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.