Active Motorcycle Suspension and Why It Didn't Happen

Ignore anything you read that claims the electronics damping systems recently introduced by Ducati and are 'active' suspension; they're nothing but a shadow of the true active suspension system that, 20 years ago, looked certain to replace the springs and dampers that have been with motorcycles since the down of the last century.

Developed over a decade in Formula 1 racing, the idea of real active suspension, as opposed to the merely adjustable or adaptive damping systems that are just starting on motorcycles, was to get rid of conventional springs and dampers entirely, replacing them with computer-controlled hydraulic rams. Initially heavy, complex and unreliable, the system's benefits were so clear – it could completely eliminate pitching and diving, alter ride height on the move – engineers stuck with it until, in racing terms at least, it was perfected.

Just the same benefits it offered to cars, such as Nigel Mansell's 1992 championship-dominating Formula 1 Williams car, also applied on the road, with various prototypes – particularly several Lotus machines – and a few production cars from Toyota and Nissan proving just how effective it could be. Motorcycle companies weren't slow to pick up on the idea; in the late '80s and early '90s a slew of non-running concept motorcycles featured vague claims of 'active' suspension, although none actually ran with such a system.
With a full active suspension arrangement, the computers are just as important as the mechanical parts. Sensing the tiniest alterations in pitch – whether caused by bumps in the road or acceleration or braking – they would physically move the appropriate wheel up or down. In theory, the result was luxurious ride comfort combined with race-stiff handling, and every indication was that it worked, too.

Later on, ideas including replacing the complex hydraulics – which needed a pump and accumulator as well as huge amounts of pipe, all capable of withstanding as much as 100 times atmospheric pressure – with relatively simple electronics, appeared set to bring the idea to the masses. Using electromagnetic actuators rather than hydraulic rams allowed the suspension to react even faster and eliminated the need for an additional high-pressure hydraulic system.

As with so many ideas, it never made it to motorcycles simply because it wasn't adopted in the average production car; we rely on mass production by the automotive industry to bring down costs sufficiently to incorporate it onto motorcycles and scooters. The few production machines to get the system – such as Toyota's 1989 Celica Active Sports and Nissan's Infiniti Q45 model the same year – were more expensive than their conventional siblings and never caught on with conventionally-sprung models. By then, active suspension was banned in racing because it was too successful, taking it out of the limelight and robbing the technology of the invaluable PR that would have made it so desirable.
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