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Is Forced Induction for Motorcycles Dead on Arrival?

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Ducati’s announcement that it is making its final production run of the Ducati 1299 Panigale R Final Edition got me thinking this week. This could be the very last v-twin superbike from the Italian brand, making it a true “Final Edition” motorcycle? It certainly appears so.

Right now, the Italian marque is betting its superbike future on the V4 platform, which means it could be another 5 years or longer (10 years could be a reasonable number, even) before Ducati debuts its next superbike platform.

What do we imagine that motorcycle will look like? Where do we imagine the motorcycle industry will be in the next five to ten years? That future isn’t too far away, but the answer is still hard to fathom.

Can we really see a future where Ducati builds another v-twin engine? Understand, the Superquadro motor is the pinnacle of v-twin design, and pushes the limits of what kind of power such an engine configuration can create.

This is the very reason that Ducati abandoned the Superquadro v-twin design for the Desmosedici Stradale V4. That is a big deal in Ducatista land, but it is a notable move for the motorcycle industry as a whole.

So, the thought experiment evolves from this, and we begin to wonder what is not only in store for a brand like Ducati, whose history is rooted in a particular engine design, but also what is in store for the other brands of the motorcycle industry, who have been tied to thermic engines for over a century.

For the Japanese brands, the hand that holds that future has been tipped, with turbocharged and supercharged designs teased by three out of the Big Four manufacturers. We have even see Kawasaki bringing its own supercharged motorcycles already to market already.

But, is this really the future? Or, is this resurgence of forced induction for motorcycles dead on arrival?

The Next Chapter, The Next Century

To think about the future of the motorcycle industry, we have to think about the future of the environment that we live in…and unless you hid yourself from the recent news headlines, the environment is the operative word here.

Politics aside, I can say three things with absolute certainty: emission standards are only going to grow more restrictive as time moves forward; gas prices are only going to increase as oil becomes more scarce; and from all this the specter that is the final days of internal combustion becomes only more real.

Thermic engines have had a good run of things, for over 100 years we have been perfecting the methods by which we translate mechanical power from the ignition of fuel, primarily gasoline. But, we are on the verge of the next chapter in transportation.

As such, it is hard to imagine an engine company investing more research and development into a thermic motor design. The days of the electric motorcycle might not be here yet, and development of this technology might still be in its infancy, but the writing is on the wall.

In the next five years, we are poised to see electric vehicles making a leap in price and performance parity, as solid state batteries arrive on production machines.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky hope that is talking about yet another promised vaporware technology. Instead, this is an innovation that a multitude of automotive manufacturers are right now in the midst of their product development in bringing to market. 

Unforced Induction

All of this brings us back to forced induction, where on a motorcycle, the goal is to extract the most power from the lightest package.

From bikes like the Kawasaki Ninja H2R and concepts like the Suzuki Recursion, there is a hope that forced induction can bring either headline power figures from typical displacements, or class-jumping performance from smaller engines.

We have seen as much already in the four-wheeled space, so there is natural progression for turbochargers and superchargers to make their two-wheeled arrival (or re-arrival, if you know your two-wheeled history). But the stressors and rigors of the automotive world don’t always translate to motorcycles.

The push for more fuel efficient motorcycles isn’t here (yet). The need for more power is illusory, driven only by the marketing departments at the OEMs. The packaging and weight savings that forced induction offers create minimal gains for machines that can weigh already under half a ton (often less).

And then, there is the matter of increased costs and complexity – hurdles that might make sense if the endpoint of development necessitated it and validated it – but again, the days of thermic propulsion are surely numbered.

For the millions of dollars that have gone, and potentially will go, into developing forced induction motorcycle engines, an argument can be made that those resources would be better spent on hybrid and electric drive systems for motorcycles.

Potential Energy

This week saw the MotoE World Cup taking its first testing laps at Jerez, ushering a new era of road racing at the grand prix level. The spends weren’t exciting, the lap times weren’t scorching, though I do think we can expect the racing to be enticing (maybe or maybe not aurally).

While we are witnessing another milestone in two-wheeled history, one cannot help but think that the MotoGP Championship is missing an opportunity. If the goal of the premier class is to drive innovation, why hasn’t it allowed development of electric-assist technologies like the KERS and push-to-pass systems we have seen in Formula 1.

MotoGP is pushing nearly 300hp per liter of engine displacement now, a terrifyingly great achievement, but for what gains at the stopwatch? And, how much of this technology is relevant for production machines.

We don’t have to look far to see the lengths OEMs are going in order to sustain this technology Ponzi scheme.

If we know the endpoint for production motorcycles is an electric final drive, why is the pinnacle of motorcycle racing not helping us build a bridge to that destination?

Instead, we get the MotoE World Cup, which will still be a series too early for its time, and lack any sort of progress for technology. Ask the Isle of Man’s TT Zero race how that plan is working out for them.

The better alternative is to incorporate electric drives into existing thermic systems, adding and augmenting power drive to the rear wheel via electrons.

Better yet, the technology for meaningful gains from these type of electric drive systems already exists.

Hybrids too offer an opportunity, and while the challenges might be higher than a more simple “push to pass” setup, the technology requires only obtainable goals from the current state of the art. 

Repeatedly, we see motorcycle manufacturers and racing organizations trying to mount a step too tall for the current technology, when the reality is that there is a lower threshold to cross first – one that not only drives innovation, but also provides consumers with the increase of performance and value that they are seeking.

So with this in mind, I wonder out loud whether brands like Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki should be pursuing forced induction systems. I will answer my own question…

The road that technology takes us down is a dead end. It is 1990s thinking perpetrated in the 21st century, and we have enough of that already in the motorcycle industry.