SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Honda puts the first air bag on a production motorcycle this summer, it will be seen as more than just a safety innovation. It will confirm the trend that many features and technologies found on today’s cars are now being offered on bikes.

That includes fancy stereos, satellite radio and navigation systems.

The motorcycle with the air bag, a Honda Gold Wing with all sorts of premium upgrades, will likely sell for $23,000 to $25,000. The company said it expects it to help reduce fatalities and serious injuries.

“We hope none of them ever get deployed,” said Gary Christopher, a spokesman for American Honda’s motorcycle products.

But the Japanese manufacturer spent 15 years perfecting the technology. That includes figuring out packaging problems and how to make it effective without being overly sensitive. In the end, Christopher said, Honda engineers had to create their own set of crash-test dummies because the ones used for cars and trucks didn’t work well for motorcycles.

Airbag challenge

“It was a very challenging technological exercise for our folks,” he said.

In a car, an air bag works as a supplemental safety system to the seat belts that keep occupants fixed in the proper position. On a motorcycle, there are no seat belts.

That’s why Honda installed a bag with tethers that propels it and steadies it to absorb a rider’s forward motion during a front-end collision, the most deadly kind. Two sensors are placed on the bike’s forks to detect a severe front-end crash, but not a pothole or a large piece of wood, Christopher said.

It works best on a Gold Wing, due to the bike’s size and weight. Also, that’s the bike that gets the highest mileage use, worldwide, in all sorts of weather. “Those riders have more exposure to potential accidents,” he said.

He expects Honda’s rivals to see how well the technology works and how popular it is with buyers before deciding to adopt it for themselves.

Mitch Boehm, editor in chief of Motorcyclist magazine, isn’t so sure.

“No one’s shown how they’ll actually prevent injury as far as I can tell,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “They would seem to prevent riders from getting thrown into the bike’s windscreen and dashboard, but then what? Head first into the street or, worse yet, a fence or light pole?”

Of 42,643 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2003, 3,661 were riding on motorcycles.

Useful, fun gadgets

Boehm sees other innovations, such as navigation systems and satellite radios, as more attractive.

“They’re highly useful and fun to mess with,” he said. “And motorcyclists like gadgets – most of them, anyway.”

Robert Pandya, a spokesman for the Cycle World International Motorcycle Show held in San Jose in December, said technologies ranging from variable-valve engines to anti-lock brakes first became popular in motorcycles before being used on passenger cars.

But now the trend is going the other way. BMW, Harley-Davidson and others offer satellite radio on some of their bikes, and that’s a popular choice in the motorcycle after-market. Navigation systems can be found on Honda and BMW bikes and others.

“You can get yourself in the middle of Montana and not know where you are,” Pandya said, explaining the benefits of a GPS-based navigation system.

Kawasaki is working on a sound system inside a rider’s helmet that offers AM, FM and satellite radio – either XM or Sirius. There’s also an intercom function that allows conversation with a passenger.

It’ll be offered in the middle of 2006 as an accessory. “It’s pretty revolutionary,” said Jeff Herzog, a Kawasaki spokesman. “It’s mainly geared toward the long-distance rider. It totally changes the riding experience.”

Despite the coming of new features, motorcycle makers say they don’t want to create anything that’s too much like riding in a car.

“When you’re in a car, and you’ve got all these comfort features, you’re traveling through the scenery,” said Herzog. “When you’re on a bike, you’re part of the scenery.

“We don’t want it to become a two-wheel car,” he said.

“And there are not going to be any cup holders on bikes anytime soon,” Pandya said.


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