The stack of patents on my desk that were part of this issue’s traction control story (page 58) is at least three inches thick. It weighs enough that, stashed in the backpack slung over the back of my wheelchair, I have to be careful not to wheelie. Full of flowcharts, block diagrams and graphs, the patents are an indication of where traction control and motorcycle electronics in general is headed — infinity, and maybe beyond. And while that progress has resulted in amazingly good systems for sportbikes at moderate extra cost, the additional expense for racing seems to be spiraling out of control.
The patents (and our experience with production bikes this year) show that little hardware and few additional sensors are necessary to incorporate a traction control system that adds both safety and performance, adding little in cost. Looking at some of the patents, however, it’s evident that the engineering and development — aspects that you don’t see as the results are all tucked away inside the ECU — are the bulk of that added cost. The Kawasaki system as outlined in the story, for example, must have dozens, if not hundreds, of maps in its ECU to keep track of the relationships between sensor data and the resulting control actions. Luckily, those costs can be amortized over thousands of production units, and the Kawasaki system has the bare minimum of additional sensors compared with a non-TC-equipped bike.
The systems on racing motorcycles, however, are quite a bit more elaborate. Additional sensors monitor and control more aspects of the bike’s activity that can be taken into account to improve performance. For example, GPS can be used to modify the system for any given corner on a racetrack. Suspension potentiometers provide data for better wheelie control as part of the system. Or a bike’s ride-by-wire throttle can be used to control engine braking based on traction. The extra sensors and hardware in turn require more elaborate electronics and programming inside the ECU. Spread all those development costs over just a handful of units, add in manpower to manage the systems trackside, and you can see how costs for race teams can get out of control.
Many people have called for the elimination of traction control in various series, partly to reduce cost but also to improve the racing itself. Eliminating or reducing the scope of traction control systems would bring more parity, as results would be more dependent on rider skill than the expertise of a particular team’s data engineers. And with no traction control we would see more of the tire-spinning out-of-control antics reminiscent of the 500cc two-stroke era. MotoGP is headed in this direction, with spec ECUs for the Moto2 and Moto3 classes eliminating traction control and reducing the options for electronics. British Superbike’s EVO and Supersport classes also utilize spec ECUs, with the Superbike class set to follow suit next year. Can the MotoGP class itself or AMA Superbike be far behind?
Converting to a spec ECU or eliminating traction control is not a simple issue. From a safety standpoint, traction control is almost a necessary evil on a powerful bike and probably even more important in MotoGP with the switch to 1000cc next year. A spec ECU, with or without traction control, brings about its own issues: a company must be willing to supply the electronics and the series organizers must be able to enforce the ruling — and that is not an easy thing. For years the AMA tried to ban traction control by disallowing front wheel speed sensors, and eventually the electronics caught up and rendered that rule almost useless. As we’ve seen from reflashed stock ECUs, obtaining access to and reprogramming what’s inside an electronic black box is not impossible, opening the door to trickery that must be kept in check somehow.
Personally, I’m a bit tossed up over such a change, as I usually am with any “spec” ruling. While I can see the advantages to using a spec ECU, I can see how a big team, already tied in with a supplier, would be against it. Thousands of dollars of electronic equipment would be rendered useless and the team would have to start over again with an unknown system. Likewise, a mid-pack privateer is not going to appreciate being forced to pay several thousand dollars for a mandated ECU if there are other, cheaper options — such as a reflashed stock unit.
In any event, development of traction control for sportbikes has already paid huge dividends in both safety and performance. It will certainly be ironic, however, if to prepare a motorcycle for superbike competition you must remove the stock traction control system or replace it with something inferior.