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Common Tread

How much tech is too much on your motorcycle?

Jun 21, 2017

Although only one of my five motorcycles was manufactured in the 21st century, I am not a Luddite.

In fact, in my daily life, I embrace technology. My father was a computer programmer. I have had a computer in my home since Christmas 1982. When it comes to vehicles, I readily exalt the virtues of modern braking, suspension and engine management systems. Such systems make the rider or driver, passengers and bystanders safer. Some enhance the performance of vehicles and make us better riders (really covering our deficiencies).

Aprilia TFT dash
Motorcycles are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but manufacturers are also introducing more retro models that are often simpler. Aprilia photo.

However, that raises a question: Has the implementation of this technology made us less the rider and more a passenger?

Truthfully, the nanny-like technology that has invaded automobiles has not yet appeared on motorcycles. The key word here is “yet.” However, we have seen technologies such as traction control, cornering ABS and even low-rpm assist become more commonplace. Some riders now view them as necessities and consider bikes that omit such technologies to be deficient or even dangerous. Will accident avoidance and lane departure technologies make their way to motorcycles? In my opinion, it is just a matter of time before motorcycles will become two-wheeled cars.

vintage Kawasaki
Some riders prefer a simpler ride on an older bike. Photo by Lance Oliver.

It's not just about motorcycles

In the automotive world, we are witnessing the demise of the manual transmission. Yes, paddle shifted and fully automatic transmissions, such as the dual clutch and continuously variable transmission (CVT), can often outperform a skilled driver with a manual transmission. However, this misses the point: Some enthusiasts actually like shifting for themselves and like manipulating the clutch pedal. It is the visceral, even primal, thrill of operating a machine that is the attraction. Just because something is easier does not make it more enjoyable. This transcends motorcycles and cars.

Take hunting, for example. A modern rifle with a scope is a very efficient hunting tool, yet we are seeing a rise in bow hunting. The American Archery Association reports a surge in membership during the past several years. My wife comes from a family of hunters. When it comes to deer hunting, they have become exclusively bow hunters.

I am an avid angler. My favorite form is fly fishing. Yes, there are more efficient, productive and cheaper ways to catch a fish, but ease of catch is not the point of fishing, for some of us. It is the skill of the cast and landing the right fly just so, to get the trout to rise. Honestly, if you’re hunting or fishing to put dinner on the table, by all means, utilize the most efficient technology allowable. But some of us are in it for the primitive joy.

I believe the same is true of motorcycles. Should there be motorcycles which offer the latest in safety technology? Absolutely. There are riders who commute on their motorcycles or travel long distances through all kinds of weather. They should be able to purchase a motorcycle that is as safe and advanced as technology can make it. However, there is nothing wrong with manufacturers offering more basic models which are more minimalist, for those who enjoy a more primal ride. The market will decide where the demand for technology lies.

elemental chopper
Just how elemental do you want to go? Two wheels, a frame and an engine? Photo by Dan Venditto.

Some of us (mainly those of a certain age) were drawn to motorcycling by the thrill of cheating danger (or worse). There is something exhilarating about climbing on a bare-bones machine, wind blowing, the smell of spent gases and the roar of the exhaust. Making it from Point A to Point B on what is essentially a frame with wheels, brakes and an engine was the main purpose for riding, for many of us.

I believe that the current trend toward naked bikes and retro-themed bikes shows that a significant segment desires a more primal ride (along with the relative simplicity and lower cost). Such riders appreciate the reliability of fuel injection and computerized engine management systems, and some prefer ABS, but not everyone wants or needs a motorcycle with more computing power than the Space Shuttle.

So, to go back to my question, how much tech is too much? The answer is different for each rider and depends in part on the usage. Modern technology can make motorcycles safer for daily or long-distance transportation, though despite all the die-hards you meet on message boards, most motorcyclists are probably like me and tend to ride in fair weather conditions. Because of that, I fall somewhere in the middle. If I were to purchase a new bike, it would probably be a middleweight and I would prefer to have ABS, but beyond that, I have little interest in having technology encroach on my riding experience.

In the end, the marketplace (with some help from government regulators) will ultimately determine how much technology ends up on motorcycles. But judging by the number of middleweight, moderate-tech bikes hitting the market, there may be a fair amount of fly fishers and bow hunters among today’s motorcyclists.