New Motorcycle Traffic Study Initiated

For the first time since 1981’s Hurt Report, the  Federal Highway Administration is beginning a comprehensive study of traffic safety as it relates to motorcycles.

A significant new motorcycle crash causation study will soon get under way at Oklahoma State University (OSU). Formally announced by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on Oct. 5, the study will give motorcyclists and others concerned with highway safety a fuller picture of how motorcycles fit into today’s traffic mix, a better understanding of what causes motorcycle crashes, and insights into the best strategies to prevent these crashes.

“The announcement that the full study will now begin is great news,” said Ed Moreland, AMA vice president for government relations. “While the study will take years to complete, it promises to offer up information that will allow for the creation of effective countermeasures to make the roads safer for all of us.”

The last major motorcycle crash study, called “Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures,” commonly known as the Hurt Report (named after lead researcher Harry Hurt), was published in 1981. It provided a wealth of data that has been used to develop training and strategies to help keep riders safer on the road. In the decades since, the traffic environment has changed enormously, prompting the AMA to begin campaigning for a new study several years ago.

“There is certainly a lot more traffic now than when Harry Hurt and his team did their research,” Moreland said. “SUVs didn’t exist back then, and motorcycles have advanced light years in technology. On top of that, distracted driving poses a significant safety challenge. We will certainly learn a lot from this new study.”

The FHWA is overseeing the OSU project, which will be administered at the Oklahoma Transportation Center, an independent and well-respected research facility in Stillwater.

It will be interesting to see how the changes of the past 28 years will affect the conclusions of the study.

2010 Honda VFR1200F

After months of anticipation, Honda released the images, specifications, and availability details of the new VFR replacement, the VFR1200F.

Let’s start with the pictures.  Shown below is the only version that will appear in the US,with its red livery.  Why the euros get multiple color choices, and we have to be satisfied with a single color is beyond me, but here it is.  Click the thumbnails to enlarge.

I have to say right up front that the looks don’t grab me.  The blunt nose with the odd-shaped headlight just don’t do it for me.  Maybe the look will grow on me, but the first impression doesn’t…impress.

The specs for the bike are more to my liking, and pretty interesting.

First up, it’s a serious step up in power from the current generation VFR.  Honda claims an output of 170HP at 10,000RPM and 95lb-ft of torque at 8,750RPM from the 1237cc V-4 power plant.  However you slice it, those are very respectable numbers, and a big leap from the current VFR.  The engine also sports variable cylinder technology that uses two, three, or four cylinders, depending on throttle input.  The four cylinders are set at different angles, with the rear two cylinders located innermost on the crankshaft and the front cylinders located outboard in order to narrow the rider’s seating position.

The buyer will have a choice of transmissions.   You can choose a standard 6-speed transmission, or spring for the dual-clutch 6-speed transmission, with  a manual mode that shifts via a finger paddle on the handlebars, a la the FJR1300AE, and two automatic options: one for sport, which takes each gear to the redline before shifting, or a short-shifting economy mode. Power gets from the tranny to the rear wheel via a brand new shaft drive system that sports an offset pivot point and sliding constant-velocity joint to eliminate driveline lash.

Rear suspension for the VFR is a Honda Pro Arm® single-sided swingarm with single gas-charged shock with a remote spring preload adjuster, adjustable rebound damping and 5.1 inches of travel.  Front suspension is provided by a 43mm inverted cartridge fork with adjustable spring preload and 4.7 inches of travel.  But not, apparently, rebound damping.  The latter may be a consideration for some.

You may have already noticed the two-tone fairing.  That’s part of Honda’s new air management system. Honda calls this “layered fairing technology”, and explains it as follows:

By effectively increasing the speed of the air by channelling it through smaller apertures before it reaches the radiators, engine cooling is optimized and the hot, exhausted air is channelled away from the rider and passenger for a cooler, more comfortable ride. The heat generated by the powerful, enclosed V4 engine is also channelled away to keep hot air away from the rider.

Apparently, Honda gave some thought to heat management in precisely the way that Yamaha and Kawasaki did not when creating the first gen FJR and Concours14.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear they gave as much thought to travel range, with the VFR1200F having only a 4.9 gal tank.  This is a serious deficiency if the VFR is supposed to do any serious touring.  Even worse is the claimed 36.5 MPG fuel efficiency.  Taking Honda’s claims at face value give the VFR1200F a maximum fuel range of 179 miles.  Both the efficiency and range seem a bit low for a bike that uses variable cylinder technology for economy.  In fact, that’s just plain low, no matter what.  This is the biggest disappointment I can see from the claimed specs.  It’s a gas hog with a small tank.  Great.

It’s also a pretty big bike–though significantly smaller than the ST1300–with a curb weight (full of gas and ready to ride) of 591lbs for the standard transmission model and 613 lbs for the super-tranny version.  It’s still lighter than an FJR or Connie, but significantly heavier than most sport bikes.

Bringing all that weight to a stop comes from dual full-floating 320mm discs with CBS six-piston calipers with ABS in front, and a single 276mm disc with CBS two-piston caliper with ABS out back.  Supporting it all is a vacuum-molded, cast aluminum chassis.

And if you want to add a little more weight, there are several accessories for the VFR.  There are fairing extenders to get your hands out of the wind.  Windshield extenders to do the same for your head.  There’s full luggage–albeit somewhat smaller than the usual run of touring bike luggage–for long trips.  There’s even a navigator, so you wont get lost.  For a brand new bike, Honda seems to have really gone all out to provide lots of farkles for it.

So, now we’ve seen the pics, and we’ve read the specs.  And I have just one question about the VFR1200F.

What is it?

Is it a sport bike?  if so it seems awfully big for it. Hustling a 600 lb bike through the twisties can be done, of course, but all that extra weight has inertia to match, which limits its canyon-carving ability.

Is it a touring bike?  Then why is the tank so small, fuel range so compromised, and the luggage so downsized?

Is it a ‘Busa-style superbike?  Then why only 170 horses?  Ultimately, a ‘Busa or ZX-14 will be admiring it in their rear-views.

The more I look at it, the more it seems like a niche bike without a…niche.

I really wanted to be impressed with this bike.  I thought that with all the new technology we’d be getting…I dunno…more.  What it is, though, seems like a bastardized compromise between a sportbike and a sport-tourer that does neither of those things very well.  For a sportbike, I’d want it lighter, with a shorter wheelbase.  For a tourer, I’d want better mileage and range.

Of course, if you want a compromise bike, it seems like the VFR1200F will deliver that in spades.

y effectively increasing the speed of the air by channelling it through smaller apertures before it reaches the radiators, engine cooling is optimized and the hot, exhausted air is channelled away from the rider and passenger for a cooler, more comfortable ride. The heat generated by the powerful, enclosed V4 engine is also channelled away to keep hot air away from the rider.

Buell’s Future Uncertain?

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Since Kieth Wandell took over from Jim Ziemer as the CEO of Harley-Davidson, analyst expectections have been that Wandell, an outsider bought in as CEO from Milwaukee-based automotive supplier Johnson Controls, would be a strong, take-charge leader who is well-suited to address the MoCo’s current challenges. One of those challenges may be Erik Buell, and Buell Motorcycles division.  A confidential source with high-level contacts inside Harley-Davidson informs me that a number of H-D executives will be pushing to have the company divest itself of Buell Motorcycles, and that a decision to sell or shut down Buell may come in the near future.

The word is that both Buell and Harley-Davidson have found the relationship unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, including the company’s refusal to allow Buell to outsource anything but Evolution V-Twins for several years, and Erik Buell’s strained personal relations with a number of MoCo executives. With a company outsider who has no particular vested interest taking over the helm as CEO, and devastatingly bad sales results due to the current recession, some Harley executives believe that this would be the perfect time to kill the Buell division.  If so, it would be a sad close to an overall sad chapter at Harley-Davidson.

In my view, Harley’s stewardship of Buell Motorcycles has been a classic case of a missed opportunity. The acquisition of Buell was a great opportunity for the MoCo to develop a line of race-bred sportbikes that could have made Harley a serious contender in that market.  But, Harley-Davidson blew it.

The company’s refusal to allow Buell to use any engine but the air-cooled, V-Twin, Sportster-derived Evolution engine effectively throttled Buell from the very beginning.  Whatever advantages may have accrued from implementing the Buell “trilogy of tech” in a sporting motorcycle were largely negated by the use of the underpowered Evolution powerplant.  Harley seems not to have understood that creating a technically sophisticated sportbike that would get its lunch eaten by any 600cc sportbike produced by the Big Four was nothing but a recipe for failure.

Ironically, elements of the Buell “trilogy of tech”, especially mass centralization and low unsprung weight have shown up in competing sportbikes.  For instance, the 2010 BMW S1000RR utilizes an under-body muffler arrangement very similar to Buell’s.  So, clearly, the problem isn’t Buell’s technology, but rather the use to which it was put, prior to the release of the 1125R in 2008.

Harley also alienated its dealers by forcing them to accept consignments of Buell motorcycles that they didn’t want to sell, and, in many cases, knew they couldn’t sell.  Not only were they being required to sell a sportbike that almost no one wanted–as Buell’s 2% market share of sportbike sales indicates–the MoCo never adequately invested in dealer training, in either the sales or service departments.

This is not to say that Erik Buell has been blameless either.  He is reputed to be abrasive and difficult to work with by many H-D executives.  This has resulted in bad feelings among executives that has made them less likely to give Mr. Buell’s opinions about the direction of Buell Motorcycles any serious consideration.

Moreover, Buell’s  marketing and public relations have been marked by avoidable mistakes.  For instance, the press reveal of the 2008 1125R–the only bike with Buell makes with a non-Sportster powerplant–was a disaster.  Buell used pre-production bikes with faulty fuel management and suspension issues for the demonstrations given to the international motorcycling press.  As a result, the general impression given by the media was of a mediocre bike with poor fueling, wallowy suspension, and quality control issues.   Rather than waiting until the company had ironed out those issues satisfactorily, Buell went ahead with the reveal, which resulted in doing more harm than good to the bike’s image.  Most recently, Buell’s callous dismissal of the Blast model for the 2010 model year, replete with disparaging comments about the bike, alienated many observers–not only in the press, but among Buell’s customer base as well.

If the anti-Buell Harley execs get their way, this long litany of failure will come to an end by pushing Buell out the door.

Dealers Fined

Here in California, there are a few state agencies you really don’t want to cross if you’re a business.  One of them is the State Board of Equalization, the agency that handles sales taxation.  But perhaps even more dreadful is the California Air Resources Board.  Two motorcycle dealerships here in San Diego are learning that the hard way.

GP Motorcycles of San Diego and Moto Forza will each pay $90,000 in fines, according to CARB.

ARB investigators following up on a tip received in 2006 confirmed that GP Motorcycles and Moto Forza were selling Husqvarna off-road motorcycles illegally converted to street-legal models.

According to the ARB, many of the bikes were outfitted with so-called “street legal” kits, which are illegal in California.

California has its own, special environmental requirements that are different from the other 49 states.  That’s the reason why the Versys was initially unavailable in California, and it took an extra year or two get it certified here.  In any event, the penalties don’t just extend to the dealers.  The purchasers have to toe the line as well.

The CARB revoked the registrations for the motorcycles. The owners were told to turn in their license plates and get off-road stickers and plates.

So, they bought what they thought were street legal dual-sports, and now they have to license them for off-road use only.  I suspect that they will be asking for some recompense from GP and Moto Forza.

Interestingly, the dealers are the two local dealers for Italian bikes.

No Smog Testing in California

A bill was wending its way through the California legislature that would mandate regular emissions testing for motorcycles in the state.  Senate Bill 435 proposed to make emissions testing mandatory for motorcycles, on the same basis as cars.

But, the legislature has dropped hearings on it for the 2009 session.  it’s a two-year bill, which means it’s still not dead, and can be resurrected in the 2010 session.  But for now, motorcycle smog checks have been tabled in California.

It’s Official: Harley’s Going to India

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There’s been lot’s of buzz about this, but Harley-Davidson has made it official:  The Motor Compnay will expand into india in 2010.  Clearly, they’re hoping to recoup some of their losses from the disastrous decline of sales in the the US Motorcycle market.  According to HD’s press release:

“India is important to our long-term vision of being a truly global company,” said Harley-Davidson Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Keith Wandell. “We are committed to India for the long term, and we are focused right now on establishing a strong foundation.”

India is the second-largest motorcycle market in the world, with sales dominated by small, inexpensive bikes used as basic transportation. However, India’s rapidly growing economy, rising middle class and significant investment in construction of new highways have opened the door to leisure motorcycle riding.

Whether it will have opened the door wide enough for Harley to make some sales there is still an open question, since the move is not without risk.

First, despite its recent economic growth, India is a desperately poor country.  To the extent that more people can afford to ride motorcycles there, they are riding inexpensive, sub 650cc bikes, not large, expensive Harley-Davidsons.  As I’ve mentioned before, Harley simply doesn’t have a motorcycle that can fit the bill for a developing country, namely a small, inexpensive motorcycle.

On top of that, India is a severely protectionist country, with a 105% import duty on motorcycles.  That means a $10,000 Sportster becomes a $20,000 Sportster in India.  I’m not sure how many units they’re going to sell in a country where the annual average income is $1,100.

Third, India, being a desperately poor country, has an infrastructure to match, i.e., roads in horrifically bad repair, which are not the best placed to be ploughing along on a 600-pound+ motorcycle.

Harley’s main competitor there will also be homegrown firms like India’s Royal Enfield motorcycles, who make little 125cc and 250cc thumpers.  Royal Enfield has, in fact, done very well, and has seen huge sales growth in India.

But, then again, they aren’t asking people to give them 20 years worth of income for a motorcycle.

One also notes that Suzuki and honda are already in India.  The difference being that they are both manufacturing motorcycles there, and thus avoiding import duties.  They are also concentrating on entry level (sub 125cc) motorcycles, and standard 125cc-250cc motorcycles.  Suzuki recently announced that their entry-level motorcycle operations are expected to break even this year.

Mongols Beat the Government

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I don’t hold any particular brief for Motorcycle “Clubs” like the Angels or the Mongols, but it’s nice to see the government slapped down when it goes a little too far.

Mongols Patch
Mongols Patch

The U.S. Government has been going after the Mongols for a while–and the Mongols do have some unsavory characters in their membership.  But the government didn’t just go after individuals, they went after the club’s logo.  Under RICO, they tried to strip the Mongols of their logo, and make it the property of the government. After getting a preliminary ruling allowing them to do so, the Feds have being going into private property of American citizens to confiscate patches, breaking into cars and homes to do so.

But, they got that slapped down in Federal Court.  Judge Florence-Marie Cooper has ruled that a) the government can’t take the trademark, and b) even if they could, they have no right to go around confiscating patches or other items containing the mark from private citizens who are not under indictment.

…even if the Court were to assume that the collective membership mark is subject to forfeiture, the Court finds no statutory authority to seize property bearing the mark from third parties…. only defendants’ interests in the RICO enterprise and the proceeds from their racketeering activity are subject to forfeiture.

So, the Mongols get to keep their patch, and the Feds have to stop making searches and seizures on the basis of merely possessing it.

Snell Updates Helmet Standards

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When you buy a motorcycle helmet, you usually look for the big DOT sticker on the back, since most states with helmet laws require the helmet to be certified by the US Department of Transportation.  But of you’re really serious about trying to keep your noggin in one piece, you look for the sticker from Snell, or as its formal name is, the Snell Memorial Safety Foundation.

But, for a while now, there’s been a conflict between Snell and the DOT–and the international ECE 22-05–safety standards.  Both DOT and ECE use a variety of different dummy head sizes and weights for different helmets in promulgating their approval.  Snell on the other hand, uses the same 11-pound dummy head weight, irrespective of the size, and they’ve repeatedly said that there’s no indication that different head sizes have significantly different weights.  So, they’ve said graduated head weight standards don’t provide adequate protection to an 11-pound head.

Now, this is kind of an important argument.  You see, if you have an 8-pound head, and your helmet is designed to cushion an 11-pound head, then the helmet may be too rigid to properly protect your head.  Sure, it’s great for the melon-heads, but the pinheads might get their skull scrambled, because the lower weight of your pinhead is too small to make the cushioning give enough.  The reverse is also true.  If you’re a melon-head, then a pinhead’s helmet will be too soft to protect you, and the helmet will come apart like an old shoe, and you’ll bump your skull on the pavement.

Either way, the end result is a Bad Thing if the helmet size and your head’s weight don’t match.

Well, now, after years of argument against the DOT and ECE standard, Snell is saying, “Never mind.”  In the brand new M2010 standard, Snell has looked at actual studies of the head weights of actual dead people, and decided that DOT was right after all.  Different sized heads do have significant weight differences.

So, as of the M2010 standard, Snell has adopted pretty much the same head profiles as ECE.  In addition, Snell has also lowered the number of gravities the helmet is allowed to transmit to your skull from 300 g’s to 275 g’s.  Both moves offer greater head protection, although, unfortunately, that also means that if you’re a pinhead with a Snell M2005 sticker, you’re helmet fails the M2010 standard.  You might as well just whack your skull with a hammer right now for all the good that helmet will do you.

So, important helmet buying tip:  The new M2010-standard helmets will be hitting store shelves on October 1st, 2009. But, manufacturers can make M2005-standard helmets for another couple of years, and sell them for…ever.  So, you have to be sure that you look for the Snell M2010 sticker on the helmet if that’s what you really want.

On the bright side, this now means that a Snell-certified helmet will also meet DOT and ECE standards right across the board, no matter what size of melon you’re sporting.

Unless, of course, you’re buying a modular helmet, which, as far as I know, don’t exist in Snell-certified form.

Norton Goes For a Record

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Norton Motorcycles, the iconic British motorcycle brand recently resurrected by Stuart Garner, packed up their rotary-engined NRV588 racing motorcycle and left Britain today.  Their destination: The Bonneville Salt Flats, right here in the US of A, where Garner himself will attempt to pilot the bike to a land speed record.

If Garner is successful, the NRV588 will set the world land speed record for a rotary motorcycle.

And, speaking of the NRV, Norton has a road-going edition of this racer in the works.  It’s no where near as pretty as a 1991 Commander F1, but, it’ll probably be a whole lot faster.  They are being hand-built in Norton’s Donington Park factory, even as I write this.

The Norton NRV588, ready to be packed off to the Salt Flats earlier today.
The Norton NRV588, ready to be packed off to the Salt Flats earlier today.

Oh, and since I mentioned it…

1991 Norton Commander F1 John Player Special
1991 Norton Commander F1 John Player Special

I think there’s 55 of these left in the whole world.

The Great California Garage Sale

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If you’d like to add another motorcycle–or two–to your garage, and you don’t have the scratch for a new one, then you might be interested in the Great California Garage Sale going on in Sacramento this week.  As you may have heard, the state of California is…ummm…a bit short of cash.  So the state is going all out and selling cars, motorcycles, computers, and just about everything else they can think of in a big state garage sale.  The sale and auction will take place in Sacramento on Friday and Saturday, 28-29 Aug 09.

They’ve got at least 5 BMW R1150RTP’s from the highway patrol, which you could probably pick up for a decent price. I’ve seen some other bikes listed there, too, probably confiscated from drug dealers and whatnot.

You’ll probably get a better price there than you would from a regular dealer, anyway.

Japan Outsources Motorcycle Production

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According to Bloomberg, Kawasaki will be switching motorcycle production out of Japan, to Thailand.  The first production shift will be medium and large motorcycles as early as this year..  It seems that Kawasaki may also be joined there by Honda, which is also considering shifting production of medium-sized motorcycles to that country.

This will mark the first time a Japanese manufacturer has begun production for export in a developing country.  The company cites lower labor costs for the move.

Those BMW Guys Get All the Nice Stuff

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BMW and Garmin have released a new motorcycle navigation device for BMW motorcycles, the BMW Navigator IV. It sounds very nice.

With a new slim design and custom BMW four-button mount cradle, the BMW Navigator IV includes a bright widescreen 4.3 inch display and waterproof design, configurable fields and display, stereo Bluetooth for hands-free calling, turn-by-turn directions and lane assist features with lane guidance and junction view.

 BMW Motorrad Navigator IV
BMW Motorrad Navigator IV

Of course, it’s specifically designed to be used while wearing gloves, too. It’s also got a lane assist feature that guides you through multiple lanes, and even displays road signs on the screen that look like the actual signs you see over the highway.

And, since it’s a BMW device, plan on shelling out about $1,000 for it, too.

BMWs are really the Swiss Army Knives of motorcycles.  BMW riders get spoken, turn by turn navigation through their Bluetooth-linked helmets.  Meanwhile, a gentleman such as myself, who rides an FJR, has to carry around paper maps like an animal.