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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking motorcycle transmissions – and the rider experience

Rethinking the whole motorcycle riding experience for the comfort generation – as an OEM add-on that could help add customer-centric thinking to the biker world

I grew up on motorbikes – they were a great way to get around cheaply (and with a fair amount of kudos) when I was at university in northern England.

In my more senior years (read: mid-life crisis, if thou art so inclined), I revisited the scenario and bought a serious monster of a bike – gorgeous in its all-black sleekness. And made a disquieting discovery. Riding it actually scared me. After so many years of driving a big, automatic SUV, the whole business of changing gear was something I’d completely got out of the habit of – driving had become “press-and-go” that needs no thought about coordinating bodily extremities. But on my new bike – now with an engine bigger than most Danish cars – gear changes (especially dropping a cog) quickly revealed themselves as the major bone of contention, not least because the left-hand-and-left foot coordination was almost always urgently needed right on top of a curve or something unforeseen – at exactly the time when several hundred kilos of metal can get perilously wobbly.

 Laggardly implementation, legacy thinking?

I may be a bit rusty on motorbikes, but somehow I don’t think I’m the only consumer/customer experiencing this kind of blip on the customer experience charts.

And that makes me wonder what motorcycle manufacturers are up to. Underneath the swoopy multi-coloured curves and the increasing acreage of plastic, there’s not very much new thinking or customer-centric innovation in motorcycles – they seem to be still chugging on down the legacy highway. Modern motorcycle manufacturers were slow and late to take up on the advances in technology that have pretty much revolutionised the driving experience in cars (anti-lock brakes, traction control, fuel-injection and all the other sensor-linked electronics bubbling away beneath the bodywork). So unless I can fork out on a stridently up-market new bike, I’ll probably be left in the technological slow lane. And – even worse – I’ll probably hurt myself badly. Which is not good for insurance premiums, life expectancy or customer satisfaction ratings.

Exceptions that prove the rule?

There are motorcycles with automatic transmissions of different kinds. A few that I’ve noticed are the CTX 700 Automatic, DN-01 and VFR 1200 DCT from Honda, the Caterham Brutus 750 (“the SUV of motorcycles”) and the Aprilia Mana 850. And in the conversion market Walters Manufacturing of Plano, Illinois designed and built an automatic transmission conversion for 1999–2005 Harley Davidson Dyna Glides (see below).


And to support my point about customer-centric thinking being at the heart of automatic transmission for motorcycles, on the DN-01 Honda even bestowed upon it the delightful name of Human Friendly Transmission, or HFT.

Nevertheless, automatic transmission still seems to be pretty much the exception that proves the rule. The relentless juggernaut of mainstream motorcycle design thinking seems to prefer to keep rolling straight on over customer ease-of-use, along the path of least resistance and legacy laxness. Is it because in most markets motorcycles are a marginal concern? Or is it perhaps because we’re dealing with a remnant of a fairly conservative-thinking macho culture? Real men don’t ….?

Modification and patching

One way out of the situation appeared when I noticed a new initiative from Canadian specialist company Biperformance Development Corporation, providing the ShiftFX Electronic Shift Transmission (EST) system for OEM motorcycle applications. This quick-shift system can be used with existing gearbox designs, adding an easy-to-operate rider interface to provide push-button semi-automatic or fully automatic shifting to give better rider control and focus, while preserving motorcycle response and feedback.

The point is that this EST system can be retrofitted to existing bikes and existing designs, and thus provide the kind of automatic gear changing that’d address my concerns – without needing to wait for motorcycle manufacturers to rethink the mainstream mantra. That sounds good – doesn’t it?



On closer consideration, however, I began to wonder whether this too is really just a “patch”. As motorbikes get more complex, more electronic and more plastic there are fewer and fewer people with the wrenching skills to modify the mechanical parts of motorcycles. How many outside the ultra-tiny professional customiser niche would be willing or able to undertake this kind of radical, interventionist surgery? I know the Danish authorities would never accept it, and the insurance companies probably wouldn’t be too keen either.

So it seems that I’ll probably have to wait until the motorcycle industry eventually wakes up to thinking about what’d improve the customer experience. Or move to another country – which seems like a high price to pay just to enjoy a relaxing motorbike ride.

External info
  http://world.honda.com/motorcycle-picturebook/HFT/ http://world.honda.com/news/2009/2090908Dual-Clutch-Transmission/