29 May 2014

Rider assistance electronics—why all the hate?

One thing I hear from time to time is how a good number of people hate electronic aids on their bikes—how they take away from the experience, how they are unnecessary, how they are just something else to break. There are people who go so far as to pull fuses to disable systems which could give them a little bit of an extra margin of safety in an emergency. Think you can brake better without ABS than with it? Get over yourself, you can’t.

And then there are people who believe traction control, ABS etc can break the laws of physics and claim that an electronic aid was to blame when they failed to keep control while not riding prudently in line with the conditions.

Why all the contention and hate? Are the technophobes simply uncomfortable with systems and mechanisms they may not fully understand? Are others putting themselves at risk by deliberately relying on systems designed only for emergencies?

My F800GS has no ‘rider aids’ beyond ABS—power too hard mid-corner in the wet and you’re in a hedge. How many times has the ABS saved me? Zero to date on that bike, thankfully, despite having ridden in temperatures down to -12°C including a snow storm in the Alps. I don’t hit the brakes any differently just because I know the ABS system is lying in wait.

ABS system on the BMW R1200GS • Photo: BMW PressClub Global

On the other hand, my R1200GS has every conceivable electronic toy available on motorcycles today—ABS, ASC (stability control) linking in with the electronic suspension and ride-by-wire throttle, cruise control, electronic braking distribution (use one brake and the computer adds the other brake as it sees fit) etc. The only times I’ve seen the ASC light flash is when the computer reduces power during acceleration hard enough to lift the front wheel, and in soft dirt/mud where it only allows the rear wheel to spin up to a specified speed. Again, I ride the bike in the same way I would if it had none of these features.

What ABS, stability control etc provide me is a safety net for the unexpected. The rare moment where something unexpected interrupts the hundreds of mental calculations we all do in our heads every minute during the course of operating a motorcycle—an animal running onto the roadway... clumps of mud midway through a blind corner during otherwise optimal conditions... an unseen spill of diesel on a wet road just before a traffic light. In these scenarios, the electronics might save me from coming off the bike, or maybe they won’t—but they give me more of a fighting chance to stay safe.

I think many people by nature are opposed to change and advances in technology. A vocal few were up in arms about daytime running lights on cars reducing the conspicuity of motorcycles. Since then, I’ve read several research studies undertaken on this topic which unanimously come to the same conclusion—the reduction in conspicuity is a hypothesis at best and no statistically significant differences in accident rates have been measured.

Don’t take my word for it:
But understanding and respecting the electronic aids is a learning process like any other. Many riders would do well to take their bike out somewhere safe and ride it like they stole it so they can fully understand and feel these systems in action! Then they won’t have a panic attack when the systems intervene in a real life emergency (there are still people who pump the brakes on ABS-equipped vehicles, after all). It seems the technophobes either haven’t done this, or are unwilling to do this.

The fact remains, these systems offer the average rider (and not-so-average riders), riding normally, more of a chance to avoid disaster—and by understanding/respecting these features, the informed rider has the added benefit and scope for utilising them proactively as desired rather than reactively/unexpectedly. For example, when avoiding an obstruction is impossible, pulling the brakes as hard as humanly possible to maximise collision mitigation. Or allowing the traction control to do its job off road (in the appropriate ASC mode), restricting wheelspin to a safe level.

As for these features being ‘just something else to break’? They typically consist of a few sensors, the odd pump and some fancy software, and if something fails, the bike is not left stranded—it simply continues on without that functionality, a reassuring thought for riders traversing a desert or otherwise far from civilisation! Motorcycle ABS, for example, has been around since 1988 and it is a proven, reliable technology.

What are your thoughts about about modern tech on bikes?