ASK KEVIN: What Will Happen When All Those Modern Sensors on Your Motorcycle Go Bad?

Yamaha YZF-R1M triple clamp

QUESTION: Ride by wire is a de facto part of modern motorcycling. Bravissimo. With multi-mode fueling maps, traction control, six-axis stability control, we now have safer, more reliable motorcycles. I'm all for that. My question is about sensor durability. I presume much of what we enjoy technologically in motorcycling today has come from the automotive and perhaps the aerospace industries. So much of motorcycling technology has a mature pedigree, albeit not a long one. It seems only a decade or less since the ECU has evolved to become the nerve center of the motorcycle with a disparate number of remote sensors feeding the ECU thousands of inputs in mere nanoseconds. What happens when the critical sensors become unreliable or fail outright? Will the motorcycle revert to a "limp home" state like my car, allowing continued travel in a limited way? Or will the ECU protect the rider by not allowing the motorcycle to move under its own power? How would/could a field repair be accomplished in such a situation? We know that all mechanical/electronic equipment has a finite life. Are the numerous new motorcycle sensors robust enough to last for years and years without a glitch and designed well enough to protect us when they do eventually fail? Is that yet to be determined, or is there evidence that complex technology may prove to be as sketchy in a different way than a gummy carb or a fouled plug?

Steve Pearce

ANSWER: ABS is the standard answer to your question. In most cases, such systems have self-diagnostics. In case of failure, they go to fail-passive, displaying a "service needed" light. In military and aerospace systems, it is usual to provide triplex functionality, with software that treats the failure of any one part via logic voting.

As you note, the possibility of failures that are "non-definitive" or 'flaky' certainly exists. Dashboard trouble lights flicker; is it falling oil pressure or a bad sensor? Eight hundred dollars later, we may not be sure.

Six Axis Inertial Measurement Unit

Also, there are cost limits. Every time the EPA imposes another requirement, more costs are added to vehicle price and possibly to maintenance. At present, it is estimated that the emissions abatement systems on a diesel-powered pickup truck add about $7,000 to its price, and $18,000 to the price of a new highway tractor. This why fleet operators are resorting to rebuilding older trucks with less-complex emissions technology on their engines.

What will autonomous operation add to the price of new cars? The sensor array on one of the currently operating demonstrators is said to cost $250,000, but advocates of this technology estimate that, like the changes projected to be necessary to meet the coming 54-mpg CAFE standard, it will "add only about $3,000 to the price of an average car." Can we believe this?

Thank you for taking the time to present your concerns.

Send your “Ask Kevin” questions to We cannot guarantee a reply to every inquiry.