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Motorcycling's Monoliths Chat #1

Values May Change with the Times, but Our Work to Create Riding Fun Must Go On

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Values May Change with the Times, but Our Work to Create Riding Fun Must Go On, Motorcycling's Monoliths Chat #1 - Test Riders

With interest in motorcycles rising among younger generations, Yamaha and Honda-monoliths of the industry-put together a special collaborative project to sit down and discuss the today and tomorrow of motorcycles. For the first part of this project, test riders responsible for developing production models at both companies sat down to share what they feel must change-and what must not-as 2030 approaches, discussing the appeal of motorcycles and what the future holds for the vehicle as professionals that evaluate their performance on a sensory level.

YAMADA, Shinya (right)
Project Group, Motorcycle Testing Division, PF Model Development Section, Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd.

Upon joining Yamaha Motor in 2008, he was assigned to the Product Testing Division (today’s Motorcycle Testing Division). After handling the testing of models destined for the Indian market, he was stationed at Yamaha Motor Vietnam to help with model testing operations there, and gained further experience through other duties. He is currently in charge of testing MT-09-derived models, and his hobbies are stunt riding, hunting, working out, and playing the guitar.

SASAZAWA, Hiroyuki (left)
Monozukuri Supervisory Unit, Motorcycle and Power Products Operations, Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

After joining Honda Motor in 2007, he was assigned tothe Dynamic Performance Group, Block 2, Product Development Office 1. After working on testing for scooter models, he was in charge of dynamic performance testing for the CB and NC series of motorcycles. Today, he handles performance testing for the CB1000R while concurrently serving as acting development chief for the CB350. His hobbies are going touring, custom paint jobs, and relaxing in saunas.

How did the two of you get into motorcycles?

Yamada It was my older brother. I first got into bikes in high school.

Sasazawa I’d always wanted to ride something beyond a bicycle, so before I’d even gotten my motorcycle license, I bought an XJR400 and started practicing in a safe and closed off spot.

Yamada On an XJR?

Sasazawa Yeah. I didn’t go to a driving school and got my license by passing the one-shot riding test.

Yamada I also went that route. It took me five times to finally pass!

Sasazawa Nowadays, I don’t think many people in Japan start riding that way. It’s not only about having an attraction to the bike itself, but also seeing it more as a tool they can use to go out and enjoy beautiful scenery, to get to a good food spot, or to connect with others. So it’s about feeling motorcycles are fun in those ways and not just in the act of riding itself.

Yamada You might be right. What is it about motorcycles that you personally are most drawn to, Sasazawa-san?

Sasazawa In a word, I’d say “fun.” Like how you lean to turn or how it’s much easier to feel the machine’s behavior than with a car, and you can do that through the throttle. That’s what makes it fun for me. There’s also a lot of information you can pick up directly from a motorcycle’s chassis and that’s another thing that makes them alluring, I think.

Yamada I feel the same way. You mentioned this earlier, but I also like how bikes can connect people or how gatherings can randomly spring up just because there are bikes around. That’s another way we can enjoy them.

Sasazawa Motorcycles are often the spark for forming a community, which is why I think a lot of women and younger people are getting into riding now.

Leaning to turn lets you feel the machine’s behavior more easily than with a car and there’s a lot of information you can pick up directly from a motorcycle’s chassis. That’s one thing that makes them alluring.
- Sasazawa

What’s actually involved in being a test rider?

Sasazawa Basically, for every model, there’s a product concept for it and a customer persona for the people we expect to buy it. I’m part of the Dynamic Performance Group, so my job is to figure out the kind of engine delivery characteristics, top speed, or acceleration character customers prefer or what suits their needs best in general based on the kinds of uses or scenarios we expect. Then, I conduct tests to check whether each aspect of the bike’s performance satisfies the targets we’ve set. For example, to finalize how much rear-wheel drive force is needed for a comfortable ride, I try to put what I sense into numbers and then work with the development team to build that into the product, and then see if the final package matches the product concept or not.

Yamada It’s mostly the same for us at Yamaha. The Motorcycle Testing Division’s job is to check whether the parts prepared for testing meet the development project’s various targets and evaluating them while reenacting specific riding scenarios. There’s a different department that handles actual quality control, but deciding if the level of quality is suitable for each market’s needs is something that comes down to us.

Sasazawa I think the most important thing is the product concept. If that isn’t well-defined, the development team can’t set a clear direction to move in and obviously won’t be able to develop a good bike. Because all sorts of people come together to form a development team is precisely why the overall concept is so important.

Yamada If we could put what we feel into numbers, it would make things easier to understand, but since we can’t, we have to translate those feelings into words we can communicate to the engineers. That too is a big part of our job at the Motorcycle Testing Division. Our department has what we call “experimental design testing.” It’s a way of thinking where we view experiments not just as simple tests, but one part of the entire engineering process. Our work is only finished when the results of these experimental design tests are fed back into the engineering process.

Sasazawa For us, every member of a project team shares the same desire to build something they can be satisfied with. So if need be, we speak our minds with our bosses as well. Just doing what we’re told doesn’t make developing a bike any fun and it won’t lead to a good result in the end either. I often get told, “You really are just not the salaryman type.” [laughs]

Yamada I think most of the people handling development at Yamaha also aren’t really the salaryman type. Actually, I think there basically aren’t any “proper” salarymen in the whole department! [laughs]

Our department has what we call “experimental design testing.” It’s a way of thinking where we view experiments not just as simple tests, but one part of the entire engineering process.
- Yamada

How do you improve your skills as a test rider?

Yamada It’s hard to systematize personnel development, but departments at Yamaha responsible for testing and refining motorcycle handling and stability have long relied on an apprenticeship-like system where young hires are paired with somebody really experienced, and they learn by watching how the older one does things. We often get the chance to go to the actual markets for on-site testing in order to learn about them and the riding environments firsthand. We bring the younger test riders with us on these trips so that they see the kind of environments and testing we do on-site and can then learn to conduct evaluations on one of our test courses back in Japan with that in mind. That being said, there’s no single right answer for how to instruct and develop a test rider, but that’s also maybe what makes things interesting.

Sasazawa It’s basically the same at Honda. Everybody has a “master” and they try to “steal” their various secrets.

Yamada Was becoming a test rider your first choice when joining Honda, Sasazawa-san?

Sasazawa I remember when I joined and was asked which department I’d like to be assigned to, the question was, “Do you want to work in engineering or research?” I remember answering, “I want riding to be part of my job.” I said that because I wanted to see customers riding and loving the bikes I’d helped to develop.

Yamada Same for me. Right from the start, I said I wanted to be in the Motorcycle Testing Division. I really wanted to ride bikes and being the first to try out prototype parts was also really appealing to me.

Sasazawa But hey, prototype parts can also break sometimes, so it can be a bit scary too to be honest!

Yamada When I was a new hire, I was still pretty gung-ho about it all and I hadn’t thought that far ahead! I also liked the idea of riding to compare Yamaha’s products with those from other companies. I even do that now on my own time.

Sasazawa We compare how bikes ride at Honda too, but we also take apart competing products and even go so far as to weigh individual parts. For example, while we were developing the Forza 750 maxi scooter, the TMAX was our benchmark for comparison, so we disassembled one and took the liberty of carefully weighing all the individual parts. [laughs]

Yamada We do teardowns too, but if anything, I get the feeling that in most cases, Yamaha is pretty content just to buy and ride other companies’ products to see how they feel.

What do you think about the various changes underway in the motorcycling space right now?

Sasazawa I’m sure the rising trend of EVs will continue. Since they use electric motors, there’s a lot of freedom available for tuning or adjusting power delivery. You can make maximum torque available right from the start, but if you go that far, I fear that it might become difficult to give a model the particular character that makes bikes so much fun.

Yamada As you know, Yamaha is also developing various EVs right now. I’ve ridden quite a few of them as well as those from other companies, and to be honest, I’ve never found any of them to be all that interesting. There’s that moment of Kando at first, but then you quickly realize that’s its peak. 

Sasazawa For customers who buy motorcycles because they like how the engine revs, the feeling of pulse from the engine, and so on, if we can’t replicate or express those sensations with EVs as well, I think every one will end up feeling the same. Especially if Yamaha and Honda use the same motors and batteries, the only real difference will be how the machines look. I get the sense that if we don’t emphasize ride feel or character, we won’t be able to compete.

Yamada If we’re talking about commuter models, something simple, convenient, and ridable by anyone is perfectly fine. But even if electric powertrains become the norm, I think aspects meant purely for fun are an absolute necessity with motorcycles. Most bikes have manual transmissions, and whether you like it or not, changing gears gives you a sense of control when you ride. And even if transmissions were to disappear, I think there still needs to be something that engages the rider and the bike.

Sasazawa The feeling of controlling a bike is something that comes from your own actions, and I think that connects in a big way to where the fun comes from. If we’re going to be developing fun bikes, I think we have to actively prioritize that enjoyment or customers won’t be able to identify with that.

Yamada Honda has its Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) system, right? Yamaha’s also been doing a lot of research into DCTs and I personally found them really interesting. For example, the MT-09 model I worked on has an up-and-down quickshifter; you only really need the clutch lever when starting off from a stop. With that in mind, there were some areas in which I started to wonder if DCT or similar tech was really necessary, but when I actually rode a bike with it, I could see how it offers new value because it lets the user concentrate more on riding. Having it also offers more freedom for layouts, so I felt it has the possibility to bring forth newer, more exciting bikes.

The MT-09 that Yamada did test rides for (left) and the GB350 that Sasazawa served as acting development chief for (right)

What do you think are the respective strengths of Honda and Yamaha, and what image do you each hold of the other’s company?

Sasazawa Both Yamaha and Honda have sales networks in areas around the world enabling high-quality after-sales services. So instead of buying a bike and getting rid of it not long after, spending a long time with one bike creates a sense of attachment and makes a customer love their bike even more. Some people might feel like the price tag is a little too high when first buying it, but I think if you consider the many years of use a bike can give, it actually doesn’t seem too expensive in the long run. I think this trait is a strength we Japanese manufacturers all share.

Yamada That’s true. But still, I personally feel we’re facing a serious crisis with how overseas manufacturers are moving. I’m simply amazed by the incredible pace of their progress, and that goes for their work with EVs as well. They bring out products one after another that simply aren’t possible if you stick to the standards of Japanese manufacturers, and they do it without hesitation. It’s like the products themselves aren’t fully complete, but they do function as advertised. That kind of business model matches really well with the shift to electrification, but there’s no way Yamaha will adopt such an approach, and that’s why we have to instead try to push the strengths unique to us. For example, with developing software, I think we need to create content and the like that takes advantage of the information or data that only a motorcycle manufacturer can acquire or utilize.

Sasazawa The image I have of Yamaha is that you guys are really pushing the envelope in the realm of product design. I see designs for Yamaha products that make me think, “We could never come up with that kind of form at Honda.” It gives your products a stylish feel and I like that about Yamaha. Honda, meanwhile, has the reputation of being the industry’s “honor student.”

Yamada I honestly have that same feeling. What I respect a lot about Honda is your technical prowess. When I get the chance to ride and evaluate Hondas, I notice that they’re built with a lot of attention to detail, right down to the nooks and crannies. Your reputation is warranted because your machines are built to a level of refinement you’d expect from an “honor student.” With the NC Series in particular, I’m amazed at how well the electronics work and it tells me how much Honda pays attention to the small details.

Sasazawa Well, it has still been a bit of a struggle and taken time for us to become that “honor student” in some areas.

Yamada Looking at it in a different way, the Rebel 250 is selling really well right now, right? It sits on the opposite side of technical prowess in that you were able to draw a line like that for where to stop. The fact that you were able to do that does make me a bit jealous.

Finally, what kind of motorcycles would you like to make going forward?

Yamada Like we spoke about before, peoples’ preferences are continuing to change regarding lots of different things. Take the sound of the exhaust, for example. Until now, people have wanted a powerful-sounding exhaust note and an induction sound you could hear as well. But even longstanding preferences like those are likely going to change with the times. What I want to do is create bikes that adapt to these changing preferences, but still always include the fun elements that are inherent to what makes motorcycling so enticing.

Sasazawa Motorcycles aren’t just for getting from place to place. While on the move, the feeling a rider has of being in control or operating the bike is incredibly important. As long as we motorcycle manufacturers don’t lose sight of that, I think their appeal will remain unchanged even if they go electric, especially with models in our “FUN” areas. At the same time, I hope commuter models grow simpler and easier for everyone to use.

Yamada Thank you so much for coming all the way to the Yamaha Communication Plaza today. Please enjoy the rest of your visit.

Sasazawa Thank you for having me.

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