A Digital Sea

A Digital Sea

A Digital Sea

Can the motorcycle survive in a world of autonomous cars?


ART Toria Jaymes  WORDS Chris Nelson


There’s this notion that autonomous cars could kill the motorcycle. That artificially intelligent, four-wheeled vehicles will surround and attack a motorcycle the way white blood cells do when they encounter a parasite. That the motorcycle will struggle to live symbiotically with self-driving cars, become the scourge of a completely connected, seamlessly integrated digital world, and will need to be eradicated. It’s bullshit.

There are far more questions than answers orbiting the topic of autonomy, but there are a couple of certainties, like the general adoption of autonomous vehicles in densely populated hubs and the continued existence of the motorcycle in some form. The role of the road-going motorcycle is murky and will be shaped and colored by the presence of self-driving cars, but niche motorcycles (like off-road bikes) may be completely insulated from the changes catalyzed by autonomy. 

It’s hard to believe we have to start considering these circumstances, but the world will change when autonomous cars arrive — and that time is coming sooner than most people think. Fully autonomous cars already exist, and over the next few years, many automakers will trickle out technology that allows mainstream vehicles to drive themselves; a number of manufacturers already offer semi-autonomous safety systems and active driving assists on their cars.

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Why should we celebrate and embrace this oncoming autonomy? “Because over 23,000 people die every week around the world from car accidents, and that can be nearly eliminated with driverless cars,” say Melba Kurman and Hod Lipson, authors of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead (MIT Press). “That alone should be enough of a benefit, but there’s more: less wasted time commuting, improved traffic and decongestion of cities, released parking space, improved urban and rural living, and more jobs related to manufacturing vehicles and maintaining roads.” 

The forthcoming autonomous revolution will see passenger cars fully embracing their role as a simple means of transportation, requiring re-imagined infrastructure and legislation to address an already mountainous list of concerns that center on the accountability of an artificially intelligent, self-driving vehicle. As of now there’s little reason to believe that these revisions would threaten the existence of motorcycles, but they will definitely force the motorcycle industry to adapt in order to survive in constantly evolving, digitized transportation network.

For instance, we will likely see widespread use of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) wireless communication systems. While current autonomous vehicles use high-fidelity, detailed maps and camera-based synthetic perception to see and avoid obstacles, including motorcycles, V2V will allow cars, motorcycles, and whatever else is on the road to speak to one another, share information, and instantaneously and continuously learn through cloud-based intelligence. “A V2V channel can offer deeper levels of connectivity,” says Praveen Penmetsa, CEO of SoCal-based company Motivo, which works with top-tier automotive suppliers to develop new technologies for autonomous vehicles. V2V will enable cooperative-collision avoidance, allowing vehicles to share on-board sensor information and coordinate their actions to avoid collisions. “Fifty percent of motorcycle accidents, mainly in cities, occur by a car with a driver [that is] not paying attention or aware,” says president of BMW Motorrad, Stephan Schaller, “which is why vehicle-to-vehicle communication is so important.”

Unfortunately, there is no unanimity when it comes to the hardware required for V2V. “Car companies have not completely agreed on a V2V standard and it is also not clear how effective it will be given the potential for miscommunication, hacking, and partial adoption,” say Kurman and Lipson. There’s also little information about how a massive, multifaceted system such as V2V would be established, distributed, and implemented. Bikes could be required to run an auxiliary on-board computer, your smartphone could simply speak to surrounding vehicles from your pocket, or, most likely, bureaucrats and manufacturers will spend years coming up with an annoyingly convoluted solution that creates more problems than it solves. 

Our acceptance of autonomy will also affect the engineering and design of all-new motorcycles. “The autonomy sensor technology that will eventually trickle down from the automotive industry will provide additional safety. The motorcycle has more to benefit from this tech due to the inherent danger of motorcycle riding,” says Penmetsa. “Any advance warning on changing road conditions, sudden stoppages, or the like could result in huge safety gains.” Through complex semi-autonomous systems, future motorcycles will likely be able to lightly steer and brake themselves in order to assist riders. Holger Hampf, head of user experience for BMW AG, says, “You can design a system to watch or intervene to be supportive. You want to actively manage safety and keep the rider safe at all times. [A future motorcycle] needs to provide information only when it is absolutely necessary, and that information needs to be minimal and very subtle to avoid distracting you or taking away from the experience. I don’t know if I’d call it complete autonomy with motorcycles, but an assist the motorcycle will give you.”

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Hampf touches on a good point: Could there be autonomous motorcycles? It’s technically possible, what with advancements in gyroscopic self-balancing to offset a bike’s slow-speed instability issues and the decreasing costs for the complex camera- and sensor-based systems necessary for hands-free riding. But in its present form, the motorcycle does not fit cleanly into the mold for autonomy — not to mention the fact that no one wants one. 

“I cannot think of an autonomous motorcycle,” says Schaller. “It makes no sense at all. I want a bike to be independent, to be free, to do my own thing. For me, this is an analog island in a digital, connected world.” Bike builder and racer Roland Sands agrees. “The autonomous motorcycle scares the shit out of me. I would hate to lose the increased heart rate as I kick up the kickstand and head out for a ride. Motorcycles are a very ‘of the moment’ experience when you are riding them. The fundamental self-reliance that keeps your brain focused and keeps you alive has an irreplaceable effect on personal autonomy.”

While it seems that autonomy itself poses little threat to motorcycling, Kurman and Lipson point out, “When safe driverless cars are the norm, motorcycles may be seen as a nuisance and experience an increase in insurance premiums that will make them all but obsolete.” But they also go on to say that driverless cars may make motorcycles more attractive than ever before because the risk of accidents will be dramatically reduced.

There is, however, one major threat to motorcycling: us. “The biggest challenge of autonomy is the prediction of the human behavior — how will we react to autonomous cars as drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and fellow commuters?” asks Penmetsa. “Understanding, mitigating, and innovating to make these interactions as seamless as possible is critical to the success of autonomy.”

As motorcyclists, we have to decide if we want to play by the new rules that come along with our acceptance of autonomous automobiles. These machines will perceive, consider, and reason, but only within established parameters. (Unless they become self-aware, and then we have bigger problems than the disappearance of motorcycles — remember Maximum Overdrive?) We will need to be mindful of autonomous vehicles’ shortcomings and appreciate that the cars are learning just as we are, only exponentially faster. We will have to deal with autonomy’s teething problems, and maintain the belief that doing so may produce an altered world that is far more enjoyable to ride in. “I think autonomous cars could be the best thing that's ever happened to motorcycles,” says Sands. “I'd much rather have a computer driving than a panicked, texting teenager trying to apply makeup.”

Autonomous cars will not kill the motorcycle, but change it, almost certainly for the better. The only threat to the motorcycle’s continued existence is our own inability to acclimate to a new, thinking world.



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10 Responses

Motowarrior
Motowarrior

October 11, 2017

Even the car magazines (see this month’s C & D) are prediction that autonomous cars are just a matter of time, probably common in 10-15 years. Motorcycles will be a nuisance, and government will do everything possible to get rid of them. The future is riding, but in a car driven by robotics. All at the speed limit. All safe. All mindless. Thanks goodness for a lifespan.

Murray chamberlain
Murray chamberlain

October 09, 2017

I am 62 years old and have been a commited licenced motorcycle rider since the age of 15. I for one can not imagine how awful it would be a motorcyclist in this brave new world that we face,motorcycles have soul, the experience is 100% tactile and the brain to control systems is co joint. Age and time will take me before I have to deal with the full implementation mind control,so perhaps Im lucky,but I do feel sorry for those who come after me when they twit that throttle and computer says no.

King of no land
King of no land

October 07, 2017

I welcome autonomous cars. Cages kill motorcyclists and plenty of others due to inattention and inertia. Riding a cycle is not dangerous- riding a cycle on roads with cars and vans and trucks with human drivers is dangerous. When computers are looking out for me on my bike, I’ll feel a lot safer.

Rob
Rob

October 07, 2017

This article is sensationalized and sadly pessimistic.

As someone who works in tech, has designed powersports vehicles, and lane splits an hour each way to/from work in Silicon Valley, I’m not worried one bit. This is going to be a minimum of 5 more years to legal use in California, and at very least a 25 year transition to mass adoption. Once it comes around you can definitely count on these vehicles being more aware of our presence on the road than any human driver, with or without v2v. Imagine lane splitting down a freeway where every computer controlled vehicle will, with almost absolute certainty move over to let you pass. How is that bad for us? Also, as much as the future will see mass adoption of these technologies, what about the classic car guys? A future without any non-smart vehicles is obsurdly unlikely in anything remotely resembling our current political and social climate. At worst we may see certain lanes or roads within metropolitan areas restrict non-autonomous vehicles to eliminate traffic congestion.

The only good point this article makes is pointing out that an autonomous bike would not be an enjoyable experience. However, optionally enabled accident avoidance features could be quite compelling, as much as ABS is now.

It’s important to remember that companies make products according to market demand, particularly luxury toys like motorcycles. Until you guys want a hello kitty themed fully autonomous motorcycle with a roll cage, no one is going to make one.

Mike Etienne
Mike Etienne

October 07, 2017

First problem is the number of vehicles in use, many being used for unnecessary journeys (eg school run). Second problem is the number of distractions to the modern driver, and the isolation of the external factors due to ‘insulation’ of the vehicle interior which ultimately cause incidents. A bike rider is only too aware of these, and acts and reacts accordingly. This is choice – freedom, independence – call it what you will. This also applies to those who choose to cycle – so if autonomy arrives, then ALL cycles (motorised or pedalled) will be targeted. I choose to take my own control, after all I did the licences, passed the tests, have the years under my belt and love the CHOICE. If driverless cars are to replce driven ones, surely it would make sense to migrate the mindset of movement away from individual driven journeys and use the mass transport instead (bus, train, shared transport). This won’t happen because of ego, and by the time it does happen, if it does, I’ll be long gone anyway

Mr Woolfe
Mr Woolfe

October 07, 2017

No Dtate or burocrat is going to stop me self driving my car or riding my motorcycle.
Brave new world??
No. More control and less freedom.

Just say no.

Dan Fed
Dan Fed

October 07, 2017

Sorry lads and lasses, but Thomas Taggart is correct. The transition years will not be too different than the current state (except for the inevitable rising insurance premiums for this “old-fashioned” indulgence of operating one’s own vehicle). Over time the “folly” of this rebellious and selfish way of thinking will disappear and along with it your option to truly ride free (without your smartphone or other device interacting/interferring with your daily life. Automatic speed control and/or automatic fines for disobeyance, anyone?).This indulgence will only be allowed to exist for so long (unless you have the money to afford it. I don’t.) so get on the throttle boys and girls.

Captain Red
Captain Red

October 06, 2017

Autonomous vehicles, assuming they are capable of sensing and avoiding motorcycles, will be a huge boon for riders. They’ll be better drivers and therefore more predictable. That will save lives and give us back a bit of freedom that’s been stolen from us by distracted drivers. I’m not, however, convinced that autonomous motorcycles have a future. Motorbikes, at least in the first world, are indulgences. Making them automatons goes against every illogical reason for riding one, like independence, exhilaration, style, and bloody mindedness.

Ken Altman
Ken Altman

October 06, 2017

It is coming. How we adapt determines the future of motorcycles as we know it….. my wife is in processs of a new Tesla with auto pilot…

Thomas Taggart
Thomas Taggart

October 06, 2017

BS, this is all BS! First he says no problem, we’ll be safer. Then he scatters his own rebuttal.to the premise. Insurance, the ineptness of government, are own ‘obstruction’ to ‘progress", the reality of trying to predict who is wired in or not, what kind of V2V will be required and how much will that cost. Bikes are and will be the bottom of the pecking order. We are truly F@#$ked. if this happens! But actually I’m not worried. Driver-less cars will not happen. No one wants chaos. And I do my part. I’ll jay walk any ole place knowing the computer will stop the car. Or I’ll speed(as I usually do) and again pandemonium. I’m in control! No steering or braking for me, thanks.

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