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How dangerous are the EU’s ‘drivetrain anti-tampering’ proposals?

Anyone with half an eye on biking current affairs will probably have noticed that a big “Hands off Biking” demo against ‘anti-bike legislation’ is proposed for September 25 and that there are a number of e-petitions to sign (this one seems to have most votes).

It all goes back a year or so to a raft of new European technical regulations covering issues like mandatory ABS, emissions regulations and anti-tampering measures, and more besides. These were proposed in late 2010 and the legislation would be due to enter into force from January 2013, though that date seems highly optimistic, with an implementation date when it would affect new machines from 2017.

At the moment as I write, the proposals are still up for debate, and it’s worth noting that the UK government has set out some fundamental objections to many of the proposals. You can find a consultation document here which sets out our own government’s criticisms and counter-proposals to many of the proposals but the regulations will get a first reading in the European Parliament in December, so there’s not much time for riders to register their own objections.

So what’s it all about?

The EU proposals are incredibly far reaching and many have been criticised or rejected by the UK government. For example, the EU proposes to more tightly control one-off imports and the production runs of small manufacturers producing very limited runs of specialist bikes, and to apply this particular  regulation to ‘twist and go’ electric bicycles to, something the UK government sees as unnecessarily strict.

But there are more serious worries too for mainstream bikers.

Last year, most noise was made about the proposal to make ABS mandatory on all bikes above 125cc and for smaller machines to have either ABS, or a cheaper combined braking system (CBS) that applies both brakes regardless of which brake is actually applied.

From the point of view of a road rider (which I am), compulsory ABS isn’t likely to have a huge effect on sports or touring bikes. There’s a weight penalty of course, though modern systems are much lighter than the pioneering BWM set-up, and ABS comes at a cost to the purchaser of the bike. On the other hand, as things stand at the moment, the cost of ABS as an option seems to be well in excess of the true cost of the additional parts and a way of hiking the price of a base model bike (as I found with the BMW F650GS and the new Triumph Tiger 800), so compulsory ABS may not come with the price premium consumers fear.

One area of concern is that the EU want the ABS to be permanently engaged so that riders cannot choose to switch it off. Many off-road riders object to that, arguing that a switchable function that allows ABS to be turned off when off-road is vital to the enjoyment and safe use of a dual sport machine.

An argument against compulsory ABS/CBS which I don’t fully support is that it would not be cost-effective on less expensive bikes. These are often ridden in urban areas where low speed collisions between bikes and other vehicles are relatively common, and they are ridden by less experienced riders (in the case of 125s by riders without a full licence), so there’s likely to be a disproportionate benefit in terms of reducing low-speed accidents if riders are given a better braking system than is currently found on those bikes. From the point of view of the rider, the cost of the additional equipment could well be offset by avoiding the need for repairs after a minor spill!

New emissions regulations – the forthcoming Euro 4 and Euro 5 limits – are due in 2013 and 2017 and the EU further propose another stage of tightening emissions requirements mandatory for all new bikes in 2021. The EU argues these measures are necessary because motorcycles and mopeds produce a disproportionately large share of vehicle emissions but doesn’t actually provide any cost-benefit data. It’s also doubtful how tighter emissions would actually improve matters as most of the EU doesn’t actually have an air quality problem!

The EU also want measures to prevent the evaporation of fuel from bikes which the UK government argue aren’t cost-effective.

Hand-in-hand with reduced emissions, the EU also wants all bikes to carry the same kind of complex on-board diagnostic (OBD) equipment fitted to cars to monitor emissions control systems. The simplest proposal is for the OBD to run basic systems checks to make sure the sensors are working and the emissions are within the normal range. The cost of this would be minimal, as fuel-injected machines already have the basic components in place, but the second stage proposed by the EU requires the performance of components of the emissions control system to be monitored for degradation. According to briefing papers, this would be far more expensive as it would require additional sensors, and there is in any case uncertainty regarding the technical feasibility of this more complex system.

One problem that’s arisen in the car market is that by adopting OBD systems on cars, manufacturers have been able to use OBD to encrypt the maintenance data the system provides, thus forcing servicing to be carried out at franchised dealers. This is clearly anti-competitive and the EU proposes that such data be available to all repair facilities, not just those associated with the manufacturer.

Finally, the EU proposes stringent anti-tampering measures:

“[Motorcycles] shall be equipped with designated measures to prevent tampering of a vehicle’s powertrain… with the aim… to prevent modifications that may prejudice safety, in particular by increasing vehicle performance through tampering with with the powertrain in order to increase maximum torque and/or power and/or maximum designed vehicle speed as declared by the manufacturer of a vehicle upon type approval.”

The justification is that they are intended to prevent user modifications that increase emissions of pollutants or that reduce the functional safety of the machine.

At its most extreme, this could mean the “sealing” of the entire power train from twist grip to rear tyre. You wouldn’t be allowed to fit a quick-action throttle, an aftermarket air filter or spark plugs, change the sprockets for a different final drive ratio or fit a rear tyre without the correct aspect ratio. Plug-in performance gadgets like Power Commanders or bolt-on accessories like aftermarket exhaust pipes would certainly be outlawed.

What makes things as clear as mud is that a second paragraph in the EU documentation says:

“After modification of the powertrain, a vehicle shall comply with the technical requirements of the initial vehicle category and subcategory, or, if applicable, the new vehicle category and subcategory, which were in force when the original vehicle was sold, registered or entered into service.”

If I read this right, the implication is that you would be able to modify parts of the powertrain so long as the modified bike complied with the original technical specifications.

It could mean that if you fitted a silencer, the bike would have to be inspected (and presumably be re-certificated as proof) to ensure that it made no more power (or noise, I suspect) and did not increase emissions. My guess is that this would open the way for German-style TUV testing right across the EU with such modifications recorded in an official logbook.

Whatever your thoughts on aftermarket exhausts and tuning, these measures are tough and bad news if you like tinkering with your bike.

Motorcycle pressure groups like MAG point out that this would impact the manufacturers of aftermarket equipment, and are also worried that motorcyclists would be subject to “roadside checks by police or other government agencies to inspect emissions, detect owner ‘tuning’ and more”.

Even the UK government comes down fairly heavily against this one, saying in their consultation document:

“While there is some justification where vehicle performance is intentionally restricted, e.g. vehicles intended for learner riders, there is no evidence that anti tampering offers benefits for larger machines. The Government therefore opposes a blanket anti tampering measure.”

It may not be the ‘death of motorcycling’ (yet again!) but it’s certain that if the EU get their way, yet another level of personal choice will be taken away from motorcyclists right across Europe.

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