Electronic Rider Aids and Motorcycle Safety

The Electronics Guise

How to use electronic rider aids to suit you best.
How to use electronic rider aids to suit you best.©Motorcyclist

Advanced ABS, traction control, ride (power) modes, and even dynamically adjustable suspension are becoming commonplace. And like it or not, it may soon be impossible to buy a new motorcycle without at least some of these electronic rider aids.

As a lifelong rider of “analog” motorcycles I was skeptical of the technology. I feared that all these gizmos would somehow neuter the raw essence of motorcycling and wondered whether these systems would be smart enough to decide exactly when and how much to intervene. And what happens when they break?

Having ridden several bikes with rider aids, I believe these e-systems pose no threat to our way of life. They quietly monitor all manner of data, intervening only when needed and with minimal interruption. But a word of caution: Knowing these aids exist can fool you into a false sense of security.

While it’s nice to have a system designed to prevent overly aggressive inputs from putting you on your head, remember that modern electronics do not make you immune to the consequences of bad decisions, nor do they negate the need for proficient braking and throttle skills. That’s because traction control, ABS, and cornering ABS cannot alter basic physics. They will help maintain control under extreme acceleration and braking situations but do not magically create more traction to allow deep lean angles in a sand-covered curve or produce more space to stop when a minivan cuts you off.

Modern electronics do not make you immune to the consequences of bad decisions.

To best utilize these systems requires learning and practice. Most riders jump on their ABS-equipped bikes never having experienced the feeling and effectiveness of the system. To become familiar with your bike’s ABS, head to a parking lot. Do some hard braking on clean pavement and on light sand to trigger the ABS. These exercises are unnerving but important because in an emergency many riders hesitate to apply the brakes to their full potential for fear of skidding. Having experience with ABS instills trust that you can apply full braking power early and hard.

Besides traditional ABS, optimized for straight-line braking, some of the newest premium motorcycles have "cornering ABS." This system meters stopping force so you can brake hard in a corner without skidding (providing there is enough traction to begin with). No need to straighten the bike before braking. Instead, apply the brakes as hard as you need while maintaining lean angle to remain in your lane. Having tested the Bosch system on a Ducati Multistrada, I can attest to how well these systems can work. The challenge is to work up to its thresholds—otherwise you're not using it to full advantage.

Traction control is designed to keep the rear wheel from spinning excessively when accelerating. Track riders and racers use traction and power management aids to beat the competition or lay down fast laps with less risk of high-siding. Traction control allows earlier and more aggressive acceleration than previously possible. Performance riders become intimately familiar with each system’s settings to exploit maximum potential.

Other new technologies, like slipper clutches (easing the task of quick dowshifts without skidding the rear wheel), quickshifters (both up and down, which save time and effort), and electronic suspension (which promises to maintain chassis composure and ride quality), all benefit the rider. The trick is to keep yourself from being fooled into thinking that these rider aids will make you immune to crashing. Solution? Don’t ride so that you’re constantly putting these rider aids into use; instead, think of them as broadening the margin you’d naturally make for yourself. Knowing that the “edge” is more like a gradual runoff than a cliff provides confidence, it’s true, but nothing can take the place of good judgment and skill.