February 5th, 2014 —
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Myths Busted: Anti-Lock Braking Systems

ABS Is Becoming More Common. Here’s Where The Tech Stands Today.

Story and photos by James Holter

Anti-lock braking system technology is not new. ABS has been available on production motorcycles since BMW introduced it in 1988. Since then, all major manufacturers have offered it, mostly as an option on more expensive models. But that is changing. For its 2012 models, BMW has made ABS standard on every motorcycle in its lineup.

Bosch’s Tim Ridley (right) and Jay Jackson

But while ABS is growing in popularity, many riders remain either unconvinced by the technology or unfamiliar with what it offers. That’s easy to understand. After all, the inexpensive and older motorcycles that many riders learn on don’t have ABS. Plus, even longtime motorcyclists who ride bikes equipped with the technology may have never been in a wheel-lockup situation that would have activated their ABS.

The AMA and invited guests of the association got a quick course in ABS this spring at the Bosch Proving Ground in Flat Rock, Mich. The facility is one location where Bosch tests and improves the systems it develops for major motorcycle and car manufacturers. These systems include ABS, traction control and electronic stability control.

Riders experienced cutting-edge ABS technology in a controlled testing environment. We also asked numerous questions about how ABS works (and doesn’t work). It was an eye-opening experience, even for those who have been riding ABS-equipped bikes for years.

It also was obvious that a number of myths persist in the motorcycling community about ABS—myths that were busted by both the testing experience and discussions with Bosch engineers before and after the ride.

Here’s what we learned.

Myth: ABS may allow you to stop with more control, but it will take you longer to come to a stop.

This myth is generally based on the assumption that a locked-up wheel provides the most traction possible. This isn’t true. A skidding tire has less traction than a tire that is not skidding.

Here’s how ABS works. Speed sensors measure the rotational speed of each wheel. If a wheel risks locking due to intense braking or slick conditions, the ABS unit modulates hydraulic pressure in the braking system. Not only does the system maintain the “sweet spot” of maximum stopping force that occurs before lockup, but by avoiding lock-up, the inertial effect of the spinning wheel is maintained, stabilizing the motorcycle.

By keeping the wheels from locking up and skidding when you grab the brakes, ABS not only allows you to maintain some control, but it allows you to stop in a shorter distance.

Myth: ABS modulates system pressure whenever you apply the brakes.

A lot of the rider bias against ABS is that the system is always active, modulating your brakes in all stopping instances and thereby affecting the riding experience. On the contrary, ABS only kicks in to prevent wheel lockup, such as during panic-stop situations or when you encounter black ice.

At other times, such as during typical controlled stops or slowing for corners, ABS does not affect how the brakes work.

Riding the Bosch development motorcycle with switchable ABS and safety outriggers installed on a reduced-friction service demonstrated without question the crash-prevention benefits of ABS technology.

Myth: All ABS systems work the same, making my sportbike stop like a big touring motorcycle.

Like any other computer-controlled function of your motorcycle—fuel injection, ignition curves, even valve timing on some bikes—ABS can be customized for a specific application.

In fact, today some ABS-equipped motorcycles offer different settings for different riding preferences or conditions. For example, a “rain” setting may activate the ABS sooner while a “track” setting may reduce the system’s modulating effects.

Myth: ABS is just another link in the system that can fail, and when it does I will have no brakes.

Not true. If the ABS unit fails, the braking system reverts to its traditional braking function.

Myth: ABS is dangerous off pavement.

It depends. In severe off-road situations, ABS does not always work very well. However, in most non-pavement environments, ABS-equipped motorcycles allow you to perform a panic stop or stop on slick surfaces with more control than non-ABS-equipped motorcycles.

An example of this type of scenario would be a sudden stop on a gravel road when a deer darts into your path. In this scenario, you would be able to use both brakes fully and come to a stop with more control on an ABS-equipped motorcycle than a motorcycle without ABS.

However, in true off-road situations, such as deep sand or very rough terrain, ABS may cause unwanted pressure modulations in the brake system.

These types of conditions are rampant in off-road situations, such as single-track trail. This is why it’s critical that ABS is optional equipment for dual-sport motorcycles and, when ABS is installed, an override switch is available so the rider can turn the system off when the bike is going to be ridden in true off-road environments.

Also, don’t forget that ABS is not always working: Unless you are in a wheel lockup situation, the ABS will not modulate the pressure in the braking system.

Test rider Mike Graham practices hard stops in a controlled setting on Bosch's test track.

Myth: ABS can overcome a lack of riding skill.

Absolutely not. Neither ABS nor any other type of motorcycle technology can replace experience and proper training. For example, a rider who has not learned how to properly use the front brake will not stop effectively and safelty using just the rear brake, whether the motorcycle is equipped with ABS or not.

Myth: ABS only works with the rear wheel.

This is a strange one, but it’s nevertheless an assumption that we’ve come across in anti-ABS discussions with riders. ABS works with both the front and rear wheels to prevent lock-up. In fact, for most riders who brake most heavily with the front brake in wheel-lockup situations, the technology is probably more effective with the front brake.

Myth/Fact: ABS requires you to re-learn how to brake.

ABS does not affect typical braking function and, therefore, won’t affect how you brake your motorcycle in these situations. However, experienced riders admit that the presence of ABS may change their technique in some scenarios.

If you accept that ABS will modulate the brakes more effectively in a panic-stop scenario, experienced riders say they would be best served by simply braking hard and focusing on keeping the motorcycle upright.

That said, these same riders caution that more research, testing and curriculum development is necessary to make any definitive statements about exactly how ABS should impact hard-braking technique.

Myth/Fact: ABS is difficult to maintain.

This depends on the motorcycle—and the motorcycle owner. Certainly, some owners can service their ABS-equipped motorcycles just fine.

Others prefer to take their bike to the dealer. Consult your manual, honestly assess your own abilities and proceed with caution.

The good news, though, is that all modern braking systems—those with ABS and without—have relatively lenient maintenance schedules. Again, consult your manual.

A professional rider demonstrates Bosch ABS techonology at the 2011 International Automotive Press Briefing in Boxberg, Germany. Photo credit: Bosch

Myth/Fact: ABS-equipped bikes are not safer. It’s just that riders who can afford and buy motorcycles that have ABS are more experienced and safer riders.

Without a doubt, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Raw data that show bikes with ABS are involved in fewer crashes than bikes without ABS cannot be taken at face value as proof that ABS makes motorcycles safer.

That said, anecdotal experience suggests that the technology has significant safety benefits. After all, when interviewed about their experience with ABS in panic-stop and low-traction scenarios, longtime riders with a variety of backgrounds insist that the technology works (see “Testing Grounds: Experiencing ABS,” page 49).

What can’t be overlooked, however, is that while ABS has its benefits, there is one big caveat: safety will always begin with the rider. In other words, a skilled rider on a non-ABS-equipped bike will always be safer than an unskilled rider on an ABS-equipped bike.

After all, the key to not crashing is to avoid situations that make you likely to crash in the first place. This is where riding training and experience come into play. Ultimately, consumers will determine whether ABS becomes the defacto standard, but in the meantime, riders already have a healthy spectrum of choices available to them in the marketplace.

Testing Grounds: Experiencing ABS

Riding is believing, and this spring, several riders were turned on to the benefits of ABS at the Bosch Proving Ground in Flat Rock, Mich. Not only did participants experience production ABS on 2012 BMW motorcycles, but Bosch also provided access to a test unit fitted with safety outriggers that allowed testing on reduced-friction surfaces, such as deep gravel and wetted basalt that was formulated to replicate the slickness of ice.

Here are some quick impressions.

Imre Szauter, AMA Government Affairs Manager
My experience at the Bosch Proving Ground was confidence inspiring, to say the least. While I’ve owned two motorcycles equipped with ABS, riding the Bosch development motorcycle equipped with outriggers allowed me to significantly expand my braking technique. Especially on the reduced-friction surface, being able to switch the ABS on and off and still safely grab a handful of front brake was eye-opening. Testing the limits of one’s ability to safely stop a motorcycle is a life skill each rider should practice. However, not many riders find the right conditions under which they’re willing to experiment. Advanced rider training and track days provide some riders this opportunity, but adding technology such as ABS may increase a rider’s confidence in his or her ability to safely handle an emergency. Without a doubt, hard braking and safely stopping on the BMW S1000RR under various conditions opened my eyes to what is possible when technology, confidence and practice are combined. Under what’s best described as panic straight-line braking under wet and dry conditions, I was confidently able to stop this motorcycle in a shorter distance than possible without ABS. Street riding is a never-ending change of traction scenarios, so technical enhancements such as ABS may make a difference in everyday rider safety.

Michelle Matheron, Motorcycle Safety Foundation Certified RiderCoach Trainer
I think there needs to be training on ABS—an advanced safety course or practice in a safe location, working up to stops from higher speeds. Threshold braking still needs to be practiced, too, and you always want to think ahead and ride to reduce the need for those skills. ABS stops on a wet surface felt almost like dry pavement stops and were definitely shorter than I was willing to attempt without ABS. Even with focused practice, I don’t think I could stop shorter than ABS on the BMW S1000RR, and I definitely couldn’t beat it on a wet surface.

Jay Jackson, Executive Director, ABATE of Indiana, and MSF Certified RiderCoach Trainer
Prior to spending the day at the Bosch Proving Grounds riding a number of motorcycles under different conditions, I don’t believe I had strong opinions about ABS. I had assumed that ABS could be helpful in a panic situation or for inexperienced riders who have not fully developed their braking skills. Prior to experiencing the technology at the Bosch Proving Ground, I was convinced that veteran motorcyclists utilizing the proper technique could stop as well or better without ABS.

Furthermore, I was locked into the stomp-and-steer mentality and thought the only way the system worked was to “grab a handful” of brake. However, using the technique that I have practiced and developed for about 40 years was not compromised or diminished by the presence of ABS. While it did take some time to gain the confidence to brake hard in some of the reduced-traction environments (wet pavement, loose gravel and simulated ice), the results were quite impressive.

As much as I’d like to believe that I could, I don’t think that I could stop in a shorter distance on any surface without ABS.

Mike Graham, MSF Certified RiderCoach and amateur roadracer
I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive going into the ABS testing environment, but tried to keep an open mind. After riding the development motorcycle with outriggers on the wet basalt tiles, with and without ABS turned on, I came away a believer. On limited traction surfaces with ABS, you have the confidence to brake every bit as hard as you need without the bike doing anything unsettling. It’s a real advancement in rider safety.