Motorcycle Makers Worry About Driverless Car Future

Motorcycle driving down road

The era of driverless cars dominating roadways is fast approaching, but there’s a question about how motorcycles will fit into this automated future. Manufacturers such as BMW Motorrad, Honda and Yamaha are researching autonomous technologies, but building smart bikes that can mix with driverless vehicles without sacrificing motorcyclists’ freedom is a challenge.

The key goal for autonomous cars is to delete the error-prone human element from the traffic equation and allow less-fallible artificial intelligence to do the driving. Smart automobiles can detect a motorcycle to avoid a crash, car-to-bike communications is being developed and motorcycles can be fitted with driver-assist safety features. Despite these technologies, a relatively unprotected human is riding the bike and making decisions.

Do motorcycles have a future in a driverless world

A major safety issue is that motorcycles can easily tip over. Bikes are commonly dropped during low-speed maneuvering, and when encountering road-surface obstacles. Research on automated and self-balancing technology is under way, but this makes bikers skeptical of a future that includes motorcycles they can control.

A report by a group of notable motorcycle enthusiasts called “Give a Shift” was published at motorbikewriter.com, which voices concern that technology will push motorcycles “out of the transportation matrix.” The group views the greatest threat to motorcycling, particularly in densely populated areas, to be the “incompatibility between autonomous vehicles and existing motorcycles.”

“There is a very real risk of motorcycling being completely cut out of the conversation for future vehicle infrastructure systems,” the Give a Shift panel reports. “As this (autonomous) technology grows, contemporary motorcycles will be even further elevated into higher risk categories in the eyes of traffic systems technologies, insurance companies, city planners and autonomous-vehicle manufacturers who currently own and direct the conversation.”

BMW Motorrad has developed the most comprehensive concept of a motorcycle of the future, which it believes will safety blend with an automated world and provide the freedom bikers demand. The manufacturer says its Vision Next 100 bike will serve an important purpose in a digital world where life is crammed into cities. It can operate in heavy traffic and offer an escape from it.

“This is how we envision the motorcycle of the future,” says Edgar Heinrich, head of design at BMW Motorrad. “The bike itself is so intelligent that you won’t have to fear any danger. We believe it will combine the best of the analog and the digital world. It will offer riders the ultimate emotional motorbike experience.”

Aware of the concern that the smart bike may seem soulless to motorcyclists, BMW Motorrad worked to incorporate traditional elements and address the fun factor for riders of all levels. The Vision’s minimalist design with a triangular shape is an homage to the past, with the intent to create the basic look of BMW’s iconic 1923 R 32. Like classic BMW motorbikes, power is generated by a flat-twin boxer engine. While the traditional look is achieved, this engine is emissions-free.

In terms of the riding experience, Heinrich says it’s safe, yet exhilarating. “In 30 years when I step on this Vision bike, I think I will have lots of fun because it’s a very analog experience on the one hand,” he says. “On the other hand, I know I can do whatever I want. If I over exceed, the bike will bring it back to normality. I will have a perfect experience and a perfect day.”

Unlike on a driverless car, the Vision’s artificial intelligence, called the “digital companion,” only appears at the rider’s request. Heinrich says the Vision is so safe the rider doesn’t have to wear a helmet, and only needs a visor that provides access to the digital world. It’s an all-around vision-data goggle that also acts as a windshield and eliminates the need for bike-mounted gauges. The visor projects relevant data onto the rider’s view. “The display and operating concept act so discreetly,” Heinrich says, “that it creates a natural and familiar movement."

The absence of danger, he says, makes the rider’s gear mainly a fashion statement. “We call it `smart gear.’ It’s intelligent, it can interact with the human, it can interact with the bike and, of course, it can interact with the environment.”

Adding to the Vision’s safety without diluting the fun factor is a self-balancing system. It doesn’t allow the bike to tip over when riding it or when standing still. The kickstand is only used when the bike is shut down. It will control the lean-in for beginners to increase their confidence and safety. For advanced riders, the system will actively boost driving dynamics, and only the laws of physics will limit their experience.

'Self-balancing' could solve bike problem

Honda also is experimenting with self-balancing technology, and unveiled its Honda Riding Assist concept model in 2017. Its self-balancing capability is focused on those critical times when the bike is at rest or traveling at low speeds. This helps eliminate the fear of the motorcycle falling at a stoplight, or when slowly maneuvering a heavy bike through a parking lot or out of a crowded parking garage. It also is a significant assist and confidence booster for novice motorcyclists.

“Rather than relying on gyroscopes, which add a great deal of weight and alter the riding experience, the Honda Riding Assist motorcycle incorporates technology originally developed for the company's Uni-Cub personal mobility device,” Honda says. “Our proposal is to make touring and everyday use of the motorcycle more fun.”

The Uni-Cub is a sit-on unicycle-style mobility device featuring technologies that can be applied to future motorcycles. It’s designed to be used to transport people through indoor facilities such as airports and shopping malls. Uni-Cub provides free movement in all directions, and stays upright via balance-control technology and an omni-directional driving-wheel system.

Yamaha’s experimentation with autonomous technology is focused more on optimizing control of vehicle dynamics. Its Motobot project subs the human rider with a humanoid robot that pushes the bike’s operating limits so it can be upgraded to achieve top performance and safety.

“From this project, we will be able to visualize data about human motorcycle operation,” and deduce the relationship between rider input and machine behavior,” Yamaha says, “then we use the resulting know-how in developing vehicles for creating even greater Kando.” The word “Kando” refers to achieving fine-tuned proficiency.

The Motobot autonomously operates a basically unmodified motorcycle, based on data for vehicle speed, engine rpm, machine attitude, etc. It controls six actuators that perform riding operations, which are precisely controlled and can perform actions similar to a human rider.

“Going forward,” Yamaha reports, “technology for machine-position recognition (high-precision GPS, various sensors, etc.) and machine learning will be utilized to enable Motobot to make its own decisions regarding the best lines to take around a racetrack and the limits of the motorcycle’s performance, so that it can improve its lap times with successive laps of the track.”

Along with increasing racetrack performance, Yamaha views the Motobot project as providing a proving ground for safety technology that can benefit future production bikes. It might also pave the way for a robot motorcycle patrolman or courier in a world of automated traffic.

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