New Motorcycle Technology
One of the dangers in tackling any story on emerging technology is that any predictions, no matter how you arrive at them, are in danger of being completely and utterly wrong. That said, there are some clear trends at play right now, which suggest there are some potential seismic shifts in our understanding of what will be headlining at the local showroom (real or virtual) in the coming years.
One of the most important battlegrounds is software. It may well be the hardware combo of a chassis and thundering engine that draws the visceral reaction that makes us love our machines so much, but it’s often how those major components are controlled and what safety nets are put in place that’s focussing the attention of designers.
Increasingly, the electronic management of engines, transmissions, suspension, braking and information will influence exactly what you experience and what you can achieve from behind the ’bars. Let’s have a quick look at some of the emerging gizmos.
While the gradual development of lighter, cleaner and more efficient powerplants marches on, Kawasaki has recently decided to up the ante with two new supercharged models – the H2R track-only bike and its tamer road sibling, the H2.
This is not the first time a big-four Japanese maker – or Kawasaki – has tackled a powerplant with forced induction. Back in the early to mid-1980s, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki all had a crack at turbocharging. Kawasaki’s effort was the pick of the litter, but they all bombed in the market.
While turbocharging offered some significant bragging rights at the local pub, the performance gains over a well-designed (and larger-capacity) normally aspirated engine were delusional.
So here we are again, searching out another form of forced induction.
Kawasaki’s H2 name has huge historic significance for the brand, as it was once attached to some legendary two-stroke road and race bikes. That alone will give the new toys serious collector interest. But will the other makers follow with their own versions of something that takes a serious R&D commitment? Unlikely, unless Kawasaki suddenly starts selling shiploads of the things. For the time being, supercharging counts as exotica in the at-times surprisingly conservative world of motorcycling and is likely to remain a niche product.
Less niche is the ongoing search for greater flexibility in the one powerplant, chasing low-down grunt along with a screaming top end. Relatively simple gadgets such as electronic valves that effectively change the shape of the exhaust system have been with us for a long time – at least 20 years. Now, the trend is towards variable valve timing, which has been common fare in cars for some time.
Ducati appears to be leading the charge in this area, having shown a variable version of its Desmodromic system operating both inlet and exhaust sides of the head – a first for motorcycling. The idea is valve lift and overlap can be varied according to engine revs and performance demands, enabling a much wider set of tuning options. Though Ducati is not the first bike maker to dabble in this area, it’s (publicly at least) the most advanced at this stage. Expect to see a lot more of this across the industry.
Battery-powered electric motorcycles are indeed the rage at the moment and there are strong arguments they will become increasingly significant players.
Already, across the world, electric two-wheeled commuters (mostly scooters) have carved out huge markets for themselves.
Despite all the cash thrown at their development so far, electric gadgets are still very much in their infancy. Several makers, including Harley-Davidson and Kawasaki, have proven they can build high-end gear, but cost and effective operating range remain hurdles to mass acceptance.
Battery technology remains a major drawback, something acknowledged by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which has thrown a lot of resources at what it describes as the next-generation nickel-metal-hydride packs called Gigacell, claiming a super-fast recharge time. That was shown off recently in the wild J-Concept three-wheeler at the Tokyo Motor Show.
Hybrids, that primarily use a petrol engine as a generator to feed electric motors, have shown promise in the automotive world, but again motorcycle development is still in the early stages. The problem is that weight and space are at a premium on bikes, so the idea of dual powerplants is enough to have your average bike engineer waking up in a cold sweat.
If you want to see just how radical chassis development might get if the engineers were given the keys to the corporate safe and the liquor cabinet at the same time, look no further than Kawasaki’s J-Concept. You have to admire the sheer courage and creativity involved, and the whole plot of a shape-shifting motorcycle/trike/whatever has enormous entertainment value. However, I wouldn’t rush in with your deposit. Not yet.
More pedestrian perhaps and definitely with a lot more potential real-world impact is the gradual development of semi-active suspension for motorcycles. It’s a logical progression from exotic (and banned) F1 race technology, where springing as we know it was replaced with electronically controlled hydraulics which moved the suspension in response to the obstacles and surfaces it was meeting.
A number of motorcycle options are emerging – Ohlins is prominent among the developers – which employ conventional springs and dampers, assisted by electronics that provide ‘live’ and instant adjustment on the run. The advantage is that you now have suspension that really does react to the road, rather than something which is forced to settle for some pre-set ‘happy medium’ which may or may not cope with the surfaces you encounter. It’s not the cheapest system out there, but it will become more accessible.
Perhaps even more influential is the ongoing software battle among rider aids. That is, getting ABS, traction control, stability control and the throttle all talking to each other. Each of those pieces (including fly-by-wire throttles) is readily available right now. The trick is to get them working most effectively in concert with each other.
MotoGP is at the cutting edge of this quest, where onboard systems can actually learn a track and refine just how hard the machine can be braked into, leaned, and fired out of a corner.
For us humble non-racer users, the implication will be increasingly sophisticated offerings that are able to play a greater intervention role in ensuring you keep the motorcycle on its rubber while wringing its neck. BMW and Ducati have already gone a long way down this development path with their high-end sportsbikes, offering several levels and variations of intervention, depending on the style of use and the abilities of the rider. Look for more of it in years to come.
When you look at the potential advantages, it’s a little baffling to see just how slow the progression of the head-up display has been over the years. Primitive military aviation versions have been experimented with since the mid 1930s and moved into the civilian sphere by the 1960s, namely BMW, Saab and even higher-spec offerings of the humble Holden Commodore. It’s a no-brainer for motorcyclists – having critical information such as speed in these days of manic enforcement projected directly into your sight line, rather than you having to take your eyes off the road.
Think it through and you can easily make an argument for a system that relays speed, critical warnings (indicator tell-tale, for example) and basic navigation instructions. All the pieces are currently available and we now appear to be on the cusp of it becoming more generally available.
A quick cruise through this lot may fill you with delight or dread, depending on your philosophical point of view when it comes to motorcycling. Someone like my colleague, Rob Blackbourn – an engineer by trade – may see the proliferation of gadgets and software around a motorcycle as some kind of dystopia. He’s someone who likes his motorcycling elemental. Others will embrace all of the above with both arms.
And that, for a motorcycle manufacturer, is the key conundrum when it comes to technology. Developing it is one thing, but does the market actually want it?
We’ve watched similar techno bonanzas before, most notably through the 1980s, when makers tried all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas. That decade was littered with brave ideas that bombed. Let’s hope the new crop fares better.
Curiously, one of the slowest areas of development in motorcycle design over the years has been lighting. Pretty much the same technology (variants of an incandescent lamp) has been widely employed for nearly a century.
Variants of more powerful gas discharge (Xenon) have made it into the motorcycle fleet and the next step has been LED headlamps.
LEDs are in wide use for low-rated applications such as indicators and brake lamps and you can expect to see them widely employed as headlamps. They have numerous advantages such as reliability, light weight, small size and the flexibility they offer designers.
Honda registered a patent for Fireblade LED headlamps early last year and the latest VFR800F already has them, as well as several BMW models to name a few.