Tag Archives: technology

Has Honda got the wrong idea?

I watched a YouTube video about an option on Honda’s forthcoming “VFR1200”.  The option features a computer controlled double clutch gearbox, eliminating the need for a hand-operated clutch and gear selection foot pedal.  I know precious little about the technology, but at face value, it seems similar to systems fitted to up-market sports cars.  Jeremy Clarkson and I would probably not see eye-to-eye on a great number of things.  I am a motorcycle nut, and he isn’t. (to put it mildly).  However, he has a hatred of “flappy-paddle gearboxes” which I think I understand.

Watching the video, it was amazing to see the seemless nature with which the computer controlled gearbox changed gears. This was most notable if the final scenes when the video focused on the “attitude” of the bike.  The degree to which the rear of the motorcycle squatted during the acceleration run barely changed through the gear shifts.  This was most impressive when compared with the conventional manual transmission bike*.  Despite this, I cannot help feel that Honda have solved a problem that no-one else was aware even existed.

There are times that I have made a complete hash of changing gears whilst riding a bike.  Sometimes I have found a false neutral and sent the revs skyward when the engine encountered no resistance. (I find this almost as embarrassing as sneezing in your helmet when stopped at traffic lights…)  Sometimes I have discovered I am already in first gear when down-shifting, or top gear when up-shifting.  Occasionally, I’ve missed the gear lever altogether (although I’m still not sure how).  There are also times when my arm has ached from constantly needing to pull in the clutch when riding in heavy traffic.  None of these factors make me want an “automatic” transmission on a motorbike.

Part of the fun of riding a motorcycle is the connection between the rider and the machine.  Just because the machine could do something better than I could, is not a reason to let it do it.  I am sure that some people will appreciate not having to use a clutch in heavy traffic or the consistent smooth gear changes the system promises.  But it is not the sort of marketing hype that entices me.

 Technology can be enticing.  A few years ago I had the opportunity to test a BMW K1200s with the Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) system fitted.  The system was interesting and seemingly worthwhile.  The benefits of on-the-move suspension adjustments were noticeable in the real world.  Here was a new technology that gave an increased involvement with riding the motorcycle.  Few people take the time to sort out their suspension of their motorcycle despite the benefits of doing so.  Here was a computer-controlled system that “did the hard part for you” and left the fine-tuning up to you.  At a press of a button, you could soften the suspension for “comfort” or firm it up for “sport” riding.

So, on one hand you have Honda making the process of riding easier by removing some of the tasks you need to perform. This has the impression of making you more disconnected from the experience.  On the other hand you have BMW making it easier for you to become more involved with the riding experience. 

How much an automatic gearbox disconnects you from the experience of riding the bike is going to be subjective.  I am not above being wrong and if the opportunity arises to try the system, I shall – but it is not the sort of technology that excites me.

* I couldn’t help get the feeling that the gear changes performed on the bike with the conventional gearbox were exaggerated by the rider…


Why are there no more two-strokes?

Traditional two-stroke engines offered a variety of advantages over their four-stroke rivals.  Their power output far exceeds similar capacity four-strokes. This is in part due to the fact they produce power twice as often as a four-stroke and partly because there are less moving parts to create drag and losses in power.  This “fewer moving parts” factor was seen as another significant benefit of two-stroke technology.  Fewer moving parts equates to fewer things to go wrong.

The late 80’s and 90’s could have been considered as the high point of two-stroke motorcycles.  The premier racing category (now known as MotoGP) featured three classes of bikes featuring two-stroke engines.  A few manufacturers had small light-weight high-powered two-stroke road bikes in their line-ups.  Of course, every silver-lining has a dark cloud somewhere. With two-strokes, this cloud has a blue tinge and a distinct smell about it.  Two strokes were notorious as being bad polluters and suffering poor fuel economy.  “Highly tuned” two strokes were also known for their light-switch power delivery.  “All-or-nothing” power delivery can be intoxicating, but it can also be annoying and down-right dangerous on public roads.  When not running at optimum engine speeds, these two-strokes expel a large amount of unburnt hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.  So much so, that even before Al Gore brought climate change to mainstream attention, most people could see that this was “altogether a bad thing”.

Of course, two-stroke technology still exists in all sorts of industries today.  Outboard marine engines often feature this technology.  But, before you start criticising your boat owning neighbour for his “careless attitude toward the environment”, know that modern outboard two-stroke engines pass the emissions tests required of it.  Direct Injection technology ensures that fuel is not wasted and pushed out the exhaust unburnt as did two-strokes of old.  The fuel is only delivered to the combustion chamber when it cannot escape out the exhaust port.  (My apologies to any reader who doesn’t understand the basics of two stroke combustion engines – hopefully I’ll cover that in an introductory manner at another point in time)

From what I have read, direct injection two-stroke engine design:

  • Eliminates the “peaky” power delivery.
  • Reduces emissions to comparable levels of a four-stroke engine.
  • Retains its power to weight ratio advantage over four-stroke engine design.

I hear you saying: “Surely they have lost some of the advantages they used to have?  Isn’t there always a compromise?”.  Well, as stated earlier, two-strokes of old were mechanically very simple.  Few moving parts with very little to go wrong.  Direct injection necessitates that things get a bit more complicated, with fuel pumps, fuel injectors and so on.

I suspect the biggest factor in why we don’t see modern “clean running” two-stroke motorcycles is largely due to the sins of their past.  Any new bike would need to overcome the old stereotypes of being polluting and thirsty motorcycles.  Given that technology exists to overcome these issues, it really is a shame the manufacturers have not risen to the challenge of marketing them in a better light.  There still seems to be a lot of sentimental folks in the motorcycling press who would like to see them return, so maybe they will, one day…