Motorcycle technologies: towards a safer future

Tom Rataj
April 11, 2017
By Tom Rataj
I remember watching motorcycle officers in the 60s and 70s, roaring around the suburbs, on their noisy old Harley Davidson motorcycles. During the winter months, they still ventured out on patrol, but with a side-car attached, presumably to increase their odds of staying upright. Those motorcycle, were pretty crude by today’s standards.



Thankfully a good helping of technology and sophistication is migrating from the automotive world to the motorcycle world. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the technology now appearing, or coming soon.

Lighting

Headlight systems are now benefiting from massive upgrades in lighting power and control, courtesy of light emitting diode (LED) bulbs and high-intensity discharge (HID) headlight systems. They produce substantially more quality light for illuminating both the roadway and attracting other drivers’ attention. Headlight upgrade kits are available for a wide range of models, and run in the reasonable $100 range.

A newer line of adaptive motorcycle headlight modules are also now available. They use on-board sensors to monitor motorcycle lean-angles and adjust the headlight beam-spread to illuminate darker areas in corners in the same manner as some adaptive headlights in cars. These systems are available as an upgrade, but are pricey at around $1,000.

Many motorcycles also feature LED tail, brake and signal lights which are brighter, have better beam control and turn on or off instantly. Bulb upgrades are available for about $35.

Stability Control

Bosch offers their Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC) system that uses a number of sensors to monitor various aspects of a motorcycle’s behaviour to help reduce instances of loss of control.

At a rate of more than 100 times per second, the system monitors numerous factors such as wheel speed and traction, lean-angle, pitch angle, braking pressure and acceleration rate. It also includes: ABS, traction control, launch and wheelie control, cornering and hill-hold control, semi-active chassis control and crash detection with an engine killswitch. Some of the features are automatic and override the riders’ inputs to prevent loss of control. Bosch also offers a cornering-ABS system that helps prevent loss of control when cornering hard at higher speeds. Yamaha offers a 6-axis Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that provides similar benefits.

Honda motorcycles recently demonstrated their soon to be released “Riding Assist Technology” which will, among other things, help riders maintain balance at speeds below 4.8 km/h (3 m.p.h.). They have adapted technology from their ASIMO robot and their UNI-MO self-balancing scooter.

Ride-by-wire

The old bowden-cable based throttle controls have also been replaced by new electronic ride-by-wire controls that use sensors to measure throttle rotation and speed and send the resulting information to the engine control unit (ECU). The ECU then calculates how much fuel to send to the engine, based on throttle behaviour, input and several other factors.

This results in far better control over the engine and the motorcycle and even potentially offers riding modes such as “eco” and “sport” often found in passenger cars.

Engines

The old air-cooled motorcycle engine is quickly being replaced by water-cooled engines that offer numerous benefits in terms of performance, reliability, lower emissions, better fuel economy, reduced noise and less heat transmission to the rider.

Several super-bikes, such as the Kawasaki H2/H2R use superchargers on the engine to further boost horsepower and top speed.

Aprilia recently introduced their RSV4 R-FW track-only models that can deliver more than 230hp, which is more than many cheaper “sporty” cars.

Future

BMW has demonstrated their futuristic concept Motorrad Vision Next 100 motorcycle which is designed to keep the rider in control in an autonomous (self-driving) world. With the Next 100, they claim that no protective clothing, not even a helmet, will be required because all the assistive technologies on the bike will keep the rider safe.

A self-balancing system similar to what Honda has demonstrated would keep the motorcycle upright even when parked, while also tailoring the ride to the skill-level of the rider, and allowing the rider to ride more aggressively, especially or corners, while reducing the chances of loss of control.

They’ve also proposed a Digital Companion system that supports the rider through special gear, including heads-up display type glasses called the Visor, which can display different types of information in the glasses based on where the rider’s eyes are looking.

Helmets

Modern motorcycle helmets have also benefited from years of impact-resistance research and are now getting electronic upgrades including: Bluetooth connectivity, integrated GPS, audio, heads-up displays (HUD) in the visor, integrated and add-on LED lighting and even rear-view cameras.

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