Yamaha presents ebikes with 2WD and ... power steering?
Yamaha's 2WD systems produced absolutely wild results in both dirt and street motorcycles, according to riders – but they never broke through commercially. Now it's taking 2WD to the ebike world, along with ... electric power steering for bicycles?
It's absolutely astonishing what an accomplished dirt rider can do with a single driven wheel, but it's equally astonishing that the AWD concept has never caught on in the motorcycle world, when it's all but mandatory in 4-wheel off-roading. When traction is limited, there's a huge benefit in sending some drive through the front wheel as well. 2WD bikes go faster and they offer better traction.
No major manufacturer knows this as well as Yamaha. In the early 90s, Yamaha was the majority owner of Ohlins suspension, and the two companies teamed up to develop a motorcycle 2WD system. The front wheel was driven hydraulically by a high-speed pump above the gearbox.
The system made it into very limited production in 2004, aboard 250 WR450 2-Trac dirt bikes – at the time, our publisher Mike Hanlon proclaimed it "one of the most significant moves in motorcycle history." But costs were high on such a short run, and Yamaha never homologated the system for the road, so it wasn't a commercial success.
But those who got to ride them universally noticed how much cornering stability and agility the system added – indeed, the main complaints from gun riders were that they couldn't throw the back wheel out sideways as easily, and that it didn't feel as fast or exciting because the back wheel was gripping instead of spinning up and throwing big rooster tails of dirt out the back.
But it was fast; Yamaha claimed a 10% advantage in off-road cornering speed, and found an extremely potent and high-profile way to demonstrate its prowess. Rookie David Frétigné rode a WR450 2-Trac in the 2004 Dakar Rally, dominated the 450cc class and finished 7th overall, behind several much more powerful bikes – an incredible achievement.
On tarmac-based superbikes, the results were reportedly even more astounding. Ohlins R&D manager of Future Projects Lars Jansson told MCN in 2009 that a Yamaha R1 fitted with hydraulic two-wheel-drive was a full five seconds faster around the Kelskoga racetrack in Sweden than a standard R1 in the wet. And despite the 8-kg (18-lb) weight penalty, it was a full two seconds faster in the dry as well. The closer you rode to the limits of traction, the greater the benefit was, preventing understeer and pulling a bike toward the apex of corners on the throttle.
Jansson thought the system offered significant performance benefits to nearly all categories of motorcycle, all the way up to MotoGP racers, and Ohlins fitted 2WD demonstration systems to tourers, sportsbikes, adventure bikes and dirt squirters from four different manufacturers from Japan and Europe. None of them chose to take it forward.
It's clearly remained an idea close to Yamaha's heart, though, as 2WD systems have popped up on several notable concept bikes over the years, including the PES Electric Road Sports Bike above, and the barking mad "Deinonychus" concept below, which also had fully electrically adjustable geometry and ergonomics.
All of which is to say that 2WD systems in Yamaha motorcycles are one of the great "what could've been" stories in the two-wheeled world.
But the company isn't giving up altogether. As well as pianos and R1s, Yamaha has been getting into the ebike business in recent years. And at next weekend's Japanese Mobility Show expo, it's presenting a pair of interesting electric bicycles.
One is the Y-01W AWD, which Yamaha describes as an "adventure eBike." It's a bit of an odd duck to look at; a hard-tail gravel tourer with a rear rack, semi-fat tires, drop bars and an aero bar at the front with forearm rests. It's fitted with dual batteries for long-range riding, as well as four serious-looking headlights, and has a mysterious black plastic triangle under the crossbar.
It also has a pair of electric motors, the main a mid-drive for the rear wheel, and the other a chunky-looking hub motor for the front wheel. Yamaha claims it offers "excellent off-road performance," but naturally enough, it's a "concept model that points to the many potential spheres of riding open to ebikes" and will probably never make it to production.
We say this with a certain degree of confidence, because it's presented alongside an idea so nutty it had us checking the press release date for April 1 references. The Y-00Z MTB is a version of the YDX-Moro dual suspension enduro ebike, using an electric motor that sits up separate from the pedal crank, and an electric power steering kit up front. That's right, a wide-handlebar electric off-road bicycle with power steering.
Yamaha is brilliant at what it does, with a stellar reputation in most of the many and varied fields it operates in. But it's certainly not afraid to throw time and money at some real head-scratchers – witness the bizarre, twisting Motoroid 2 self-riding motorcyle it's got prototyped and running.
For those of us hoping to experience the fruits of Yamaha's 2WD expertise one day, it's a little sad to see the system sitting next to a flat-out weirdo idea like powered bicycle steering.
But even if Yamaha never gets the idea back onto the market, there's always boutique Philadelphia manufacturer Christini, which has been selling AWD dirt bikes for many years now, albeit at eye-watering prices. It's also opened an ebike division, using a similar bevel-gear front wheel drive system to what the motorcycles use.