Extra sensory perception: how our bikes know more than we do

by Simon Hargreaves

Modern bikes are smarter than ever. But they can’t see into the future. Yet.
BMW’s HP4 is a clever bike. An array of more than 30 sensors stream info to its ECU, making our five (or six?) human channels of data acquisition seem inadequate. But we don’t have to reign in 190bhp… which is why bikes have brains too.
The BMW, along with Ducati’s Multistrada and Panigale, and Aprilia’s Caponord and RSV4 R APRC, is at the current summit of bike IQ. But most modern bikes have some of the following going on the moment you turn the key:
Electromagnetic pulses count spokes in ABS rings around both wheel hubs, measuring speeds and looking for differences. The ECU uses the info to activate its ABS system, and also feeds the data into a map of engine management, and traction and anti-wheelie control. It also delivers road speed to the clocks.

Piezoelectric detectors listen for detonation inside combustion chambers. The ECU uses this, plus information from the exhaust’s lambda sensor, engine speed, gear position, throttle position and inlet manifold pressure sensors, to set the best fuel/air mixture for power, fuel economy and emissions.
Meanwhile, four accelerometers measure the rate of change of acceleration of both wheels and both ends of the chassis, letting the ECU back-calculate suspension stroke speed and the best damping settings to manage it.
Or, depending on the bike, potentiometers do the same job via a rear push/pull rod and a fork pressure sensor (if you’ve got Aprilia’s Caponord, you’ll have a sensor measuring shock loading and setting preload to suit. While you ride).
A gyro might be looking at lean angle and telling the ECU know that in Rain mode, at a 48° lean, when the rider asks for power it’s good to give them less than they want.
And then there are engine braking sensors, ambient light sensors, fuel consumption monitors, air temperature, oil temperature… while tyre pressure sensors check in at the rate of three times per second.
The ECU also looks for dropped information. If a BMW sensor misses a beat, the error is logged and transmitted to a Berlin server every time the bike gets plugged into a dealer’s diagnostics. And not just fault codes – data like traction control activation time and maximum revs are also stored and transmitted to BMW HQ.
Now it all gets a bit dystopian. Your ABS, gear position, revs, fuel consumption, even speed, could be recorded and sent to the factory. The manufacturer would know exactly how customers ride their bikes: when they change gear, how hard they rev the engine, how fast they go, how many wheelies they pull.
On one hand, the next generation of bikes would better reflect our true riding habits. But it also means the manufacturer would know the bike’s precise status in an accident. And so might the police, prosecuting lawyers, the coroner…
The next step is a bike that can predict the future the way we use our senses to see things coming. GPS-based mapping will grade roads for bumps and set suspension accordingly before the bike gets to them, or alter engine characteristics to suit urban, motorway, country road or track environments. Braking could be augmented by proximity sensors, and so could cornering angles. And with traction control, ABS and steering assist, your massively brainy bike would be all but uncrashable anyway.
How clever is that?

Navy Boy
Joined: 12/02/2009

It's nice to see one of Simon's articles on the site - I enjoy his writings and his tech watch pieces in MCN make good reading.

I'm not sure that I like the idea of quite that many sensors on a bike of mine though…

unconventional rebel
unconventional rebel's picture
Joined: 16/01/2010

Interesting article.

The last bike I actually bought though was a Royal Enfield......

pittsy's picture
Joined: 06/08/2011

UcR said; " The last bike I actually bought though was a Royal Enfield...."

The bullet?

A bike whose tappets can be set with only a spanner and your fingers. No feeler gauge. No DTI. And defo no potentiometer.

Joined: 28/05/2013

I like to thank you Simon, for contributing to the website. It is very good to see new articles on Kevin's site. Comments have been placed all ready! Thanks again.

Captain Scarlet
Captain Scarlet's picture
Joined: 01/12/2009

I've had a few personal emails from Simon, when I owned a K1300S and he had a long-termer (both from Vines). A good-egg and around since the days when Forsyth was throwing a ZZR1100 down a runway at 150 mph, trying to race an aeroplane - you can't make this sort of thing up! ;-D

Joined: 14/06/2011

Me, I am hesitating about buying an 2700 km, FSH, 2001, as-new condition BMW R 1200 C, only because it does not have ABS.
… maybe I'm wrong - a bit?