“It was so much easier when it was just carbies, plugs and points!” In these days, when bikes are loaded up with all sorts of electronic gizmos, that can indeed be true – especially when one of those electronic gizmos plays up. It was so much simpler before we had all this new electronic stuff!
The comment came from a member of an owners forum when I posted a question about an electronic glitch I was having with my bike.
One day I was about to head out for a ride, turned on the ignition, and the engine-trouble warning light stayed on. And instead of the odometer displaying how far I’d traveled, there was a number, “20.” I turned the ignition off, and back on again, but the same thing. This was obviously some kind of error-code, but what?
I put the riding gear away and pulled out the manual. All that did was confirm that the number was indeed an error code, and I should “Take the motorcycle to an authorised dealer”.
I decided to try starting it. It started normally and ran fine. But the warning light was still on and the error code still present.
It was a week-day, so, having turned the bike off again, I phoned my regular mechanic. He didn’t have a list of error-codes for my bike, so couldn’t help either, apart from saying that if the bike seemed to be running okay, then it couldn’t be anything serious. He alluded to the fact that today’s bikes have many different sensors that measure a variety of things, and it wasn’t uncommon for one of those sensors to report on something it wasn’t happy about – whether it was an actual fault or not. He referred me to a particular Yamaha dealer / workshop that he reckoned would have a list of these error codes. They didn’t. But they said they would phone the technical honchos at Yamaha and find out.
In the meantime I went back to the bike and tried it again. This time the warning-light went out, the error-code didn’t appear and everything seemed fine. So, I put the riding gear on and took it for a short run. The bike ran perfectly and no errant lights or numbers appeared.
That night I tried the internet, doing a general search and also posting a question on the afore-mentioned forum. That got me closer to the answer. I didn’t find any mention of my particular model, but owners of other Yamahas – most commonly the R6 – had reported seeing this code appear. I found a technical explanation that stated the code as indicating the following: “The voltage from the atmospheric air-pressure sensor is different to the voltage from the air-box air-pressure sensor.” Read that again slowly?! Okay, as voltage is the way sensors report things, what this was saying was that there are apparently two air-pressure sensors, one measuring atmospheric (meaning external) air-pressure and the other measuring air-pressure inside the air-box. And when this error-code appears, it means that the air-pressure readings are different. Or does it? In all but one post / reply, the problem was either a faulty sensor or a loose connection in the wiring somewhere. The one genuine fault was a blocked breather hose; and that did affect the running of the bike. One owner reported that the error code went out when he filled the tank with petrol.
A couple of days later the dealer / workshop called to tell me what I already knew. I asked if he knew where these sensors were located? He didn’t. But he said he would try to find out. He never got back to me on that.
Meanwhile, back in The Old Bloke’s shed, I tried starting the bike and everything was working fine, with no warning-lights or error-codes. Put it down to some electronic glitch that was now gone. So I went for a ride.
The following weekend I had a ride planned with a couple of mates. I started the bike and … the warning-light stayed on and “20” was showing again. Figuring that it wasn’t an actual fault (if there was a blocked hose, or the airbox was restricted somehow, the bike wouldn’t be running properly), I decided to go anyway. I had to get petrol though, and a few kilometers from our meeting place I pulled in and filled the bike. When I turned the ignition on – no warning-light or error-code! And it didn’t appear for the rest of the day. However, each time I tried it after that, the code did appear.
As it happened, the bike was due for a service, so I booked it in with my regular mechanic and asked him to check the wiring, and the sensors (if he could find them!).
On the way to the mechanic I had to stop at traffic lights. While stopped, I turned the engine off and re-started it. The warning light and error-code disappeared.
After the service, the mechanic said he had checked the wiring, including the connections to the sensors, and everything was fine. But, (of course!), the problem didn’t appear while he had the bike, so he couldn’t make any further diagnosis.
He suggested that if the problem persisted it would probably be a faulty sensor. He showed me where the sensors were, and guessed that the external one – which is located underneath the headlight – would be the most likely suspect. He said that, despite my experience and what I’d read on-line, the fuel-tank being filled couldn’t have any bearing on it. My theory – arguably confirmed by the traffic-light stop and start – was that it was more a matter of time. It only disappeared when that other owner (and I) filled the tank because it had been running for a certain time – long enough to convince the errant sensor that everything was okay after all.
Since then the problem hasn’t re-occurred: no warning light staying on, no error code coming up. The mechanic didn’t find anything wrong, so doesn’t know what he did to fix it – probably just checking the connections cleared what might have been a speck of dirt or something that befuddled the signal at that point.
Now, I reckon there are a couple of serious issues arising from this.
Firstly, sensors like these are put in place to report on malfunctions or potential problems due to some aspect of the bike not being right. But the number of sensors placed around a modern bike, and the associated control-units that receive the information and read them, have become incredibly numerous and complex – just take a look at the diagram at the top of this article, and the one on the left here.
So numerous and complex are they that, in a vast majority of cases, when they shout out a warning it is the sensor itself, or the wiring to it, that is the problem, not any actual fault with the bike.
Secondly, if we are going to have these error-codes, then mechanics – and especially dealers in that brand of bike – should be supplied with a list of what the codes are! It’s pretty poor when the owner has to go searching the internet to find out! (By the way, from what I saw, I think that Hondas might have the same code: so if you see this come up on your Honda, start looking for air-pressure sensors).
When relating this story to a couple of riding companions over lunch, they both bemoaned the problems with electronics on modern bikes. One had experienced the failure of his bike’s ECU, resulting in his bike coming to a sudden stop some 70km from home, and a costly replacement of the part: a part that, on older bikes with “just carbies, plugs and points”, wouldn’t be there at all! What hurt even more, was the fact that the manufacturer had acknowledged a fault with their ECU for this model bike and had issued a recall notice – but his particular bike was just outside the range of manufacturing dates covered by the recall.
The other friend mentioned that a particular brand of bike he knew of had experienced a lot of trouble with their ABS. He said that it had commonly been reported that the ABS either didn’t work at all, or came on too soon. And apparently the units were very expensive to fix!
(Note: I haven’t mentioned the brands, because I don’t want to cast aspersions on particular makes: that’s not the point of this article).
Electronics have been with us for quite a while now, so this isn’t exactly a new problem. I recall, some years ago, a guy bought a brand new bike that gave him a real headache. He said the bike ran fine until it went up a mountain not far from his home. Once at the higher altitude, a sensor somewhere decided that all was not well and switched the engine into “limp-home” mode. He subsequently trundled back home, with the bike running on a fraction of its normal power. Next day when he started it up to take it back to the dealer, it ran fine. So the dealer said there wasn’t a problem! After several frustrating attempts to ride beyond sea-level, one day when the bike went into its limp-home mode he rode straight to the dealer. Without turning the bike off, he had their mechanic take a look at it. Finally they could see (they weren’t the brightest lot!) that there actually was a problem. Of course it was some sort of air-pressure sensor. The change in atmosphere at the higher altitudes was enough to alert the sensor to the fact that something had changed: which it interpreted as a bad thing, a serious fault that required all-but-disabling the engine while it returned to home base. Eventually the sensor was replaced and the problem solved.
But sometimes it isn’t failures of these electronic gizmos, it’s a basic design flaw that causes problems. It was one such design flaw – along with my error code experience – that actually inspired this article. This was on an Indian Chieftan. (Yes, I’ve mentioned a brand here; but I’m just repeating what was written publicly – and this is so silly it deserves to be mentioned anyway!). In a road-test I read, the tester said that when he operated the throttle while holding the brake on, the engine malfunction warning light came on, and stayed on, requiring it to be re-set (I think by the dealer). When he asked the Indian people about this they just told him not to use the throttle and brake together. (So how do you do hill-starts!). That’d be annoying if you’d just shelled out $36,000 to find you had to alter your riding style, and endure some inconvenience, all to accommodate some poorly thought-out electronic design!
One aspect that worries me with all these electronic gizmos is their longevity, and the potential for problems as the vehicle ages. Modern cars, and increasingly bikes, often feature a host of electronic gizmos like traction-control, stability-control, parking / proximity sensors, rear-view cameras and so on; as well as all the operational sensors, such as the one I had trouble with. With car engines we now have stop-start technology: computer-controlled wizardry that shuts the engine off when you come to a stop, then starts it up again when you hit the accelerator to go. That’s supposed to save fuel, but it must put a lot of wear-and-tear on the starter-motor. And what happens if the electronic do-dah that controls that function develops a fault? Or any of the other multitude of electronic do-dahs?
Today's vehicles have way more things that can go wrong!
I was talking about this with a couple of similar-aged blokes recently and one said he was planning a trip, by car, around Australia. But he said he wasn’t going to take his modern car. “I’m going to buy an old Falcon or something like that: there’s less things to go wrong. And if something does go wrong, it’s easy to fix. If the engine stops, it’s either fuel or spark. If there’s no fuel, you pull the carby apart and clean it; or if there's no spark, you file the points and clean the distributor cap, stuff like that. And you’ll get it going. But with modern cars and all this electronic stuff, you wouldn’t know where to start! You can’t fix ‘em by the side of the road!” Now, I must admit, if I was going to drive (or ride) around Australia, I’d prefer to do it in a modern vehicle, because I like the way modern cars and bikes drive. I also like the air-con and greater comfort of modern cars, which are streets ahead of those old cars. And modern cars and bikes are, generally, very reliable. But he does have a point, doesn’t he! As he said, if you break down back-o’-Bourke somewhere, you’ve got a lot more chance of getting going again in an older car (or bike) that isn’t crippled by some electronic trickery playing up.
Looking further ahead, can you imagine what will happen when these cars and bikes – with their plethora of electronic gizmos that control almost every function of their operation – get to be twenty or thirty years old? I’m involved in the historic vehicle scene (cars more than bikes these days, although I’d like a classic bike!), and I think this poses a real threat to the future of classic vehicles. How many of those gadgets do you reckon will still be working by the time the vehicle reaches the age where it can be registered and used as a classic vehicle? And if they don’t work, in many cases that will mean that the car, or bike, won’t work. As I said, I think this puts a huge question mark over the viability of the whole classic vehicle movement when we look twenty years or so down the track.
Now, I must stress again that I do like modern vehicles; well, most of them anyway. Although there are certain trends, like the stop-start technology, that I particularly don’t like. But one reason I bought the particular model of bike I have – rather than an earlier version of the same model – is that it had fuel-injection rather than the old carbies. Fuel injection is, I think, more modern and efficient, and that was what I wanted. But if I did own one of the earlier carby models, I wouldn’t have had that week-day ride stopped because of some electronic trickery going on. 
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