Modern boy racers in the premier class of motorcycle racing have been debating the ‘excessive’ use of electronics that currently subdue their 250-odd bhp motorcycles. Some are of the opinion that it is progressively killing the sport, others think they’re simply a way of making the motorcycling world a better and safer place to ride in. The men who made their mark in the racing world in the 80s and 90s were unanimous in saying that electronics have their time and place — Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, at the R&D centre. But then again, if it means living life the way they’d like it, we’d all show up to work boozed up, black-eyed and have a leggy blonde for a personal secretary...
The blonde secretary is a myth and it has been 12 hours since you had your last beer (if you’re lucky) and we’re now in the 21st century. This is the age of little black boxes, tiny microchips and a host of other silicon-smothered devices. Developed for state-of-the-art race motorcycles, these gadgets have over the years trickled down to the everyday road bike. So let’s spend some time going over a motorcycle to closely examine these systems and see how, and if, they make a difference to your life.
The think tank
The Electronic Control Unit
Let us start by examining the core of every current day motorcycle. Like your first guess, we too would like to believe this to be the crankshaft, the pistons or at least the motor in its entirety, but the truth is far from it. It’s a lunch-box sized “brain” called the ECU. A small black box that mad scientists in white lab coats decided would have a 32-bit CPU running at about 40 MHz. The numbers pale in comparison to your average desktop, but with miniscule, clever code, the CPU is a thousand times more efficient. The ECU micro-manages every little happening on the motorcycle, working in collaboration with numerous sensors from systems such as the lighting and the brakes, to the fuel and air flowing into and out of the engine. And these are just its primary functions. Let’s grab a microscope and put the key into the ignition of a 2008 Yamaha YZF-R6 and see what happens.
The tacho needle sweeps through its range while that little black box silently boots up: ambient temperatures are recorded, sensors feed signals to the ECU, kickstand up - check, gearbox in neutral - check, clutch lever depressed - check, and we now have current in the little red button that fires the beast to life. But wait, that’s not all. The crank position sensor tells the ECU exactly where the piston is in relation to TDC (top dead centre) while the YCCT or Yamaha Chip Control Throttle checks the position of the throttle, making sure you don’t flood the engine if you have it pinned to the stop. And the YCC-I or the Yamaha Chip Controlled Intake is busy making sure the variable length intake trumpets are fully distended. And all of that happened from the time you turned the key to the time you moved your thumb to fire her up. The symphony of the electronic orchestra is yet to begin...
Like Yamaha’s YCC-I, every motorcycle manufacturer has various technological trademarks registered to their name, some gaining more popularity than the others, while yet others just work silently in the background. All enhancing your motorcycling in some little way or another. Think back to the early 2000’s when TVS launched the Fiero. At the time, the motorcycle was by far the most advanced Indian motorcycle. But did any one talk about the multiple map ignition system that extracted every bit of juice from that engine? Or for that matter — Bangalore-based two-stroke tuning house RD Dreams offering in-house designed, multiple maps ignition kits for the legendary RD350? Not a word on the street. But circa 2007 and the whole world is talking about Suzuki’s S-DMS or Suzuki Drive Mode Selector — the three-way switch on the handle bar that puts the fearsome Suzuki Hayabusa on a leash.
Let’s go back to that motorcycle idling in the background and we’ll make an attempt to delve deeper into its workings.
The ignition system, more commonly known as the CDI, is a finely-tuned piece of timing genius. It’s got one job and one job alone, and that’s to make sure a spark is delivered to the combustion chamber when the need arises; the cylinders are so needy, they grab a few hundred sparks each second at high RPM. And that’s what the much talked about ignition maps essentially are, a graph of ‘time of spark’ against ‘engine speed’. So, for example, at slower engine speeds, the spark is fired shortly before (in terms of position) the piston reaches the top, but as engine speed increases, the spark fires earlier, to give the mixture time to fully ignite. Sounds confusing doesn’t it? Now, if mastering this wasn’t difficult enough, research engineers discovered that at different engine loads (climbing a hill, selected gear, two passengers, etc.), a further change of the timing curves would ensure that the engine is using its full potential, making the maps three dimensional. So, while TVS used these maps to enable efficient combustion and increased fuel economy, tuners and the Japanese biggies took this to a different level as they extracted every last bit of potential the motorcycle could offer without having any manual adjustments made to them. Then Suzuki reverse-engineered this tech with their S-DMS. It spoiled boy racer silly by giving him an option to flick a switch, restrict the power on tap, and make him feel like he was on top of things. Safe? Yes. Fun? Most definitely not. But hey, it’s an evolving world and fun need not be a dangerous sport, right?
Slippery when wet
Traction control is another rider-aid which was criticized by racing greats and serious motorcyclists. But it is actually making motorcycling a whole lot safer and has been a long time coming. Ducati is the only manufacturer that has pretty much made it a standard feature on all their top-of-the-line road-going machines. And why not? It was the first to master the art of using traction control effectively in MotoGP, so what you buy today is based on the exact technology that helped Casey Stoner win his world championship in 2007. In theory, the traction control system is rather simple and seems like it was sketched up on the back of a napkin in a coffee shop — if one wheel is rotating faster than the other, use some means to slow it down and recover lost traction. In practice though, the system relies on on-board gyros, accelerometers, gear box position sensors, and RPM sensors, to feed inputs to the ECU which are processed instantaneously as the system tries to slow one wheel down. The slowing down process can happen in a number of ways and usually differs with each manufacturer and the sophistication of the system. In the early 90’s Honda had a primitive version of traction control where if one wheel was spinning faster than the other, the ECU applied the brakes on the faster wheel in order to reduce speed. Since then, the system has improved in leaps and bounds. Yamaha’s MotorGP bike, theYZF-M1, uses an assortment of sensors and a GPS system to detect the spin and controls it by partially shutting off the throttle. Ducati, on the other hand, goes about it in a different way. The ECU on the Ducati knows the grip the tyre and the track have on offer at various temperatures and lean angles and prevents the spin altogether by limiting the amount of power that goes to the rear wheel. Many more variables to work with and a little more complex, but so much more effective than the competition that a little Australian kid has been running circles around an eight-times world champion.
Stop and go
Anti-lock braking system
Electronic advancements have not been restricted to engines and engine management, but have also found their way into what seemed to be uncomplicated parts on the chassis as well. Brakes and suspension have also been hooked up to electronics. Honda’s advanced braking technology, the Combined ABS, has made its way to India this year on board the CBR1000RR. So far, ABS, which is synonymous with cars, has been seldom used on motorcycles. Developmental systems were used on motorcycles, none of which were as fast or as sophisticated, or demanded a high threshold for braking, or brake performance, as the current day crop. However, along with other advances, ABS has also come of age. Honda’s been busy developing what is known as Combined ABS for a few years now, to make its motorcycles safer to ride. The system, unlike conventional ABS, uses brake-by-wire technology that senses the force applied to the brake lever. This is relayed to the central processor which in-turn instructs motors on how much hydraulic force to send to both the front and the rear brake calipers, depending on your speed and the degree of deceleration. This means that a novice rider on a motorcycle equipped with Combined ABS can now grab a handful of lever and forgivingly come to a halt without having to think about, or risk, a low-side, and writing off a couple of lakhs in a crash. Racers and journalists the world over claim that the brake-by-wire works flawlessly when at the limit and the C-ABS performs seamlessly too; not a judder or pulse at lever or brake pedal at all.
As for the advanced suspension, you’d have to rely on München engineering. If you buy a current-day, K-series motorcycle, you will no longer have to sit around with a C-spanner and a measuring tape, adjusting your suspension before that weekend ride. BMW, who has been known for its radical designs and technological advances, has developed the Electronically Adjustable Suspension or ESA II. Perhaps that should have been EAS, but let’s not be trivial about these things after the trouble it has taken to develop the world’s first on-the-fly electronically adjustable suspension system for motorcycles. The ESA can adjust preload, compression and rebound damping (check out the box ‘Spring roll’ on suspension jargon) and does so by adjusting the spring rate. Adjusting the spring rates was a common practice with purpose-built machines, but involved stripping the suspension and actually changing the springs. BMW engineers got smart here and used a polyutherane bushing (called Elastogran) over the main spring — electronically controlling a small sleeve in the Elastogran — enabling it to compress at different rates as the primary spring compressed against it. This makes the suspension a lot more effective in varying conditions, yet adapts to the rider’s comfort levels. In addition to this, the suspension’s rebound and compression damping are also adjustable on the fly, which allows the rider to push harder, and ride faster without having to worry if his suspension is set up to spit him off, or leave his mates in his wake around the next corner.
As we move away from the top class of motorcycles and more towards the commuter end of the spectrum, there are a number of unmentioned black boxes and silicon chips that silently make decisions, save that big spill or even make riding the motorcycles as easy as buttering hot bread. All of which have, at some point of time, been the subject of envy of world champions and local enthusiasts alike. But, unlike ten years ago, when one would have to wait a lifetime to see technology trickle down to everyday motorcycles, it now takes about two years from the first prototype to standard technology in road bikes. It’s no secret that smart motorcycles have slowly begun to take away the human element from the top flight of motorcycle racing and races are won in R&D centers rather than on the race track. And so, while professional riders ask ‘How much is too much?’, they must realize that unlike the last century, motorcycle racing has come of age, and they’re doing it for more than just fun. It’s a job, a social responsibility to help develop technology that will someday make motorcycling mundane, yet help save lives.
So Mr. Valentino Rossi, you eight time World Champion you, the next time you decide to tell the world that use of electronic rider aids has killed your enthusiasm to race, make a note that while it may have also killed our enthusiasm to watch you, the fact is you’re making the motorcycle world a safer place to be in. More fun? Let me switch the power curve on my motorcycle before I tell you.