ABS, traction control, wheelie control and the list goes on. Are these really aiding us or just limiting our skills on these beautiful machines? Read on.
Gone are the days when the only ‘rider aids’ on a bike were the speedo, throttle, brakes and clutch. And, if we were lucky, a reserve fuel tap, which we would switch to ‘reserve’ when we ran low, then forget to turn it back, and run out next time anyway. We were chuffed though, weren’t we?
Now though? Modern riders can do almost everything except make a skinny soy latte with the high-tech gizmos on their bikes. And we’re expecting the Nespresso edition Ducati Scrambler anytime now. Electronic suspension, traction control, anti-lock brakes, colour dashboards, cruise control, power modes, quickshifters, wheelie control, anti-rear-wheel-lift control, launch control, slide control – where will it all end? Setting up your bike for a Sunday blast can now seem as difficult as programming an old VCR player.
Plus, if you want to do a wheelie on some bikes now, you need to fax the factory a week in advance so they can wifi the permission to your ECU. The result? You end up turning it all off and plough into a ditch at high speed on your way to your favourite wheelie lane. Boo. The things turn themselves back on as soon as your back is turned anyway (Triumph, we’re looking at you here). So, here’s our run-down on the tech aids that we love and the ones to which we say NO!
It’s fair to say anti-lock brakes have come a long way since their early days on BMW’s K100 in the 1980s. That system was borrowed from cars so it was big, heavy and slow to operate.
The principle, though, remains the same – a small computer measures the speed of the front and rear wheels as you hit the brakes. If it sees one wheel slowing down too much, it reduces the brake pressure, so the wheel won’t lock up. Early systems were pretty lame, often turning the brakes off and on completely in what felt like five-second cycles, leading to that horrible ‘I’m hauling on the brakes for a corner and this stupid bike has turned them off’ feeling. Things like small bumps on the road would confuse the system, and the slow response rate and fairly simple algorithms could be caught out. And they had little ability to control braking while leaned over in a corner.
Nowadays, the very best setups are tied in with IMU sensors so it knows when you’re leaned over, and if the bike is stopping or not, and they can also cycle the brake pressure much faster, meaning they can run much closer to the locking point and make more intelligent decisions about whether or not to cut the brake pressure, and when. A lot of the latest and greatest even sport fancy cornering ABS, which basically means you can keep squeezing your bike’s anchors at the same time as pitching into corners… and not find yourself folding the front. Again, it’s all down to fancy sensors that micro-manage brake pressure application according to your angle of lean. Blooming marvellous, eh?
Pros: Losing the front is almost always a crash, especially for novices, so it’s a big safety mod
Cons: Even good ones can sometimes kick in when not wanted, especially on track, and expert riders can still exceed their abilities
Good aids: If it saves one front-end spill, it’s got to be worth the effort
Like ABS, the term ‘traction control’ covers a multitude of setups, from very basic ‘safety’ systems aimed at stopping you from falling over if you open the gas too much in a gravel car park, to the very latest ‘performance’ systems designed for advanced track use.
The first bike to come with a TCS (traction control system) was the 1992 Honda ST1100 Pan European, which had a combined TCS/ABS system. That setup merely cut the ignition sparks if the rear wheel started spinning faster than the front – the engine used carburettors, so there was no way to reduce fuelling by turning off fuel injectors or close a ride-by-wire throttle. Wheel speeds were measured by the same sensor rings used by the ABS system, which we’re all very familiar with these days.
Up until fairly recently, road bike traction wasn’t much more advanced than that system. If the traction ECU saw the rear wheel spinning too quickly, it would cut the engine’s power by retarding ignition timing, or even turning off some sparks altogether (which gave that cool popping and banging as unburnt fuel backfired in the exhaust).
Some systems like the 2008 ZX-10R didn’t even have wheel sensors, instead analysing the acceleration of the crankshaft – if it spun up too quickly, the rear wheel must have lost grip, since the bike couldn’t be accelerating as fast as the crank was. ‘Hmmm’, as we all said at the time.
Ten years on, more powerful engine management systems, together with ride-by-wire throttle control and IMU sensor packages mean engineers can build much more sophisticated traction control algorithms. Like ABS, more powerful algorithms, sensors and computing power means they make far better and faster decisions about cutting torque to the rear tyre – and they are also much more controllable for the rider, with multi-stage settings on most systems now.
Pros: Adds safety, encourages more aggressive throttle use out of bends
Cons: Might be used as a replacement for rider skill
Good aids: on balance, a top TC system is a good thing. You can turn it down as your skills improve, and it’s a useful safety net as you go
Sort of a sub-set of traction control, but some bikes (Ducatis especially) let you alter this separately from TC. Basic wheelie control is taken care of by traction control hardware – if the front wheel comes off the deck, it starts to slow down while the rear wheel keeps accelerating. Harsh old-school TC would just cut the power at this point, and the front slams down. More sophisticated systems take speed, gear and throttle position into consideration, and at lower TC settings, will let the front wheel stay up for a while if it thinks the circumstances suit.
The best systems use the IMU unit to know that you’re not leaned over in a corner, and can also measure the pitch angle to see how high the wheelie is going. So if you set minimal wheelie control, with moderate traction control, you should be able to do top wheelies in a straight line, yet still have protection from highsiding or losing the back end while cranked over coming out of a bend.
Pros: A good setup will let you pull sweeeet mingers while saving you from highside hell
Cons: More basic setups will just spoil all your fun
Bad aids: Learn to do it yerself!
It might seem like a luxury, but like a few of these aids, once you’ve sampled a lovely colour screen, it’s hard to go back again. Bikes like the Ducati Supersport, Triumph Tiger 800 and even the KTM 390 Duke have these mini-flatscreen TVs now, and they generally have different road/race display modes.
The premium ones often have lean and pitch readouts, so you can store your maximum lean angle, and see how hard you’re braking with brake pressure displays.
They do make it much easier to set up stuff like the electronic suspension and riding modes on the R1M and Fireblade SP in particular.
Do they make you faster? No, but they do look massively cool, which is nearly as good…
Pros: Look amazing, your mate’s RE doesn’t have one
Cons: Cost a fortune and will be expensive to repair when you chuck it up the road
Good aids: better living through technology.
A variation on traction control, slide control is a system on more advanced IMU-based engine management, where a six-axis sensor package works out the ‘yaw’ of the bike, and uses that to control the traction system, in theory, allowing the computer to hold the bike at a pre-set angle of oversteer, without crashing. Wooo.
Most current IMUs don’t have a measured yaw angle – instead, they compute it from the other sensors. But the latest Bosch systems as seen on the newest Ducati Panigales have a dedicated yaw sensor, and can measure ‘true’ yaw accurately enough to control a slide.
Pros: It’s the ultimate in PlayStation-style rider aids, in theory
Cons: You still need big skills and big cojones to slam a 200bhp bike on its side and slam on the gas
Good aids: We should be amazed by the sheer computer power and skills that make this even possible.
An easy one here – if your ECU has access to the ride-by-wire throttle, a clutch switch, an IMU unit that tells it the pitch angle of the bike (if you’re wheelying and by how much), and maybe some suspension travel info, then it’s a simple job to program a launch control algorithm. It knows you’re in first gear with the clutch in, and the twistgrip jammed open, so it can hold the engine revs around peak torque rpm.
As you let the clutch out, the ECU feathers the throttle valves open and closed to maintain the peak-torque revs, while also watching the angle of the wheelie. The computer dials in just the right amount of throttle opening to keep the revs at the right point for maximum acceleration, without flipping the bike. Once the throttle’s at 100 per cent and the revs hit the redline, you change up into second and the job is done.
Pros: Impresses car wankers
Cons: Impresses car wankers
Bad aids: Like a good wheelie, this is something you want to learn yourself. Where’s the skill in merely engaging a small silicon chip to have all the fun?
One of those things we used to be a bit ‘meh’ about. Shaving milliseconds off your gearchanges, and not having to bother your left adductor muscles seems moot, but it really does make life easier, and it makes you go faster.
The principle is simple on upshifting – there’s a switch on the gear lever, which senses when you change up or down. Upchanges are easiest – simply cut the fuel injectors or sparks for a tiny period when the switch is pushed. Downshifts need a ride-by-wire setup, so the ECU can feel the lever moving down, and ‘blip’ the throttle so the engine revs increase to match the new gear. Up-shifters are so common like that they seem to be issued by Aadhar card these days on big bikes, but the best results come from having an auto-blipping downshifter too.
Pros: Err, you don’t need to use the clutch once moving, saving time and effort
This setup made its big debut on the Suzuki GSX-R range in 2008, where Suzuki’s Drive Mode Selector appeared. At the push of a button, you could give your 1000 the power of a 750 or a 600.
The principle varies – some older systems just keep secondary throttle plates closed a bit to lop a load of power off everywhere, with the aim to make a softer engine for novices and use in the wet. The better ones, used on ride-by-wire bikes, alter the shape of the throttle position map, so you still get 100 per cent throttle (eventually) when you want it, but 10 per cent at the twistgrip (say) gives you 7 per cent at the throttle bodies, 20 per cent gives you 15 per cent etc.
Of course, we reckon the best power mode selector is your right wrist and with traction control systems getting better and better, you’ve got the safety net there to guard against losing grip at the rear. On really aggressive bikes (like the Panigale V4) we like the option of a sharper throttle profile for track use, and softer ones for day-to-day road use.
A really sensitive hard-edged throttle can be a pain in traffic or when riding with a pillion. But otherwise, we’re saying no to power modes.
Pros: A good one can give softer throttle for when you have a really bad hangover
Cons: It’s a bit of a lame solution to a lame problem
Bad aids: When do we ever want less power?
Like traction control, electronic suspension systems come in a couple of flavours – one for convenience, and one for performance. The most basic type merely tweaks the suspension damping and preload adjusters according to a pre-set programme. So early BMW versions of ESA (electronic suspension adjustment) would have an electric motor that turned the preload adjuster, for rider, rider and pillion, rider and luggage, or rider, pillion and luggage. It was just a fancy version of a C-spanner and screwdriver really – but the ease of use appealed to many less tech-minded riders.
The other type is called semi-active suspension, and this is much more advanced. Here, the suspension adjusters are constantly being trimmed by an ECU, according to a pre-set programme – but the ECU also takes into account what the bike is doing. So when you hit the brakes, the ECU knows, and can fettle the fork compression damping to control dive. Then on the gas back out of a bend, it will have a look at the rear shock and tweak the damping there for the best grip. Add in an IMU unit, and it knows how far you’re leaned over, and that, plus speed, gear position, throttle opening and much more can all be used by the computer to constantly optimise the damping settings. Even more advanced setups are possible if the shock and forks have position sensors fitted too – so the ECU knows whereabouts in the stroke the damper is.
Pros: Easier setup, optimised damping for each situation (with semi-active)
Cons: A bit more weight and cost. Something else to go wrong…
Good aids: The best systems are like having a superbike crew chief under the seat hump