What is the future for motorcycles and motorcycling? I imagine this question gets tossed around on occasion in the boardrooms and design studios of motorcycle companies around the world, but I wonder how they answer it.
Technology Life Cycles
Technology has a life cycle from invention to maturity and finally supersedence by something else. Motorcycles were invented back when the internal combustion engine was young and being attached to wheeled vehicles of all sorts. Since that time, they have progressed to the point where usable performance has reached the upper limits of practicality and each model year brings new styling and incremental changes in engineering. Is there a forward leap coming anytime soon?
Fuel Cells or Electric Power?
One possible direction is shown by the ENV fuel cell motorcycle we’ve covered here before, and the many electric powered motorcycles being built by hobbyists and small companies show more variations along the path of alternate power. While more conventional motorcycles are beginning the introduction of automatic transmissions, electric motorcycles are single speed from the start with RPM and torque available in almost unlimited quantities. Electric power certainly seems like a high probability in future motorcycles and cars as well.
The Auto World
Actually, looking at the automotive world you see a big shift toward more and more electrical and electronic circuitry, onboard computers controlling the operation of the engine are now used to control almost everything else from the brakes for ABS and traction control, to airbag deployment, to the suspension for variable damping, it’s gradually making its way to actual decisions in the driving process, applying brakes when the driver is too slow to react in an emergency, helping with navigation, climate control, the list is long and growing. There is also electric power steering and the emergence of electric brakes and both full electric power and hybrid electric power. Comparatively speaking, motorcycles, with some exceptions, are from an age long ago.
Many of us who enjoy riding and working on motorcycles like the technology where it is and has been. The sound and throb of a big V-twin or the whine of an inline 4 sounds right and the mechanical appearance strikes a chord in our brain but that technology is getting old. Vinyl records, no matter how good your turntable, are no match for current CDs and DVDs.
Increasing Rate of Technical Change
The rate of technological change is increasing rapidly and motorcycles in some ways are almost frozen in time. It’s common to hear sport bike riders taking shots at Harley Davidson as using ancient technology but I have a hunch you’ll be able to say the same thing about current sport bikes before very long.
From a purely practical standpoint, motorcycles have their shortcomings, they are far more recreational than utilitarian so serving the recreational rider from whatever vantage point a company chooses to stake out is a business decision and each one is just as sound as the rest. Whether you want to appeal to the classic or vintage crowd, the touring riders, choppers and custom cruisers or racer wannabes, it’s a valid choice, but if something comes along that is appreciably or dramatically better than current motorcycles, any one of those segments could disappear overnight or change itself and demand the new version of things, a thought that has to cause a bit of heartburn in a few of those boardrooms, some much more than others.
As many of the technologies we have been using over the years are rapidly replaced, can we expect any other area to somehow sit still with some sort of immunity? I have an old Dual 1218 turntable gathering dust on a shelf in the basement next to a Pioneer 727 receiver and a Panasonic cassette deck. There isn’t anything wrong with them except they became obsolete long ago. The VCR in my living room hasn’t been used for at least a year, maybe more, why it’s still there I’m not sure. You probably have your own selection of old and out of date technology, still functional but not up to current standards of performance. If a fast, light electric motorcycle comes along, or some similar technological advance appears, will today’s motorcycles stand a chance? It’s interesting to think about.