Technology and the Pitfalls Of Perfection | DRAWING THE LINE

When existing technologies work so well, any new invention looks risky.

Unless you’re familiar with motorcycles from decades ago, it can be difficult to appreciate just how close to perfect modern bikes really are. My experience with bikes from the 1950s and ’60s—particularly with British bikes from that era—has given me a real appreciation for how great motorcycles are today. Those old machines are almost a different species from what’s available these days.

I’m not saying that today’s bikes are absolutely perfect. Literal perfection in such a complex machine isn’t possible. But when fit, finish, quality, reliability, and performance are as good as they are now, perfection is at least approached. And while many of us might consider perfection the ultimate goal, I want to suggest there might be some lurking problems or hidden dangers in our pursuit of perfection. Could we be missing something when the products we buy are already so good?

Some people will suggest that perfection is antithetical to “character” and that vintage bikes are somehow more engaging because their faults and idiosyncrasies challenge us. Another group might insist that perfect products preclude “tinkering.” Think about everyone who complained when electronic fuel injection overtook carburetion. Although both these attitudes hold some truth, those aren’t the pitfalls I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of deeper changes in the very nature of industry.

In my column for the August issue ( click here to see "Rotary Reassessment" ) I described an innovative rotary valve system for four-stroke engines originally developed for Formula 1 competition then summarily banned. Further development has stalled; it hasn't been adapted for production use either. Because current engine technology is so highly developed, and because it represents such an enormous investment of time, talent, and resources, even if a new technology offers significant advantages, the prospect of having to invest an equivalent level of development in any new technology is simply too daunting.

That’s just one way advanced development can limit innovation and invention. When existing technologies work so well, any new invention looks risky. If things are working fine, why should manufacturers rock the boat? Consumers can be just as conservative. When bike buyers (and bike journalists, too) are accustomed to highly developed, near-perfect vehicles, they might not appreciate that new technology will require a few years of development before it achieves a level of refinement that matches expectations.

When telescopic forks work so well, why bother investing the time and resources to develop an alternative like Yamaha’s RADD front end?

This was the case in 1992 when Yamaha released its GTS1000, featuring my novel RADD front suspension design. That bike had somewhat heavy steering, causing many journalists (and potential buyers) to jump to the conclusion that my suspension design suffered heavy steering as a necessary side effect. In fact, the steering feel was completely a byproduct of specific geometry decisions that Yamaha made for that application. Different geometry would have produced very different steering traits. Further development would have tuned out the “heavy” steering character, but impatient critics, accustomed to “perfection,” expected the bike to be fully developed from the start.

Occasionally, manufacturers have the courage to buck this system and risk investing significantly in unknown technology. This was the case with BMW and its various Telelever, Duolever, and Paralever alternative suspension designs. Certainly all of these systems were subjected to their fair share of criticism over the years, but BMW remained committed to their ongoing development and refinement. Now all these systems are considered credible alternatives to conventional suspension designs, contributing to BMW’s reputation as a company dedicated to original engineering.

A very high level of development is a disincentive to try new things for both manufacturers and the marketplace because any new technology will have rough edges at first. BMW has shown us that, with some commitment, a high level of development (read: near perfection) can coexist with innovation, but this is the exception. The making and selling of “perfect” products is generally at odds with an open, searching interest in new ideas. Manufacturers—and buyers—might do well to observe these pitfalls in the pursuit of perfection. I think accepting more rough edges would allow more original ideas and inventions to thrive.

When telescopic forks work so well, why bother investing the time and resources to develop an alternative like Yamaha’s RADD front end?