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Common Tread

Revisited: How much tech is too much tech on a motorcycle?

Feb 19, 2019

I had a motorcycle first last year: electronic cruise control.

Rolling down the highway at a perfect 68 mph, throttle hand free, I got to thinking about two-wheel technology over the years. Under me was a Ducati Multistrada 1260S, a machine decked out with about every digital performance option Ducati offers. As a kid, my first three motorcycles had no CPU, ABS, or even an electric start.

This prompted the pondering about how much tech is too much on a motorcycle. Is there a point where digital everything zaps the seat of the pants experience we love about riding?

It’s something the Common Tread has explored in the past and is definitely worth revisiting.

Ducati Multistrada 1260S
The Ducati Multistrada 1260S is a sophisticated motorcycle laden with technology. Photo by Jake Bright.

Trending digital

Though the motorcycle industry has lagged the tech-ification of cars, make no mistake — the digitization of two-wheelers is upon us.

A few trends are emerging. The most prominent is pairing up CPUs with digital riding modes that regulate various facets of motorcycle performance, such as engine output, ABS, and suspension settings. Cornering ABS, traction and wheelie control are also joining this menu.

Another tech trend is offering mobile and cloud-based apps to track and regulate performance from smartphones. This has been fairly standard on the e-motos I’ve tested (see Zero and Energica), but is also popping up on gas machines.

These apps open up a new facet to riding, by allowing you to track stats about your ride, such as average speed, lean angles, and engine output. Ducati offers such features in their Link app. Kawsaki’s 2019 Versys 1000 SE LT+ adds full smartphone connectivity through the company’s RIDEOLOGY app.

Many manufacturers are adding apps to their rides, such as Kawasaki’s Bluetooth connected RIDEOLOGY App, with smartphone accessible riding stats and performance controls. Kawasaki photo.

At the outer limits of motorcycle tech — cutting-edge stuff not quite in production — are blindspot monitoring, AI, and autonomous riding functions. Ducati will offer a 2020 model with 360-degree radar blindspot detection. BMW presented its first autonomous R 1200 GS in 2018 after Honda debuted its self-balancing Riding Assist concept motorcycle in 2017. And of course, there’s Yamaha’s Motobot 2.0, a robot-piloted R1 that’s been chasing Valentino Rossi’s lap times.

Teched out versus traditional

Of all the bikes I tested last year, excluding e-motos, Ducati’s Multistrada 1260S was at the furthest end of the digitization spectrum. Indian’s Scout Bobber was the most mechanically traditional.

Indian Scout Bobber
The Indian Scout Bobber is sparse on modern technology, but it's still fun to ride. Indian photo.

The 1260S sports just about every electronic performance option out there. It has ride-by-wire throttle, Ducati’s DQS clutchless shifting, Skyhook self-adjusting electronic suspension, cruise control, adjustable cornering ABS, and more.

All these things, and dozens of custom settings, are controlled by toggling a thumb button on the left handgrip that displays changes on the dash. Operators can make life easier by selecting one of four preset riding modes: Sport, Touring, Urban, or Enduro.

I made it a point to try a bunch of the bike’s configurations. Candidly, the possibilities were a bit overwhelming for my riding brain. One could take months to learn all the custom settings. With only a week, I kept things mostly to mixing up the 1260S’s preset riding modes.

Ducati Multistrada 1260S screen
The Multistrada 1260S offers various riding modes and the ability to customize power levels, ABS intervention, suspension settings and more, all displayed on its high-tech dash. Ducati photo.

Urban brought the 150 horsepower engine down to 100 horsepower and softened the ride significantly. Enduro reduced ABS, canceled Wheelie Control, and stiffened the rear shock. Touring softened up the suspension and brought engine output down to Medium. And Sport delivered the Ducati’s full engine torque and horsepower and optimized the bike for aggressive riding.

I tried each riding mode across a number of riding environments: highway, city, rural, good roads, bad roads. It was cool to have that kind of performance control available on the fly at the tip of a thumb. ABS and traction control were most welcome when surfaces got wet. The suspension adjustments enhanced the versatility of the Multistrada as a true sport and touring bike, making the sport-bred bike more plush when needed. The merits of cornering ABS were a little hard to test on public streets. I think one would need some private track time for that.

Overall, Ducati’s Multistrada became one of my favorite motorcycles ever ridden. But for its plethora of digital options, after testing many of them I found myself dialing it back to Sport mode and keeping it there almost all the time.

Shortly after returning the 1260S, I picked up an Indian Scout Bobber for a long-term test (and still have it).

Aside from fuel injection, ABS, and a small digital clock and gauge slot on the needle speedo, it’s sparse on tech options. There’s no app or USB on this one.

The 100-horsepower Indian is a refined modern classic. In true bobber form, it’s stripped down, low to the ground, and can be rough on the bum with only two inches of travel and traditional spring shocks at the rear. The best thing about the scrappy little Scout Bobber is its motor. The 1,133 cc V-twin is tight, powerful, and delivers Hulk-like torque all the way through sixth gear.

The Scout Bobber has a visceral feel, with very little of the bike visible when you ride. I rarely even look at the speedo and on smooth roads it has that flying through air sensation.

So, in comparison, have I felt at a loss on the traditional Indian without all the tech options on a Ducati Multistrada 1260S?

On rough roads, in the tail end, certainly yes. And given its tech-enabled versatility, I’d likely pick the Ducati if asked to choose only one for my garage.

But overall — and acknowledging the Scout Bobber and 1260S are very different machines — I don’t feel loads of difference in safety or enjoyment from the more traditional Indian to the digitally endowed Ducati. In some ways, there’s a simplicity to the Scout Bobber I enjoy, with no settings to fumble around with or distract me while riding.

Indian Scout Bobber gauge
Compared to the Multistrada's dash, the gauge on the Indian Scout Bobber is simple and basic. Indian photo.

The balance

So, revisiting my original question, what the heck to conclude from all this? I think the answer to “How much tech is too much on a motorcycle?” is both an individual one and one the marketplace will decide.

The mobility space, including our motorcycle world, could change more drastically in the next five years than it has in the last 25. Our range of options will be the most diverse since the motorcycle was invented: from traditional cruisers to a Harley e-moto to multi-sensored, app-controlled gas bikes with motion detection and autonomous safety functions.

In many ways, shifting rider preferences, regulation, and what sells (or not) will determine which tech options stay or fade away on motorcycles.

As for pros and cons to this digital motorcycling future, I see more positive than negative. The upsides are many: improved performance, safety, reliability and maybe even regaining the imagination of a tech-savvy younger generation.

There are also unknown engineering gains that could come from apps and big data R&D. Instead of using a handful of company testers and journos for feedback, manufacturers will soon draw on massive amounts of rider data (hopefully with consent — and that's a topic for another story) from which to evaluate current models and shape new ones.

One downside to tech taking over our machines could be that people become unable to ride a motorcycle anymore without digital assistance. Another could be market preferences shifting so far toward automation that we can no longer buy a bike with all (or mostly all) rider control.

We’re entering a brave new tech-enhanced moto world. As long as I have the option of dialing the digital controls up or off on a Ducati Multistrada 1260S and still buying a bare-bones modern classic like an Indian Scout Bobber, I’m good with it.

If we reach a point where the bike is in more control of me than I am of it, that’ll be too much tech on a motorcycle for me.