While electronics are pervasive in our day to day lives, until recently bicycles had remained relatively free of them, except for cycling computers and lights. That's rapidly changing, and over the next few years it's likely more and more electronically controlled components will be entering the cycling world. Shifting and suspension are the two places where the changes have already begun to happen, but other components, such as dropper posts, may see electronic controls as well.
Electronic shifting appeared as early as 1990, but wasn't commercially available until the introduction of Shimano's Di2 system for road bikes in 2009. While still not available for mountain bikes, prototypes have been spotted, and there's no reason not to think Shimano isn't at least considering an off-road version. An electronic shift system on a mountain bike would mean no more dealing with cables and housing that can be contaminated by the elements, and would make cable routing less of an issue. Wires take up less space and can navigate sharper angles on a frame than what is possible with traditional cables and housing.
Fox's iCD system allows the rider to control the front fork and rear shock's suspension settings simultaneously. Further advances in the integration of electronics and suspension are just over the horizon.
The suspension world has seen a new wave of electronics enter the field, ones that work infinitely better than the ill-fated K2/Noleen electronic shock that arrived circa 1999. In 2012, Fox introduced their iCD system, which allows riders to control both their fork and shock settings at the same time. The system uses a Shimano Di2 battery for power, with a claimed run time of 2.5 months before needing to be recharged. Even more sophisticated systems are on the way, including Rock Shox's e.i. (electronic intelligence) system, which uses accelerometers to measure the force of an impact on the front fork, and then relays this information to the rear shock within .1 second. Marzocchi currently has a motocross fork that electronically controls the fork's compression and rebound settings, with plans in the works to introduce a mountain bike fork using this same technology.
Dropper posts are another area with the potential to see the introduction of electronics. As far back as 2009 Shimano filed a patent for a dropper post controlled by an electronic motor. At this year's Sea Otter Classic, Giant Bicycles had a prototype dropper post that uses a servomotor to raise and lower the seat. Giant's prototype had wires running from the handlebars to the post, but the concept of an dropper post that can be controlled via a wireless remote on the handlebar is even more appealing – no more cables to contaminate or hydraulic lines to kink.
Although Shimano's patent for an electronically controlled dropper post was filed in 2009, they haven't announced plans to produce one any time soon.
Of course, the addition of electronics to bicycles isn't without potential downsides. While advances in battery technology have allowed for increasingly long run times, the possibility of getting stuck in the woods without a working derailleur or suspension system does exist. Plus, the inherent simplicity of the bicycle has always been part of the appeal, and adding intricate electronics certainly adds a level of complication not everyone will approve of. Riders exploring remote locales could also have difficulty finding replacement parts, and servicing electronics isn't something that can easily be done in the field. Whatever your views, it's going to be interesting to see where this influx of new technology takes us over the next few years.