20 Apr 2014

A few days on with Gear Shift Assist Pro on the BMW R1200GS

If you’re one of the 350 people over the past few days who read my first look about BMW’s new Gear Shift Assist Pro (GSAP) on the R1200GS, you’ll already know I’m quite ecstatic about this system.

Yesterday I covered about 250 miles around South East England including about 10 miles of byways with my cousin Carol who made an unexpected arrival from abroad earlier in the week. Respect to her for tolerating such a long ride the very first time she’s ever been on a motorbike!

Carol on a byway after 6 hours on the bike—still in good spirits!

Carol at Bookham Wood (unaltered photo—it really was that vibrant!)

The GSAP system is great on the open road, particularly for thrusting out of roundabouts onto 60–70mph stretches of road, but also when approaching and following through bends. It’s so quick and effortless—throttle off approaching a bend, kick it down a few gears, throttle on through the corner and back up to speed in one seamless motion.

It does take some mental reprogramming at times, for example when powering up a slip road onto a motorway, because you have to tell yourself not to back off the throttle when changing up a gear. Doing so, even a little bit, results in some unpleasant driveline shock. Full power, half power, even a quarter power it will change as smooth as anything, as long as you maintain the throttle position. It goes against everything you learned during motorcycle training.

The system even works unexpectedly well in Enduro mode on dirt/gravel byways because it engages the next higher or lower gear so smoothly. Something with which to experiment next time I’m on the byways without carrying another soul on the back!

Today the weather took a turn for the worst with grey skies and constant showers—not the best conditions for taking video—but I managed to get out and record a few clips.

Firstly, the GSAP unit which replaces the rod connecting the shift lever to the transmission (the unit is so shiny and new compared to my rather dirty bike):

And now the system in action:

Why do I think this system is a big deal? 

It is deceptively simple and the unit weighs next to nothing, while still retaining the ‘whole experience’ of riding a motorbike whenever desired, with a regular manual transmission and clutch lever. Quick shifters have been around for years, but GSAP is the first time such a system includes downshifts. The complexity is hidden away in the software which makes everything work, but the unit itself is not much more than a sensor to tell the computer what you’re doing with the gear lever.

This differs from the approach taken by other manufacturers, such as Honda’s excellent dual clutch transmission which caters to buyers who want to do away with the clutch lever altogether. But dual clutch transmissions come at a cost—they are rather heavy and complex, and the only manual control you have is via +/- pushbuttons on the handlebars. There is no proper manual option because these are not manual transmissions.

The GSAP system takes the best from an automatic—instant gear changes and smooth acceleration—without losing what many people consider the essence of riding a motorbike—connecting with the machine at all levels, and having full control over all functions.

If you get a chance to try out GSAP, don’t pass it up—it is impossible to form a meaningful opinion about the system until you try it for yourself.

Any minuses? Well, it's not cheap at around £500 installed, or £375 when installed at the factory (on the RT—not yet listed for the GS as a factory option). But it's only money. And sometimes you need to treat yourself.

Looking ahead

We have technology at our disposal to augment the functionality of mechanical devices in ways which could not be accomplished even 10 years ago. Some of it is for safety, such as traction control, ABS etc, and others are for fun, like the GSAP system. I believe it’s only a matter of time before other manufacturers offer similar types of tech for their bikes.

Doing away with throttle cables in favour of stepper motors, and computers to control the engine may scare off those hesitant to embrace change, but it’s important to bear in mind that jet planes—generally seen as the safest type of transportation—have been using fly-by-wire systems for decades.

In 2011, BMW announced their ConnectedRide concept, their vision of the future where, among other items, bikes and cars ‘talk’ to each other to announce their presence autonomously to avoid collisions—for example, automatically applying the brakes if a driver starts a turn without noticing a motorbike, while at the same time automatically flashing the lights on the motorcycle to warn the car driver.

I welcome systems like these because there are far too many distracted drivers on the roads, and anything that gives me (and my fellow road users) a little bit more safety can only be a good thing.