.

Ideally, I’d also like to have a pair of disc brakes front and rear, as there may be times when it would be good idea to be able to stop. But that’s all I need. Just include all these things on an interesting motorcycle and I’d be very happy. Yet, every year, we see more and more technology being put onto motorcycles and I wonder where this is all going to end.

It doesn’t matter how big the engine in a motorcycle is or how well it brakes or how sophisticated that technology is, it all adds weight to the bike. The key to a quick, nice handling motorcycle without a shadow of a doubt is lightness. The less technology you have on a bike also means there is less to go wrong and, if you have to fix it yourself, you don’t need a PhD degree in digital electronics to do so.

I do wonder about technology for the sake of technology. Take keyless ignition, which is supposed to make your life easier. It sort of works well and I get why some manufacturers now offer it. But when you leave the fob in your jacket pocket and then can’t remember which jacket it was in, it can get a bit complicated. And God forbid you lose your key.

I’ve witnessed in the car world this system really falling down. One person forgets they have the fob in their pocket. The other person gets in the car and is able to start it and drive off. All’s well until, 150 miles later, they stop the car and then can’t re-start it as the fob is now two hours drive away. What happened to the good old key system? It was less complicated and much easier to use.

We’ve all come to expect fuel-injection as standard on modern motorcycles. But if we still had carburetors today would anyone really notice? Or would there be a clamoring to have fuel-injection fitted? For one thing, you can’t fix fuel injection in your garage (unless you are very technically adept) and it requires an expensive computer program to adjust it. It helps manufacturers pass the stringent emission tests to sell bikes in the U.S. and arguably you do get better fuel consumption with fuel injection. But who cares?

If you’ve ridden a bike with carbs there is a distinctly different feel to the ride than a bike with fuel-injection. Not better, just a different experience.

I’m not going to enter the debate on ABS and traction control. Without a doubt what they are capable of offering is a huge benefit to riders. And yes you can switch them off if you choose to.

But more and more, manufacturers are adding these options to their motorcycles, either for legislation reasons or to remain competitive in the market place. The net result is that maybe we get a safer ride, depending on how you use it, but it all comes at an additional price that can’t be turned off.

I’ve never quite understood power modes that some bikes now have. I’m sure they are very clever and help enormously if you know how to use them, but for me it takes away a little of the riding experience, as you become more reliant on a machine to choose your settings for you, rather than you as the rider who gets to decide how much throttle you are going to use.

Ride-by-wire may be terrific and clever enough to understand the type of riding style you adopt and will adjust engine settings accordingly. But there was a time when you could do this instinctively with your right wrist and still get home without any drama.

I’m not the world’s greatest rider by any stretch of the imagination. But I like to feel involved in the riding process and all of these additional electronics may well help me get out of trouble, but I feel something has happened to motorcycles in recent years to make them more sanitized and therefore easier for everyone to ride. That’s not a bad thing at all as it brings more people into our world, which I applaud and accept as progress.

If you consider something like 45 percent of modern motorcycle production costs today are down to electronics, how less expensive and lighter could motorcycles actually be without them?

Are we in fact creating a new type of rider that is so reliant on electronic safety that they lose some of the traditional skills to keep them safe in the first place?

Maybe I just need to ride with the times and accept that change is good. If technology keeps riders safe on motorcycles and gets more people on bikes then really, who am I to complain?

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  • William Connor

    Every time a new technology is released the older the bike is that I really like. I enjoy the technology my current bike has, if I had to give every one of them up the only one I would really miss is cruise control. Since that can be done mechanically I will keep disc brakes and you can have the rest. So many recalls and failures are electronic today and cannot be fixed easily. I life FI but I have been working on several carb bikes lately and frankly the simplicity of it is awesome. When it won’t start it’s easy to troubleshoot and repair. I really don’t care if more people ride, or in most cases buy bikes they never ride. More people begin to water down the product to make it more accessible which makes it less desirable to me.

  • Jai S.

    “It helps manufacturers pass the stringent emission tests to sell bikes
    in the U.S. and arguably you do get better fuel consumption with fuel
    injection. But who cares?”

    Really? Is that your argument: “who cares?

    I really like getting +50 mpg and over 250 miles on a tank with my 650 V-Twin.

    Also, it’s it important for vehicles to pollute less. I’m planning on being alive for 50 more years, and I would prefer to minimize how much pollution my vehicle of choice create.

    • Riedl

      OK, and I get 45mpg out of my carbureted 1450cc v-twin and its been jetted.

      • Jai S.

        Sounds pretty cool. Can I see it?

        • Riedl

          It should have a little more than 45 horse with the current cams but at 60,000 miles its no spring chicken.

      • Pablo Perez

        That’s about right for a stage 1 TC88.

      • Bruce Steever

        About 45 hp too!

      • UrbanMoto

        I, too, get 45+, close to 50 mpg on my 30 year old poorly adjusted carbureted KZ750. Well, here in Manhattan it’s a lot worse. But in ‘normal’ riding, 45 easy.

      • Scott

        My Twin Cam 88 can get 45 mpg too if cruising. It’s been jetted. It’s not about HP it’s about torque.

    • Fava d’Aronne

      If it is important for you to use a vehicle that pollute less, you shouldn’t ride motorcycles – they are way less environmentally efficient than cars, in terms of fuel emissions per weight. Google it – you’ll find plenty of info.

      • Jai S.

        I know.

        There’s a compromise. I ride my motorcycle when advantageous, and I drive my car when advantageous. I’m in Southern California and I can lane split. What’s better for the environment: riding to work in 15 minutes, or siting in traffic for 45? I bet the average car sitting in traffic pollutes similarly to a bike that spends less time on the road. We know that the bike would use less fuel.

        I think the 1/2 hour savings by taking the bike is worth it to me. It makes me more productive, and gives me more enjoyment.

      • Justin McClintock

        By that logic, I’d be better off driving a Suburban. Personally, I’m more interested in total pollutants emitted, not pollutants by weight or by PPM.

      • Joe Bielski

        I think the issue with that was motorcycles didn’t have catalytic converters or FI. Now a days most do.

    • Joe Bielski

      50 more years??? What are you? 10 years old???

      • Jai S.

        Yeah 10, because people only live till they are 60.

        I’m actually 26, and the average male life expectancy in the US is 76. Pretty simple math. Also, I live a pretty healthy lifestyle, and both sides of my family live pretty long.

        • Joe Bielski

          lol, it was a joke ;)

          • Jai S.

            Sorry about that. Hard to tell over text.

  • Lee Scuppers

    Don’t bikes with fuel injection warm up faster, or not need to warm up, or something? Sounds handy. Wouldn’t pay extra for it though.

    • Nathan Haley

      It’s the kind of thing you can’t really imagine until you have it, and then you never want to go back. My FI WR250R still needs to warm up for a few minutes before the engine is up to peak responsiveness but it starts up at any temperature and once it’s going, it’s flawless.

    • NOCHnoch

      I just got a fuel injected bike and I’m in love…By the time my helmet and gloves are on the bike is ready to go…I won’t thrash it until engine temp is nearing 190 on cold days like these but I’ll cruise at 6k

    • runnermatt

      Fuel injection won’t make the bike warm up faster, but simply controls the fuel more accurately and automatically adjusts the air/fuel mixture which negates the need for a choke. People generally let bikes with carbs warm up because you have to leave the choke on until they have started to warm up. I imagine the power delivery can be a little strange while the choke is still on. That said, with a fuel injected bike, because the air/fuel mixture is automatically adjusted and there is no choke you can ride away before the engine is warmed up.

      That said, regardless of whether a bike is fuel injected or carbed, the engine will last longer if you allow it to warm up first.

      • Piglet2010

        OK to ride with the engine slightly warm, as long as one keeps to moderate engine speeds and loads – on the liquid-cooled fuel-injected bikes I only wait until the temperature gauge starts to move to ride.

        On the Ninjette, I either wait until it is fully warm, or let it idle at 6000 rpm on full choke, since it dies on even partial choke.

  • E Brown

    “If you consider something like 45 percent of modern motorcycle production costs today are down to electronics, how less expensive and lighter could motorcycles actually be without them?”

    Don’t we already know the answer? The CCW Misfit weighs 296lbs dry and cost $3300 , SymWolf Classic 150 is 266lbs wet and cost $3000, and Suzuki TU250X is 328lbs wet and runs $4100.

    • Nathan Haley

      That’s a somewhat random assortment of motorcycles to compare.

      Tim – where does the 45 percent figure in the article come from? As for weight – do electronics even weigh that much?

      • Tim Watson

        Nathan – it’s a bit of a generalization but if you consider all of the equipment that is now added to a standard bike, catalysts, wiring looms, hardware for the technology, fuel injection units, ABS systems etc it starts to mount up.

        • Justin McClintock

          Tim, the simplest bike I own is a 1978 DT175. It’s everything you hope for in your article….extremely simple with almost no additional anything on it. The other end of my personal spectrum is a 2003 SV1000S. Shoot, it even has heated grips on it!

          Guess which one runs better?

          • Tim Watson

            I have a real soft spot for those DT175s – you’re a lucky man. They strike me as almost indestructible. I like the SV1000S very much too but I’m guessing the DT runs better.

            • Justin McClintock

              Quick witted with an actual response. Man, why can’t more sites be like this one?!

      • HunteR

        I imagine an FI unit weighs a lot less than a bank of 4 carbs…

        • Bruce Steever

          Not when you factor in the weight of the fuel pump. And tangentially, the catalytic converter.

  • Matt Mason

    I like motorcycles because they’re designed to be able to be worked on by an average joe. Many cars have strange bolt sizes and require special tools to encourage people to take them to a dealer. I hope motorcycles don’t go down the same path.

    I also hate keyless ignitions, cars and motorcycles are not printers or tv’s…there should be no power button. There’s just something timeless about putting a key in the ignition, turning it, and hearing the engine start up.

    • nick2ny

      There’s just something timeless about kicking a kickstarter and cutting the starter motor and battery out of the equation completely.

  • Harve Mil

    One could make the argument that adding power necessitates wheelie control to replicate the days of yore when power wheelies weren’t possible or were only possible in 1st. Not 2nd and 3rd. Similarly traction control really comes into it’s own with the gonzo power and torque available to modern sport liter / hyper bikes. It makes the experience behave more like going slower on a less powerful bike when running into these adhesion limits wasn’t so trivial. In some ways adding this digital stuff can be viewed as honoring the past by preserving the way we’ve always done things faced with the laws of physics and modern powerplants.

  • Harve Mil

    The Terminator might have said, this exists because “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”

  • Thatmanstu

    Considering the number of bikes sold today and the miles traveled,motorcycles are much,much more reliable today. Obviously,performance is through the roof as well. And there is no shortage of old bikes out there if you really want points,carbs,cable brakes and kick starting ….keeping in mind that hydraulics,electronic ignition,and electric starters were decried then for the very same reasons as the bikes of today and their current innovations are…the difference being of course that most of today’s luddites wants those earlier innovations,just not these…..kind of like a political party creating a health care plan and then 15 years later screaming bloody murder because someone else decided to adapt it……

  • http://www.motopraxis.com/ Aakash

    Attention Mr. Watson, the Machines have been subverting human labor since 1760:

    • Tim Watson

      I think that might be me in the foreground!

      • http://www.motopraxis.com/ Aakash

        The machine or the human? 0_o

        • Tim Watson


  • Charlie

    Fair points, but as a general matter most help with safety (TC/ABS) or enhance the riding experience (EAS). My suspicion is the electronics themselves don’t increase the weight too much. Frankly, I would add a few pounds to get some of the goodies, such as the entertainment system on the new BMW R1200 RT. But my main point of disagreement is with respect to fuel injection. I think new bikes ride better and are infinitely easier to maintain. I’ve had many bikes with carbs and have never enjoyed the constant adjustments. I could do without the martyrdom theory of pleasure. All that being said, the power and technology wars are not all good. But you can’t stop progress and the marketplace will provide reliable guidance. It seems that people are more excited by a new water cooled Ducati Scrambler than some of the latest wizardry

  • Mykola

    I’ve gotten to ride an F800GT in a downpour, tested out the ABS and TC, and I’ll keep my electronic intervention, thank you very much.

  • jefflev

    I have a perfectly restored 1971 Honda CB 500. Carburetor. Drum Brakes. Old Clutch. Kick Start. Choke. Its fun. Its a classic. It also, takes 10 minutes to warm up. It accelerates like a moped. It stops even worse. After about 40 minutes i pull into the garage and get on the Diavel. And I remember that technology is a very very good thing. Many people think of the “good old days”. But they were rarely better.

    Would you really want to write this article and then have to mail it out to all of us?

    • Justin McClintock

      Very good point. I have a 1978 DT175 and a 2003 SV1000S. They’re at opposite ends of the spectrum as well, and I definitely know what you’re talking about. I do love the DT, but it’s no substitute for how well and reliable the SV1000S runs.

  • Justin Turner

    Average Joe will always be able to work on his bike, as long as he stays off the bleeding edge.

    With a Power Commander, you can hook up your laptop and change your fueling numbers yourself. Its just whole numbers on a spreadsheet at given RPM values. It’s accessible and DIY in a 2013 sort of way. I imagine we’re headed for the AKIRA universe, where a “chopper” or “street fighter” means a kid hunched over a shitty laptop running a hack to disable his ABS.

  • Khali

    I like both worlds. I like simple, carburated motorcycles you can work on, and also high tech super-safe ones. Wish there existed some intermediate solutions like plug-in, standalone ABS/TC packs for carburated bikes…

    Bosch website says that they make such kind of systems (for example one that does not need speedo input, and has only one channel for front wheel, I know that kymco scooters use it). That would be enough for me, but they wont sell it to private customers.

    Having gone down due to not having ABS and not having the amazing skills required to save a front wheel lock, I decided that I wont buy another motorcycle without ABS.

    Plus, Motorcycle ABS (+125cc) is becoming mandatory in Europe in…2015?

  • Bruce Steever

    I would say that MC technology is about one-half good and necessary ideas (slipper clutches, EFI, ABS, semi-active suspension), one-half good-but-not-strictly-needed systems (TC, power modes, electrically adjusted suspension), and one-half BS marketing fluff (Vtec, keyless ignition, hill-start assist).

    I’ve also never been great at maths.

    • Pablo Perez

      There’s hill-start assist for motorcycles?

      • runnermatt

        I saw it on one of the recent articles on RideApart. It may have been one of the ones shown at EICMA, but to be honest I don’t remember.

      • Bruce Steever

        New water-cooled R-RT BMW has it.

        • Pablo Perez

          Crazy. It’s a big heavy bike, but I don’t know that that should require hill start control. I consider myself a rider of average abilities, never once have I thought “I wish I had hill start control right now.”

          • Bruce Steever

            Clearly you aren’t ready to drink the German KoolAid. Try to put yourself into the mindset of the typical BMW touring customer, however…

            • Pablo Perez

              I would if I could, those guys refuse to talk to me – they don’t like to fuck with the riffraff (so I have no idea what they’re thinking).

      • Piglet2010

        Yes, it is called holding up the motorcycle with one foot, and using the rear brake with the other. :)

  • Ben W

    The Ducati Monster is an interesting example to study on this topic.

    2008 S2R 1000 versus the 2013 Monster 1100 Evo:
    - Both bikes are Fuel Injected
    - Evo gains 5 HP and 6.6 lb-ft torque
    - Evo gains ABS and TC
    - Evo weighs ~19 lbs less

    In this example, at least, advanced technology doesn’t go hand-in-hand with weight gain.

    2013 1100 Evo versus 2014 Monster 1200:
    - Both bikes are Fuel Injected with ABS & TC
    - The 1200 is liquid-cooled
    - The 1200 has a larger rear tire (180/55 vs 190/55)
    - The 1200 weighs ~43 lbs more (47 lbs minus ~4 lbs for the one gal increase in fuel capacity)
    - The 1200 gains 35 HP and 11 lb-ft torque (1200 S model gains more)

    The shift to liquid-cooling brings a significant weight gain for a major performance increase and longer service intervals. Is that worth it, though? How much weight is gained in favor of aesthetics and comfort? Afterall, the 1199 Panigale is a remarkable 36 lbs lighter.

    Definitely a fun thing to look at, though none of these examples speak to the inherent complexity in maintenance that so much electronics introduce.

    • Price Action Guru

      I would like to see a 2008 Monster S4RS versus 2014 Monster 12000 S

      • Ben W

        Easy to compare at Ducati’s site. The new Monster looks great in that comparison.

        2008 Monster S4RS (1000) vs 2014 Monster 1200S
        - HP: 130 @ 9500 vs 145 @ 8750
        - Torque: 76.6 lb-ft @ 7500 vs 91.8 lb-ft @ 7250
        - Suspension: 43mm USD Ohlins vs 48mm USD Ohlins
        - Rear Tire: 180/55 rear vs 190/55
        - Brakes: 320mm discs vs 330mm discs with ABS
        - Electronics: 1200S adds customizable traction control, full TFT instrumentation
        - Wheelbase: 56.7 in vs 59.5 in
        - Dry Weight: 390 lb vs 401 lb

        So, a 3% increase in weight gives a 11% HP and 20% torque peak boost down lower in the range, better suspension, better brakes, ABS and full traction control.

  • DragosStefan

    While I agree with the general view of the article, the fact is that FI is much better than carbs and more reliable. If we didn’t have FI today, then *everyone* will notice. It’s not that you can fix carbs in your garage, you are actually *required* to do so. They are complex and hard to work on for those who don’t necessarily enjoy this. FI is actually very simple, very reliable (much more than carbs) and in many cases you can tune it easily with your laptop and an aftermarket option).

  • Fava d’Aronne

    There are two converging issues: 1) legislation is forcing manufacturers to introduce certain novelties (fuel injection, abs in Europe) and 2) manufacturers try to push BS on us to increase prices and force us to buy expensive and useless BS.

    Too often I have seen the industry I was working for ask for a change in legislation whose only benefit was to made one of its products mandatory…but the bedtime story was about the environment and/or safety/security.

  • John Tiedjens

    I agree with so many points of simplicity. It’s a bike for God sake… and yes being able to work on it in your garage is what makes your bike your bike. Now with that said… I had the good fortune to go on a test ride sponsored by KTM and rode the 2014 1190 adventurer. Which has multiple E controls. Holy shizzle…. what a bike! Power, handling and all other aspects of it were nothing short of stunning. BUT….. when you’re in the middle of the NV. High desert do you want complex electronics to rely on? Depends how reliable I guess. The only thing I do really like on my street bike is EFI. Carbs are really dinosaurs.. I know there are people who will yell but their flawless delivery of fuel at any altitude, cold or hot and instantaneous starting and power delivery is a plus no matter how hard core purist you are.

    • Bruce Steever

      I feel the same way about the new 1190 as you seem to. At least it can be tweaked to run on crap fuel, unlike its competition…

  • Toly

    Motorcycles are as safe as their riders are. I want a bike, not an iPad on wheels. YMMV.

  • Richard Gozinya

    Some tech is good, some is tech for tech’s sake. When it comes to things like fuel injection though, I fall on the side of the argument that says I’d rather be riding my bike than doing maintenance on it.

    • Piglet2010

      If you have a rarely used bike*, the idle circuits in the carburetor tend to gum up, making starting hard. The high pressure of a fuel-injection pump usually cleans things right out.

      *Acceptable if you own at least four motorcycles. ; )

  • Kevin

    Well, Harley is just waking up to water cooling so there are always brands out there for the traditionalists.

    I’m with you on the key fobs though. I have one on my Multistrada and it’s just been a pain in the arse, and it causes the battery to drain prematurely. And you still have to have the key to open the fuel cap and the luggage. Meh. But the other stuff? Magic, love it.

  • runnermatt

    “Now, I’m what you would probably call “old school.” I like my motorcycle to have as few frills and extras as possible. Give me a seat, a gas tank, a set of bars and engine and that suits me just fine.

    Ideally, I’d also like to have a pair of disc brakes front and rear, as there may be times when it would be good idea to be able to stop. But that’s all I need.”

    You’re not going to get very far without a set of wheels and tires! Just giving you a hard time.

    • Tim Watson

      Ha ha… good point!

  • Jason 1199

    I usually shy away from new tech since you can live without it and you’re at the mercy of a stealership to fix the inevitable break down (e.g. semi-active suspension), however after test riding the 1199 it was the extra tech that sold me on it: lighter weight due to materials/frameless design, quick shifter, slipper clutch, TFT display not to mention the standard Duc kit like TC, ABS (linked) etc. They collectively bring the bike to another level while adding a bit more safety.

    Would I buy one out of warranty? Hrmmm…

  • Price Action Guru

    “I’ve witnessed in the car world this system really falling down. One
    person forgets they have the fob in their pocket. The other person gets
    in the car and is able to start it and drive off. All’s well until, 150
    miles later, they stop the car and then can’t re-start it as the fob is
    now two hours drive away. What happened to the good old key system? It
    was less complicated and much easier to use.”

    Uh, what make and model of car did you witness this on?

    I have several different makes of cars with the keyless feature and I have not seen what you described.

    1. If the keyfob is out of range (generally 3 feet), you get an alert on the dash.

    In addition, one of the following will occur depending on make:

    2a. If the car is running and placed into park and the keyfob is out of range, the cars alarm will go off if someone tries to drive off with it.


    2b. If the car is running and the keyfob is taken out of
    range, the car will run for up to 15 miles and then the ignition is disabled.

    So, what make and model of vehicle did you witness what you described happening? I am curious.

    • Tim Watson

      Two cars actually – a Mazda and a Jaguar. Both similar incidents – key in someone else’s pocket and the car’s been driven off. Both were a few years ago so maybe the system has improved.

  • enzomedici

    High tech gear? lol. Most motorcycles don’t even have a gas gauge that works or a gear position indicator. You would think in 2014 these basic things would be there by now. Only in the motorcycle world do people put up with this ridiculousness.

  • ThinkingInImages

    The key to a nice handling motorcycle – is good design and quality parts. You can make a motorcycle of any weight that handles poorly by slapping together junk parts and a poorly designed chassis.

    Personally, I would be thrilled to have a chipped key and ignition for my motorcycle. For the wee bit of weight it MIGHT add to the machine it would also add a level of anti-theft protection. That’s a lot lighter than carry a disk lock, a chain and lock, a padlock, or all of the above. The current exposed ignition and fork lock haven’t been improved in decades. Thirty some odd years of riding and I’m still buying motorcycles that have the same ignition and fork lock setup. That’s pathetic, “not retro”or “cool”. My disk locks have gotten better, though. I now have one with a built in alarm.

    I wouldn’t give up FI, ABS, linked brakes and an aerodynamic fairing on my sports motorcycle – ever. What it adds is far greater than the slight added weight. If the weight was an issue, I can put on a lighter exhaust, a fender eliminator, some lightweight machined parts – and it might be two or three miles per hour and a split second faster. That’s hardly worth the expense and effort. It’s easier and cheaper for me to lose a few pounds than the motorcycle.

    I understand that some riders aren’t happy with the technology on motorcycles. Perhaps it’s the familiarity with the older tech. The fact is motorcycles are getting better because of technology, not worse. Was there this much “grinding of teeth” when points and condensers gave way for electronic ignition? How about when kickstarters gave away for electric start? Incandescent bulbs gave way for HID?

    I want the most motorcycle I can afford – technology and all. I don’t want “new retro”.

  • ThinkingInImages

    I’m re-reading you’re article and all the comments and one point I do agree on: some motorcycles are getting too “sanitized”. I think of it as “soul-less”. There’s nothing there but an image of a motorcycle. All the little nuances that make one different from the other is missing.

    There’s a whole lot of “generic” going on with motorcycles these last few years. There’s been no big surprises from “the big names”. There’s been a lot of repackaging, a lot of bold new plastic, graphics and paint colors. Nothing that makes you think “well that’s new” and “wow”.