Editorial

By Steve Thornton

December 13, 2016

The Outsider

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The first motorcycle with antilock brakes that I rode was a BMW K75, I think. I know it was a three-cylinder BMW, and I know it was fitted with ABS because that was the only reason I had for trying it out. It was the late ’80s, I was employed by a B.C. newspaper, and ABS on a motorcycle was news enough, in my opinion, to write about the bike. At the time, there were other journalists who thought the same, but one in particular, the editor of another Canadian magazine, thought that ABS was not good news. Riders of motorcycles equipped with antiskid technology would get careless, he said, would take more severe risks, because their antilock brakes would get them out of trouble.

I’ve never felt that way about electronic advances in motorcycles. A rolling tire is capable of slowing a motorcycle so much more efficiently than a sliding tire is that it would not be surprising to learn that antilock brakes have prevented thousands of motorcycle crashes in Canada since they were introduced 30 years ago—and I doubt that they have caused any by enticing riders to behave recklessly. Traction control, and especially traction control with lean-angle sensing, will also likely reduce crash damage and may already have saved more than a few lives. But how far will electronic aids go? Is it possible that we will reach a point where the fears expressed by that long-ago editor will become reasonable?

In 10 or 15 years driverless cars will likely be commonplace. The technology has the capability of nearly eliminating collisions and making the traffic jam a thing of the past. I haven’t heard anyone pontificating about driverless motorcycles, but is that such an out-of-bounds idea? In Australasia, Europe, and North America, motorcycles are ridden mostly for pleasure, so a driverless bike would seem to hold little appeal, but what about Vietnam? There, and in many other crowded countries, motorcycles are transport, not fun, and technology that could reduce travel times, collisions, and fuel wastage might be welcomed.

How would it work? Who knows? Guided by radar and satellite imagery, equipped with lean angle and traction sensors, with servos to initiate countersteering, GPS communication for routing and other tasks, and technologies that I haven’t imagined, a motorcycle could conceivably be driven successfully without immediate human interference. Insurance companies would almost certainly welcome that kind of development, and governments that could cut down further on policing costs would get in line, too. Distracted driving? Too much to drink? Not a problem. And don’t tell me nobody would buy one; we’re coming to an age when people won’t buy vehicles, period. They’ll use them, but they won’t own them, and as roads become busier, the little driverless motorcycle will become more and more practical.

The rider of such a motorcycle would be distanced from the art and the act of riding by all those electrons, would be more like the passenger of a rollercoaster, along for the ride but not much more than a useless passenger. But that separation of rider (or driver) from vehicle operation already exists. A few years ago I got an emergency phone call from a guy I worked with; his car had blown up. Actually, it was just the engine. This was in B.C., and this fool had ignored an oil light. Actually, not just ignored an oil light but ignored it on the Coquihalla Highway, which is the kind of road they make tow-truck TV shows about. He thought it wasn’t important and kept going at 120 km/h until the engine seized. I helped him get the car back to town and after he’d had the engine replaced I showed him how to check the oil. He hadn’t known even that much, so I supposed he deserved what happened to him.

I’ve ridden in cars with people who, while not being that stupid, nevertheless were largely unaware of the mechanical events that took place under the hood when they pressed down on an accelerator pedal. Science fiction writers tell us that any technology so advanced that it is beyond our understanding will be indistinguishable from magic, and it’s not really stretching things to say that, to some people, what happens under the hood of a car or under the fuel tank of a motorcycle when it’s operating is just that. Magic. That’s okay for someone going to pick up the kids from school or driving 18 blocks to work, as long as the magic continues to behave itself. But could you tell me exactly how lean-angle-sensitive traction control works? Could you even tell me how ABS works (I know, I know, but most others couldn’t). Most of us are a little bit spellbound by it all—though most who are reading this will know what a pushrod is, and what it pushes.

Electronic aids will continue to improve and evolve and the number of functions they assist or, in some cases, completely control (ride-by-wire, for example) will grow. As the need to develop skill in braking, steering, and other functions is replaced by electronics that can do it better and the ability of an ordinary rider to comprehend what’s happening in his or her motorcycle declines, the emotional and sensory gap between rider and motorcycle will widen. Collisions will likely be reduced, and that’s a good thing. But how good do we want things to be?

We’re at the point right now where electronic aids are hugely appealing, and rightly so. But when a professional motorcycle racer loses a race (see page 11) because his traction control failed in the middle of a lap, you’ve got to wonder if we’re sacrificing something important for the benefits of electronic aids. I wouldn’t want to give up ABS, but I also wouldn’t want to be that idiot on the Coquihalla who didn’t know the little red light blinking on his dash was trying to tell him something important. Somewhere between the magic of electronics and the human skill of a good rider there’s a line, and I know which side of it I want to stay on.