Are Electronics the New Horsepower?

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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.