Watson On: The Rise Of The Machines

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Category: HFL

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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