How Much Technology Do
You Need – Or Want – In Your Ride?Eons ago, when I first
got entranced with cards and motorcycles, in about 1962, “technology” rarely
surfaced in discussions of cars and motorcycles. After all, most motorcycles of
the time were basically a reinforced bicycle frame with an engine and fuel tank
bolted on, telescopic front forks, rear shocks, and drum brakes. Most cars of reasonable price were at about
the same level of sophistication.
In those days, most
drivers and riders wanted, in a word, more.
More power, more brakes, more handling prowess, more reliability, and on
My first motorcycle was
a 1965 Yamaha YDS-3 250cc two stroke. It
had drum brakes, 24 horsepower on a good day, and handling was handling. It was a fine motorcycle for its time, and I
rode it for thousands of miles, including a camping ride from Minneapolis to
Seattle and back in 1968.
In the 1970s things
began to improve in so many ways.
Horsepower levels for motorcycles increased exponentially, often far
beyond the capabilities of the chassis. The Kawasaki 750cc two stroke earned
the name “widow maker” sort of by accident, and by that, I mean a lot of them. Cars
had seen major increases in horsepower in the 1960s. This peaked in 1970-71,
and then fell back in 1972 – 1973 as the emissions standards came into
play. It would take years for cars to
become exciting again, which is why you will see very few late 1970’s
performance cars at collector car auctions, particularly of American
In 1977 I purchased my
first brand new motorcycle. It was a
1977 Yamaha XS750D triple. Three
cylinders, shaft drive, triple disc brakes, self-cancelling turn signals. At the time, a state-of-the-art machine. Of course, the shaft drive made it heavy, the
rear shocks were built to a price, and it made, 64 horsepower. S&W rear shocks, a copy of a BMW R90S
fairing, lower and narrower bars from a European Norton, and K&W air
filters turned it into a fine machine. The triple points ignition was a pain to
fiddle with, but all in all I rode it for 21 years and almost 50,000 miles with
virtually no mechanical problems.
In the 1980’s came more
improvements in both cars and motorcycles, and the word technology began to
appear in articles and road tests.
Obviously, I am
skipping over a lot of detail. I will
get to my point…eventually.
In the early 2000s
things began to change, as the intrusion of electronic and computer
improvements began to radically alter the design and performance of both cars
and motorcycles. The Kawasaki 1200 Ninja
I owned turned 165hp at the rear wheels on an honest dyno, and was still at 160hp
with 98,000 miles, according to the guy who bought it from me. It could
accelerate in 2nd and 3rd gear so hard my eyes and brain
had a hard time keeping up. Electronic
fuel injection, Akropovich titanium exhaust, a Power Commander, and on and on. In the space of 35 years, the crank
horsepower available to anyone with some cash had gone from 24 to almost 200 –
roughly an 800% increase!
But then things began
to change. Motorcycles and cars that were to be used on the street no longer
had the need for “more,” except in the egos of the owners. I had a colleague at Cycle Barn in the early
2000s, a Harley enthusiast, describe to me what he was going to have to do to
his next Harley, and how much it would cost, to get the engine to 100
horsepower. I replied “Or, you could
just buy a Honda 600cc sport bike for the same money, and all the rest of the bike
would be free.” He was not amused.
As engineer boffins
learned what could be done with electrical circuits, sensors, and ever smaller
computers, their attention turned away from mere horsepower to gizmos and
gadgets designed to improve the driving experience (their words) or find new
ways to build cost and profit into vehicles with things that were never needed
in the first place (my words). Do I need
a light in the outside mirror to tell me another car is there? I had a rental car that created the worst of
two worlds – a light that came on in the mirror if a car was detected in the
next lane – some of the time.
I once had a pedestrian
Hyundai rental car of perfect utility – with paddle shifters. Really?
In 2009 I had the
opportunity to turn some sort of fast laps at (then) Seattle International Raceway,
with an SCCA race instructor riding shotgun, in a new Mercedes Benz 500 AMG
convertible. The Mercedes had a veritable “suite” (marketing hype) of safety
technologies. None of them could be turned off.
Of course, it was an automatic.
On a racetrack the car would resist any attempt to rotate in a corner.
It would apply the brakes at the wrong time, because the little molecules of
its brain were convinced I was crashing.
It was frustrating, and I began to wonder what someone would have to do
to actually crash the car.
In about 2011 or so the
US Navy discovered that more personnel were perishing in motorcycle crashes
then from any other cause. World wide. Young men and women were being highly
trained in the maintenance and operation of extremely sophisticated and
expensive equipment. When they came home on leave, flush with cash, they would
saunter in to their local dealer and purchase the fastest bike they could find,
usually ignoring advice to take a rider class, which was not required at that
time. Their thinking was that if they could maintain or operate a fighter plane
or aircraft carrier, how tough could it be to master a 500-pound machine with a
mere 165 horsepower?
This proved to be a
fatal error in judgment far too often.,
As the Navy moved to
correct this, a motorcycle safety instructor and I were invited to go for a
group ride with sailors from the Everett Naval Base. It was utterly appalling! All nice young men and women, but almost all
of them clearly had no idea of what they were doing. Their cornering lines were all over the
place, braking far too early or late, no concept of body positioning, and on
and on. It was amazing. The Navy has
since mandated motorcycle rider training, and the other branches have hopefully
followed their lead.
And now to today. One
of the problems is that while technology had transformed many forms of
transportation in the last half a century, most of the road infrastructure is
unchanged. You can now purchase many
cars and motorcycles that cannot be driven anywhere near their limits on public
roads, to say nothing of the talent of the owners.
I once knew a nice man
who owned both a new BMW S1000RR and a new Porsche 911. His wife joined us at a track day at The Ridge
in the 911, and I was pleased to see it had a manual transmission. Both of them drove the Porsche at car track
He explained that his
friends wondered why he had not purchased the much faster Porsche GT3. He
explained that at a track day at Pacific Raceways, Don Kitsch, a pro driver and
operator of a racing and track day school, had done a few laps at full chat in
the 911 with the owner as a passenger. This
taught the owner that he was 5 to 10 seconds a lap slower than the car was capable
of. Why would he need a faster Porsche
when he did not have the talent to extract even close to the maximum capability
of what he had?
Did you know there is a
group known as “Save the Enzos”? There
are a lot of You Tube videos of Ferrari Enzos coming to an ignominious end when
the driver wrote a check neither his talent or the road could cash. And that is only with a rare and incredibly
expensive car. There are tons of other
Now we are faced with
an ever-expanding menu of driver “aids,” as well as electric cars and motorcycles. This may or may not make the car safer,
depending on your point of view, by turning over more and more functions to the
widgets in the electronics systems. How much technology do you need? How much do you want?
You first need to
define for yourself what a car or motorcycle is.
For me, all electric
vehicles are not cars or motorcycles.
(Your results may vary). I refer
to them as “TD” s – transportation devices. Many of them are supremely capable,
equal to the performance of a car or motorcycle. In the near future they will
probably surpass the capability of vehicles powered by the rotten and
compressed remains of dinosaurs. A Tesla
set to “ludicrous” is evidently an amazing experience. Matters not a whit to
For some, driving or
riding is an experience, and one to look forward to. Electrics offer seamless performance with
little or no sound and (usually) no need to shift or do much of anything but
sit back and enjoy the ride. They do an
admirable job of getting from point A to B with a minimum of hassle and stress.
Most of my friends are
gaga about the present performance and future potential of electric motorcycles.
I rode one once, and it did everything it was asked to do perfectly. So does my
So, let us choose to
turn back to “normal” vehicles. Am I
suggesting a return to the technology, what there was of it, of my youth? No.
Instead, it might be
better to think about what technology you want and what you do not want, and
purchase accordingly. For me, I want
every drive or ride to be an event. Nothing too dramatic required, but I want
to be aware that I am operating a machine, and not just sitting in a pod having
all of my needs attended to my unseen servos and sensors.
Here is what I want,
and what I do not want:
I am in favor of
technologies that make my car or motorcycle safer to operate, more reliable,
more efficient, and/or better looking.
To that end, computerized fuel injection, water cooling, cruise control,
triple ABS disc brakes, traction control, light pull clutch levers
(motorcycles), and air bags (cars), are all things I want. These days, of course, it is almost
impossible to find a vehicle that does not have all of these.
Most of the technology
that I do not want comes from engineering and marketing departments looking for
new fripperies to differentiate their product from others. Unlike 50 years ago, it is very hard these
days to purchase a truly bad new car or motorcycle. Most vehicles today are well made and have
performance at least adequate for the roads they will be used on. The problem for marketing mavens: How to make your product stand out – add-ons
that you can tell the consumer are super important. Are they?
I do not need the latest thing in GPS directional systems in my car or on my motorcycle. Neither do you. If you have the money for a new vehicle, you own a cell phone. The technology of cell phones evolves much more rapidly than a vehicle production cycle.
My (now) ex-brother in law has a company car. This vehicle can parallel park itself and also maintain a safe distance to the car in front when in cruise control. This has had two affects. He admits he is now losing his ability to parallel park. Worse, when he is driving one of his other cars in cruise control, he expects the car to slow itself when traffic slows in front of him. The other two cars do not have the speed adjust technology, and a couple of near accidents have been the result. So are these two technologies a gain for the majority of people in America who operate more than one vehicle?
How many cup holders do I need? Actually, none, but any car will have at least two of them. OK.
I do not need blue
tooth or whatever tech in my helmet to inform (interrupt) me while riding. One
of the reasons I ride is to be away from the latest breaking news, and phone
I do not need or want
any piece of technology that makes noise to warn me of something that should be
obvious. Lane departure warning
systems, warning lights in the side mirror, a steering wheel that shakes if it
thinks I am in error, a beeping sound when the car is in reverse, or a gong
that tells me the car is moving and the seat belt is not fastened.
I do not want or need a
complex stereo or entertainment system that accepts all devises and syncs to my
I do not need or want a
CVT transmission on anything, or an automatic unless the vehicle is a mundane
SUV or truck.
In short, I want to experience the vehicle I am operating. I want to be engaged and involved, and I do not want technology to be used to separate me ever further from being connected to the whirring bits that are propelling me down the road.
The proof is in the pudding. What do I own, you ask? A 2016 Triumph T120 Bonneville and a 2012 Fiat Sport with a 5 speed manual transmission (of course). Both are examples of what this essay tries to point out.
How about you?
Cheers! Ride fast, ride safe, and ride often!
By the way… It has come
to my attention that if you are reading this on a smart phone my entire website
does not display. Among other horrors,
this prevents you from clicking on and ordering any or all of my 8 books
available from Amazon. You must go to www.davidpreston.biz on a computer to slake your thirst for essays and novels
that feature (mostly) motorcycles and cars.
Copyright 2019 David Preston