Are Electronics the New Horsepower?

03/01/2011 @ 11:33 am, by Jensen Beeler16 COMMENTS

The news of the 2011 Aprilia RSV4 R APRC got me thinking today about where the sport bike market is headed from a big picture perspective.

The sport bike market has been dominated the constant need to develop motorcycles with more power, less weight, and new performance enhancing technologies, and you’d be hard pressed to find a year where the bike with the most horsepower wasn’t the top-seller in this category (case in point: the complete sales domination of the BMW S1000RR during 2010).

For years the motorcycle manufacturers, especially the Japanese, have been painting themselves into a corner by constantly having to one-up each other with horsepower figures in order to sell motorcycles in this segment.

With bikes like the 2011 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R approaching the 200hp barrier, the question about “how much power is enough?” has been cropping up, and it certainly could be that we’re approaching the point in time where the relevancy of this metric is losing it’s power (pun moderately intended).

So what will be the new kingmaker for sport bikes? The electronics package.

Since Ducati put its Ducati Traction Control (DTC) system on the 1098/1198 series, we’ve seen a trend of manufacturers adopting this technology as a base or optional package to their sport bike offerings with varying levels of sophistication.

Derived from MotoGP systems that allow riders to whack the throttle wide-open at the corner’s apex, the traction control has been accused of ruining the premier motorcycle racing class, making it devoid of spectacles like power-sliding corner entries and rider-jettisoning highside crashes.

Some racing fans see the technology as a gadget that solves a problem no one asked to have fixed, but consider another trend for me if you will.

We’re already seeing the latest generation of sport bike riders as coming from a demographic that was brought up using personal computers, and right on its heels is a generation that grew up with cell phones as a common place device.

To quip a cute label that I’ll take credit for in the coming years, the “Gadget Generation” is already well upon us in motorcycling.

If you don’t believe me, just take a stroll down to your local motorcycle web forum, and count the number of threads you have to go through before you find someone that’s listed every possible modification they’ve done to his/her motorcycle (my personal favorite is when they list the tires).

Assuming you don’t just click on threads with a single post, I bet you can keep the counting to just what’s on your two hands.

As sport bikes approach absurdity in the horsepower side of the equation, there is going to come a time when the discussion centers around the usability of the power being made by these motorcycles.

This is of course is where the importance of electronics comes into play, and manufacturers will begin developing and touting their latest advancements in this space.

We’re already seeing some posturing over variable rider modes, anti-lock brake systems, and traction control units, but in the coming model years manufacturers will have to distinguish these systems from their competitors with greater distinction.

If you close your eyes, you can almost already hear the 19 year-old kid who picked up the latest and greatest Yamazuki-RR sport bike, touting its traction control processor cycle speed, input sensor sampling rate sensitivity, and advanced software bit architecture (heaven forbid someone should use a *nix solution here).

And somewhere in that conversation, you might hear the mentioning of horsepower as well.

  • Kevin

    While I certainly appreciate the advancement of motorcycle technology and rider aides, I’ll happily admire it on YOUR bike. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t want any of it on MY bike. At this point I’d be hard pressed to find a 2011 model without ABS, traction control, quick shift, data analyzer, and so on. In my opinion the horsepower race become even more pointless when the power was neutered with electronics. Furthermore, rider aides like ABS and traction control only serve as a crutch for lack of rider ability. Such “value-added” (man I hate that term) doodad-ery only serves to woo the customer base…in the end, maybe that’s the idea.

  • Odie

    I wonder if the OEMs are doing this to try and preempt a gov’t imposed HP limit. In a lot of cases the electronics do limit HP. But they can call it “electronic rider aides” and use that to sell bikes.

  • Keith

    There was time when the press was asking if 125hp was too much. It isn’t, not as long as the suspension and tyres keep up. Now, with electronics you can actively adjust the suspension, engine etc. Only thing needing serious help is tyres, how long before we have tyres that have adjustable traction settings. heck I dunno.

  • Chris

    Ya know, I recall when I first read about the GSXR1000 having variable maps, and I observed the reaction people had – some liked the idea and others not as much. I didn’t have an opinion because my ownership had never included a 1000cc 4-cylinder sport bike (I raced a 750). While I had ridden R1’s, and at least one GSXR1000, the conditions were always fairly ideal, and wheelspin was not really a factor.

    For my 11th bike, I purchased a 2010 RSV4. Despite a limited amount of roadracing experience, plenty of track time and 200k street miles, I can still say that features like variable maps are a real asset. With the V4, the softer power delivery in the “Sport” mode comes in quite handy when it’s wet and cold out, which is common for me as I commute year around on a bike.

    Traction control really is the next logical step in my opinion, at least with larger displacement sport bikes. TC, combined with variable ratio ride-by-wire throttles when properly implemented, gives the rider multiple options to tailor their riding experience to the day and hour as conditions, both external and internal change.

    I’m definitely a fan of these rider aides, provides they don’t lure the rider into a false sense of security.

  • Bones

    While appreciating the nay-sayers on electronics, feeling a bit nostalgic of eras lost, Not All of Us live and ride in Asphalt Heavens. In Greece, riding an RR is like playing Russian roulette –and not only because of ill maintained roads. Drivers’ attitude is appalling and traffic culture more akin to splatter culture. I’ve died 200 times (I am 51 now thankfully) by trying to brake hard enough in order to avoid the proverbial moron in a 4 wheel tin can, or a half-blind, half-deaf old man trying to cross the street. I pray for really good ABS (like C-ABS) and soundly engineered systems that also let me enjoy my bike on a mountainous trip or a track-day. Amidst all of these words, the emphasis is on “Enjoy”. 4 me this is the core of motorcycling.

  • Mike J

    It’s an interesting point, and I think that in the short term you may be right, but once advanced electronics become the norm on sports bikes, rather than the latest thing, I think the focus will quickly shift back to the traditional headline figures.

    You just have to look at the performance car world, where these sorts of driver aides have been standard for some time, to see that peek horsepower and top speed still rule in the brand bragging stakes.

    I think our Neanderthal brains are just hardwired to automatically react to the biggest (conversely in this context lightest), strongest, fastest, most powerful, numbers game… I know mine is!

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  • mxs

    I cannot imagine these aides being ever important to my STREET legal bike (your mileage might vary depending what jurisdiction you live in and how much respectful street rider you are). I’d rather have no aides, light and 60-80HP max machine. I don’t really need more than that.

    For track, that might be different ball game, but I am not there yet.

  • Westward

    Im with Chris & Bones on this one, if so-called rider aides enhance the riding experience and makes it a little more safer, than I’m all for it. It’s no different than the debate of helmet or no helmet, and gear or no gear. I have been unfortunate enough to know what its like to hit the asphalt of a fwy through no fault of my own, but fortunate enough also to have the sense to have armoured up.

    I see the new technology adding longevity to the average rider, both in comfort and safety (as much as can be had)…

  • BBQDog

    I myself often wondered the last 5 year why the japanese industry didn’t offer nice electonic packages for their bikes: gearshifters to start with, but why not some small GPS tracking system to see where you have been ? Or an onboard quality camera with good sound. Or some sort of data recording. Just to play with.

  • Bones

    Regarding Mike J’s comment. He’s probably correct in the long term view that, when electronics cease to be “the new thing”, longing for numbers will again command more attention (although I haven’t felt the opposite yet). Manufactures should keep in mind that motorcyclists are (“not used to be”, hopefully) inclined to value performance as well as (or more) than safety. So that, for example, they will never produce “the bike that could never fall” (the technology is there I believe) as opposed to “the bike that would never highside”.

  • Bones

    And BBQDog has a really interesting point there

  • BBQDog


    I don’t like being forced to ABS or tracktion control but as long as I can turn it off
    and buy it as an extra I don’t have any problems with it. I don’t like to pay for stuff
    I don’t want or (hardly) use. But the industry has lacked fantasy on this matter.

    I once saw a guy on TV who developped some sort of synthesiser one could use in
    the car just as a car radio. It was connected to the ignition coil and could reproduce
    any sounds or racing cars over the car loudspeakers. It took the revving from the
    ignition. So inside the car you would have the sound of a Ferrari F1 revving.
    Wonder why that never made it into the car radio’s as an option. Just an example.
    (maybe something for those coming electric cars ?)

  • Bones

    I think electrics will need a pair of speakers and a decent array of thrilling exhaust operas, if they are to ever see the inside of my garage. And not as optional

  • KLS

    I’m admitting to being over a mid-century old and remember well the 1985 Ninja 900. During a time that federal politicians were talking about “murdercycles” for anything over 100 HP, I was sure the Ninja would be the ultimate motorcycle; legislation would restrict us to less-powerful machinery.
    Boy was I wrong (happily), but ever since then I’ve wondered how far the HP wars would go. I used to agree that HP couldn’t keep increasing–what would be the use when little of it could be applied? Yet now we have 200 HP street motorcycles that can be >>controlled<<. It's amazing, really. The electronics make it possible, just as they do with 600 HP cars.
    There will always be simple machines for those with simpler tastes, but I remember a time when no rider wanted a bike that had a "black box" instead of points or an electric starter without a kickstand to back it up. Technology continues to advance faster than most of us can predict so I'm going to enjoy the changes…but a couple of years behind the leading edge.

  • Bpnes

    And in any case, is funny to think Luddites still exit. Multistrada is an example of “The Next Bike” and not a lot of people would categorize it as Not Being Exciting.