Beyond ABS: Safety Electronics For High-End Motorcycles

Beyond ABS: Safety Electronics For High-End Motorcycles


Today, anti-lock brakes (ABS) have finally started filtering down to smaller-capacity motorcycles and fitment may soon be made mandatory, by law, on all motorcycles above 125 cc, regardless of power output and performance. Then, there are solutions such as traction control and active/ semi-active suspensions that have found increased acceptance in two-wheelers globally. In this technology update, we track the evolution of some of these safety-critical electronics systems for high-end motorcycles.

It seems scarcely believable that ABS was first introduced on a production motorcycle by BMW, way back in 1988. With an ABS system developed by FAG Kugelfischer, the BMW K100 series was the first European motorcycle to feature ABS, while the Japanese followed in 1992, with the Yamaha FJ1200 and Honda ST1100. By electronically modulating braking effort via a computer-controlled module, what ABS did was prevent a motorcycle’s wheels from ‘locking up’ under hard braking, thus preventing them from skidding, thereby circumventing the almost inevitable crash under most such circumstances.

In the last decade, companies like Continental and Bosch have taken the development of motorcycle ABS to entirely new levels, promoting rider safety in a very big way and making a significant reduction in the number of fatal crashes. But to their credit, both Japanese and European motorcycle manufacturers have refused to rest on their laurels and have continued to develop other motorcycle safety systems, which, when working in conjunction with ABS, provide not just enhanced safety, but also much higher levels of dynamic performance. Here we will take a look at some of these technologies and try to understand what these do for the rider.


Especially relevant for very powerful sportsbikes, superbikes and dual-purpose adventure-touring machines, which deliver an abundance of power at the rear wheel, traction control is essentially a system that monitors front and rear wheel speeds and tries to eliminate any difference therein. For example, when a rider twists the throttle of a very powerful bike in wet weather conditions, on slippery roads, there may not be sufficient traction available to produce forward drive. In this case, the rear wheel simply spins up (in the process, spinning faster than the front wheel), which sometimes causes the rider to lose control and crash. This is even more likely to happen when the rider is taking a high-speed corner and/ or riding on loose, low-grip surfaces like gravel or wet tarmac.

In recent years, traction control systems have become highly sophisticated, with Japanese, Italian and German manufacturers taking the lead in this area and developing TC systems that operate seamlessly in all road and weather conditions. The latest Yamaha R1, for example, features the world’s first 6-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU), which uses every bit of data available (throttle opening, brake application, lean angle, gear selection and other variables) to work the bike’s banking- sensitive traction control system.

The R1’s 6-axis IMU, which governs the bike’s multi-stage traction control system, consists of three gyro sensors that measure machine pitch, roll and yaw, as well as three G-sensors that transmit data
on forward/ backward, left/ right and up/ down acceleration. By constantly analysing this data 125 times per second, the IMU is able to establish the R1’s position and behaviour – including lean angle,
slide speed and pitching rate. Data is then sent via a CAN system (Controller Area Network) to the ECU that makes real time calculations and instantly adjusts the R1’s various electronic control systems in order to achieve optimum performance with high levels of controllability.

Regular traction control systems (TCS) are able to optimise the drive force to the rear tyre by monitoring the difference in speed between the front and rear wheels, and if it detects that rear wheel traction is being lost, the ECU adjusts the throttle valve opening, fuelling and ignition timing accordingly. With the new R1’s system, TCS also uses additional data relating to the bike’s banking angle, when calculating the optimum rear wheel control settings. For example, when the R1 is cornering at a high banking angle, the IMU’s sensors will activate the TCS to a higher level of control than when the motorcycle is upright, allowing the R1 rider to achieve optimum performance whether powering out of a corner or accelerating in a straight line.

Of course, other manufacturers, like Kawasaki, Aprilia, BMW and Ducati also have advanced traction control systems on their top-end sportsbikes. Ducati is one of the manufacturers leading the charge of the electronics brigade and their system, Ducati traction control system (DTC) is one of the best currently available. As seen on the latest Ducati 1299 Panigale, DTC uses data from the bike’s 3-axis IMU and allows a rider to choose from as many as eight settings, depending on riding conditions and the rider’s skill level. Using software developed in MotoGP and World Superbikes series, DTC, depending on the settings chosen, supplies different levels of tolerance for rear-wheel spin and intervenes accordingly to prevent loss of control and a subsequent crash. And while it enhances safety in a very big way, it also provides performance enhancement, allowing highly skilled riders to steer with the rear wheel by power-sliding into and out of corners, but with greatly diminished chances of crashing in the process.


In the past three decades, ABS has been used primarily as an electronic safety net, which greatly reduces the chances of crashing under hard or sudden braking. But now, manufacturers are also using a variant of ABS – sometimes known as ABS Pro or Cornering ABS – to enhance the performance potential of a motorcycle using ABS technology.

One of the leading systems in this regard has been developed by BMW Motorrad, which launched its ‘Race ABS’ system back in 2009. This has now evolved into what BMW calls ABS Pro, which is meant for high-performance superbikes, allowing hard braking not just in a straight line, but also while cornering. Conventional wisdom has always dictated that braking in corners is an absolute no-go, but with Cornering ABS, riders can brake deep into corners without fear of locking the wheels and crashing.

BMW has developed its system specifically for street use and unlike conventional ABS, this system takes into account the bike’s roll rate, yaw rate and transverse acceleration, while deciding how much brake force reaches the wheels. As the banking angle increases, the brake pressure gradient is limited at an increasing rate and pressure build-up is slower. Working in tandem with the bike’s traction control system, which also takes into account grip levels available, ABS Pro represents a significant step forward in terms of safety, for street bike riders.

Like BMW, Ducati has also taken huge strides forward in the development of ABS for high-performance bikes, and its latest Panigale range has Bosch’s 9.1MP Cornering ABS, which performs much like BMW’s ABS Pro and takes into account things like banking angle and grip levels while factoring in brake force deployment. Additionally, it is even fitted with competition-spec Brembo M50 monobloc calipers, which are made of lightweight forged alloy and have been engineered to resist deformation even under the most extreme braking circumstances.


The next big advancement in motorcycle safety technology is the development of electronically-controlled active- and semiactive suspension. Companies like Ducati, Yamaha and BMW have taken the lead in this area. First up is the Italian company’s Ducati Electronic Suspension (DES), which works in conjunction with Öhlins Smart EC, an event-based control system for suspension. Using stepper motors and taking into account signals measured by the bike’s ECU (payload, speed, grip level, banking angle etc.), DES automatically modulates preload, compression damping and rebound damping, which in turn improves cornering grip, stability, braking, corner entry and handling. The system, which was developed in collaboration with Öhlins, uses a NIX-30 fork with TIN treatment on the fork tubes, a TTX shock absorber, and a steering damper, regulating each one independently.

The latest Yamaha R1M also uses an active suspension system which is similar to that used by Ducati for the Panigale. The Öhlins Electronic Racing Suspension (ERS) used by Yamaha takes data from the bike’s 6-axis IMU and various other sensors, and using a dedicated Suspension Control Unit (SCU), automatically makes adjustments to the front and rear suspension. This includes compression and rebound damping settings, reduction of ‘dive’ at the front under hard braking, improved cornering stability and increased traction, when exiting corners.

The key to the effectiveness of Yamaha’s ERS is the 6-axis IMU that is constantly monitoring the force and speed of every movement made by the YZF-R1M, in three dimensions. By instantly analysing the data from the IMU, ERS assesses the running conditions, and at the same time the SCU calculates the ideal compression and rebound damping forces required for the front and rear suspension systems. Signals are sent to stepper motors that make instantaneous adjustments to the front and rear damping, enabling the YZF-R1M rider to benefit from a suspension system that is constantly being fine-tuned, in real time, to work at its most effective setting. The system even has automatic and manual modes, providing an even greater degree of flexibility to the rider.

Moving on to BMW, the German company has perhaps the longest history of not just offering alternative suspension systems on its bikes (for example, Paralever, Telelever and Duolever systems), but also electronically controlled active/ semi-active suspension, starting with the Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) system in 2004, and Dynamic Damping Control (DDC) in 2009. From the German manufacturer’s stable, DDC was the first system that provided real-time spring rate variation after accounting for changes in payload, road conditions, grip levels, acceleration and braking forces, and banking angle.

Like with similar systems developed by other manufacturers, DDC works in tandem with the bike’s ABS and traction control systems, with data between the different sub-systems being shared via CAN bus. Based on data from various sensors, DDC adjusts damping via an electrically actuated valve that controls the flow of damper fluid and, responding to changes in riding conditions, adapts damping force within milliseconds. DDC uses characteristic ‘maps,’ based on ‘comfort,’ ‘normal’ and ‘sport’ modes and the suspension responds according to the settings chosen by the rider.


Some manufacturers, especially BMW, have done some significant work in the area of vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, and even an emergency response system that is triggered automatically once a set of pre-determined parameters are fulfilled. Motorrad eCall/ automatic collision notification (ACN) is BMW’s recently developed system which, in the event of an accident, allows a rider to either manually or automatically notify authorities about location data, so that help can be dispatched without delay.

If a rider arrives at an accident site on a bike fitted with BMW Motorrad eCall, he can use the eCall button to trigger a manual emergency call. The accident details and exact location with GPS data are then transmitted to a BMW call centre, which passes on the information to the nearest rescue coordination centre. On the other hand, if the rider of a BMW motorcycle fitted with eCall is involved in an accident himself, this is registered by means of the sensor system (ACN) and an automatic emergency call is triggered. This establishes a connection with the BMW call centre, enabling transmission of the required data, such as location and more detailed information on the nature of the accident.

BMW is also developing a camera-based rider information and assistance system, which can actively contribute to preventing dangerous situations from arising in the first place. The system monitors the riding environment in real time and provides feedback on speed limits and potentially dangerous obstacles on the road, thereby reducing the chances of a collision. When it senses an obstacle on the road, the system automatically prepares the braking system for hard and abrupt application, increases the intensity of the headlight beam and activates LEDs integrated into the bike’s mirrors and turn-indicators. The aim is to increase visibility and at the same time prepare for an impending crash in the best possible manner.


As LED lighting systems are just about beginning to go mainstream, BMW Motorrad is already going one step further and is now working on laser light systems for motorcycles. First shown earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, BMW’s laser lighting system for motorcycles was fitted on the K1600GTL concept bike and is expected to find its way on to production motorcycles within the next five years. After adaptive lighting, LED daytime running lights and LED headlamps, this represents the next step in illumination and is expected to boost safety in a very big way.

Laser headlamps generate a particularly bright and pure-white light, and achieve a high-beam range of up to 600 m, which is double that of conventional headlights. Moreover, laser lights have a very long service life, thanks to their compact, robust and maintenance-free construction. At the moment, the technology is still too cost-intensive for use in motorcycles, but with economies of scale resulting from their large-scale use in the automobile industry, the price structure is likely to come down in the mid-term future.

Another safety advancement from BMW, shown together with its laser lighting system, is a helmet that incorporates head up display (HUD), a technology that was, until a few decades ago, available only to fighter pilots. From there, HUD systems filtered down to high-end automobiles and now seem to be making further inroads, into the world of motorcycling. BMW’s experimental HUD-equipped helmet projects rider-selectable information directly into the rider’s field of view, allowing him to maintain constant observation of the traffic on the road, without needing to look at the bike’s instrument panel. Studies have shown that sometimes it only takes a brief visual distraction to put a motorcycle rider in a critical situation, hence the HUD-equipped helmet could be a potential lifesaver in such circumstances.

BMW’s HUD-equipped helmet is fully programmable and can display whatever information that rider chooses to view. Selectable data includes traveling speed, engine revs, tyre pressure, oil and fuel levels, navigation data, speed limits, selected gear, road sign recognition and audio-visual warnings for impending dangers on the road. The helmet can also record video via a front-facing camera, while an additional rear-facing camera can act as a digital rear-view mirror. And finally, during a group ride, where all riders are wearing a similar HUD-equipped helmet, the system can also display positional data for all riders, so that each rider knows the whereabouts of his companions. Of course, the helmet needs to be charged, but each charge provides about five hours of operation, which should be adequate for most riders.


In addition to the technologies outlined above, manufacturers have also made available other electronics systems that further boost safety and/ or performance. For example, there are electronic quick-shifters that allow gears to be changed without using the clutch; wheelie control systems that prevent the front wheel from lofting during hard, abrupt throttle application, and electronically controlled riding modes (usually ‘normal,’ ‘rain,’ ‘sport’ and ‘track’) that alter the behaviour of all the sub-systems, affecting power output, throttle response, braking response and traction control settings. Hence, with one single touch, a rider can optimise the bike’s behaviour to suit riding conditions and/ or skill levels.

To conclude, it must be noted that despite the recent advances in electronics and rider assistance systems, those cannot defeat the basic rules of physics and provide a guarantee that crashes will never happen. Motorcycling is, by its very nature, an activity that carries some inherent risk and it’s up to the rider to remain vigilant at all times and ride within the limits of reason and logic. But if the rider is doing his bit, electronics described above add a huge safety margin to the equation by using smart algorithms that help the rider keep safe.

TEXT: Sameer Kumar