As each new sportbike debuts with some sort of electronic rider aid system, a rather vocal minority sounds their displeasure through internet forums and comment sections on website stories at the march of technology sweeping over motorcycling. They decry the electronic rider aids as defeating one of the popular mantras of motorcycling — that the rider truly makes the difference in how a particular bike performs. Another fear is that riders brought up on electronic rider aids will become dependent on them. Others reject the aspect of what they see as an electronic nanny that will always be there to spoil the fun. “Next thing you know, the motorcycle will be riding itself,” they bemoan.
A good portion of this resistance stems from the takeover of professional racing by electronic rider aids. All of the top riders have gone on record as wishing that the electronics would just go away, and that they could go back to the days of spinning tires and throttle/clutch control to show who really has the skill. Everyday sportbike riders read those headlines and use them as their battle cry against the “machine” — the increasing proliferation of rider aids such as traction control and ABS.
For those professional racers with the skill to exploit a racebike’s ultimate potential, those objections are certainly warranted. But the plain truth for the vast majority of sportbike riders on the street is that they will probably never exceed the threshold parameters of the latest ABS or traction control systems — except when it intercedes in an emergency or moment of “ambition exceeding skill” to save their bacon.
Today’s current traction control systems (when set in the higher parameters) and ABS are far more advanced than the comparatively rudimentary systems of a decade ago. Not only are the ABS activation thresholds high, but their intervention is very transparent; as we found in the ABS shootout last issue (“Absolutely Brilliant Stopping”, December 2011), the Kawasaki and BMW ABS still provide a decent level of feedback to let you know where you are in the activation envelope. And TC systems set in the higher levels require a lot of aggression with the throttle before they’ll intervene, and they allow enough tire slip that you’d hardly notice it when they do, because you’ll be too busy concentrating on other aspects of riding at that point.
One recurring fear with the rider aid resistance is that riders will start depending on them and end up putting themselves in even more danger. The reason that theory is bunk is because anyone who rides hard enough on the street to become dependent on them has a level of recklessness that won’t save them no matter what electronic rider aid or bike they’re riding. I’ve watched students in Keith Code’s California Superbike School ride the outrigger-equipped “Braking Bike” and — despite the knowledge that the outriggers will keep them upright — approach the point of wheel lockup with extreme trepidation. And needless to say, they certainly didn’t become demon late brakers when they returned to the track. Same with traction control; I’ve watched many riders on-track with decent riding skill never activate the TC out of any corner.
The fact of the matter is that today’s electronic rider aids are just that — they are a safety net that is there only when you need it. They are not the electronic nanny that many fearmongers are making them out to be. And they won’t magically give mediocre riders expert-level skills; unlike an automobile that can be reined in safely midcorner, a motorcycle’s far more complex handling dynamics mean that hamfisted riding will still result in disaster.
For bikes intended for novice riders, the effects can be even more profound, because the more newbies that are saved by ABS from becoming a statistic, the more the sport can grow in this country. I’m all for increasing riding skill (probably more so) than the average rider, but one less rider quitting motorcycling because of an accident is one less viral “those things are too dangerous” rumor mill that gets generated to turn others off from trying the sport.
And one last note: all of the current traction control systems can be turned off, and nearly all the manufacturers know that choice is important to motorcyclists, so ABS is an option on nearly all models. SR