Are autonomous motorcycles really going to happen?
Three of the largest motorcycle manufacturers are demonstrating a keen interest in autonomous technology. It’s questionable whether bikers want a self-riding bike, so why are they being developed?
Self-driving cars have become such a regular enough feature in the news to have become boring. Interestingly though, three of the largest motorcycle companies have also recently given us a taste of concept vehicles that are clearly being developed with autonomous use in mind. The big burning question is, why?
It looks like BMW have crammed the kit from an autonomous car project into the top box and panniers for an uncharacteristically quick fix.
We’re told that this bike doesn’t use gyroscopes. Just millions of calculations a second and control over the steering and suspension to achieve that amazing balance.
When I first saw the static display photos of this insectoid I assumed it was some kind of art project. But no, it actually moves.
Whereas Honda and BMW have adapted existing models Yamaha have shown some real commitment and designed their MOTOROiD with electric power from the ground up. The project (I can’t really call it a bike just yet) looks a little clunky in this demo but it has that reverse feature that I’ve always wanted. And is that thing voice controlled? Not sure.
All three bikes are very different, show different development approaches and contain astonishing technology. All three point towards the bike being more in control than the rider. I presume other companies are working on their own systems.
But why? What‘s the fucking point? The whole reason people buy bikes is for the enjoyment of riding. Why would any company pour money into developing a self-riding bike? They can only sell things that people want to buy and I can’t imagine UK riders queueing up for robobikes.
The logical conclusion is that these types of bikes aren’t being built for our benefit. Not only are they development platforms for future systems, we’re not even the target consumers. The real agenda is not to provide bikes for Western commuters and leisure riders but create mass personalised transport solutions for industrialising nations.
Built with a different objective in mind
Take a city like Mumbai for example. Population over 20 million, hundreds of thousands of journeys each day are made by bus, train, car, scooter and van.
Each one of those people might have ambitions to own their own car. But even if the economy boomed enough to make that possible, it wouldn’t be practical. Say for example a single residential tower block might house a couple of thousand people but might only have parking for a couple of hundred cars at best. Car ownership on the level that we have in the west will never be possible.
Public transport’s ok (well, it’s not, but you know what I mean) when you have large numbers of people going in the same direction at the same time. But when there are lots of complex, unplanned journeys to be made there’s a huge need for individual transport. People who might work in different places each day, make deliveries or get called out to different locations need individual transport and it needs to be smaller, smarter and cleaner than cars.
‘Megacities’ are growing rapidly all around the world, governments are confronting the problem of moving people and products around on a large scale. As long as economies and cities in industrialising countries keep growing that’s not going to change. There’s no space for more cars so if anything, the number of scooters is going to increase. The traffic’s already terrifying.
I watch this kind of thing through my fingers.
The streets of China, Asia and India are already filled with millions of scooters, increasing numbers of which are electric. My guess is that vehicle manufacturers have already gazed into their crystal balls and concluded that autonomous technology built into scooters and other vehicles in large numbers will be the solution to the problem of managing the movement of all of these vehicles. Hence the R & D we’re seeing now.
Imagine a scooter, or any vehicle, that can take over control just before its human pilot makes a fatal mistake and can plan a route to avoid the worst traffic. Or go Full Auto letting the rider become more of a passenger. The benefit of a scooter that can navigate fast complex traffic and avoid accidents would be a very persuasive selling point.
Vehicles that can communicate could potentially organise themselves and smooth out traffic flow by cooperating instead of competing like crazy bastards, making the flow of traffic faster, safer and more efficient. Roboscooters would follow the rules and look where they’re going even where a lot of riders don’t. It’s not impossible and given the density of traffic today it might become essential in future. That kind of proposition would be extremely attractive to governments trying to manage such cities and extremely lucrative for companies that can deliver the tech.
As unattractive as all this might be to us motorcyclists, robot motorcycle taxis look like a possible solution to the insanely chaotic city traffic. Although the idea of sitting in a roboscooter without having any control is more frightening to me than taking my chances unaided in that traffic.
Looking further ahead, once this technology becomes reliable and the legals get solved, autonomous scooters, bikes, trikes, vans and cars will probably be everywhere.
In the West, we like the feeling of ownership. We’re very used to making painstaking decisions selecting the vehicle that best suits our needs, buying and looking after it ourselves. It’s always a compromise because most people can only afford one maybe two vehicles. Do you buy a bike and a van? A scooter and a car? A people carrier and a sportsbike? Imagine the situation where ownership becomes unnecessary and you could rent whatever vehicle you needed on a day to day basis or even by the hour.
The self-driving vehicle makes that idea easier by eliminating the need to go and collect a rental vehicle and take it back again. In a connected world it should be possible to book a time and place, so when a citizen gets out of their tower block in the morning an autonomous electric scooter trundles up (tracking the mobile phone naturally) and says “Hi I’m Steve the Scooter! Ready to take you to work!”
Of course they’ll talk, what were you expecting? The rider jumps on, rides to work half asleep while Steve the Scooter plots the quickest route, intervenes to avoid the potholes, manholes, pedestrians and vans guiding the rider safely to work ready for the day.
When the ‘Journey Complete’ button is clicked Steve bids cheery good-day and an appropriate charge for the distance is deducted from the user’s account. Then Steve trundles off to either click himself into a charging point, pick up his next punter or go back to base for inspection, cleaning and maintenance. You don’t have to worry about parking Steve, maintaining, charging him up or taxing and insuring him. It’s all taken care of by the rental company.
That whole idea probably makes the skin of any biker crawl. But if your job was to organise a city of 40 million people how would you go about it? And seen in this context, the technology being developed by Honda, BMW and Yamaha starts to make complete sense.
Practical advantages beyond people management
If a bike or any smart-vehicle can take over when the driver makes an error then the general level of skill required to drive could be lowered. That might allow more people access to transport and open up more employment opportunity. Oh and fewer accidents, injuries, death and that sort of thing.
In the video above Tesla’s autonomous motorcycle autopilot technology steps in to avoid accidents.
A crowded city could benefit from advanced traffic management. If the companies coordinating robovehicle hire make their information available to the city, and if most hires are made in advance then traffic can be forecast and managed more effectively. Vehicles could send data on congestion to traffic authorities and be aware of traffic jams, roadworks or delays and route themselves accordingly.
Don’t forget, most privately owned vehicles spend 90% of their lives parked up blocking the roads and quietly rusting. Whereas keeping a fleet of robobikes moving 24/7 would extract a lot more value from them. The end user doesn’t need to worry about the cost of ownership or maintenance. Competition between vehicle providers might even drive down the price of transport.
If or when autonomous vehicles become the norm, another advantage becomes apparent: Variety. Open your phone app and swipe through a selection, choose a scooter to get to work, then a people carrier for the trip home because you have to do the shopping and pick up the kids from school. Get a van at the weekend so you can help your mate move house. Then book a camper for your holidays. People who make a living from the gig economy might need a small scooter one day and a three-wheeled delivery van the next. Imagine the flexibility of having a choice of different vehicles whenever you need them.
Thinking about this reminded me of some other developments that no one asked for. Dual clutch transmission from Honda, Quickshifters, which used to be exotic drag race equipment are becoming standard on some bikes. And bikes with two front wheels from Piaggio and Yamaha.
No one requested any of that but here it is, in the showrooms. Maybe these are parts of the jigsaw puzzle of future transport. Maybe the reason these things are turning up now is that they’re going to be needed for future robovehicles.
Add all these technologies together and the future of personal transport for the megacities of industrialising countries might not be a bike, scooter, car or van but an unholy hybrid creature with two wheels at the front, one at the back, some cargo space, a windscreen and maybe a roof. Like some kind of electric powered Reverse-Tuctuc. And it might be called Tony the Tuctuc with an upgradable personality that’s even more annoying than that mental toaster on Red Dwarf. Autonomous delivery vehicles might mean drivers spend less attention to driving and more on delivering. Or more likely with their feet on the dash taking selfies and watching the world scroll by.
All of which is fine for those countries where they’re needed. But what about us lot? Compared to the rest of the world the UK is a tiny market. Big corporations could withdraw completely from Britain and not even notice. Clearly, they’ve got their eyes on far juicier fruit.
I don’t think there’s reason to panic just yet. This increasingly isolated island will be supplied with purely mechanical ‘dumbikes’ for as long as the desire and money is there but we might get some interesting autonomous motorcycle features too. Once the sensor technology is usable an auto clutch and quickshifter would allow the brain under the seat to fully control a petrol engined bike that’s not so different to what we’re used to.
There might be different levels of intervention. The bike’s control system might stay dormant, leaving the rider to enjoy themselves but take over in the event of an imminent crash. Or it could be turned up to 11, Full Auto for when the rider’s feeling lazy or needs to make an important phone call on the move.
Electric bikes like Zero motorcycles only have a twistgrip and brake levers. I think that’s something we’ll see more of. Robobikes won’t have the throttle, clutch and gear lever that we’re used to. It might be more like riding a horse where the rider directs the beast but the bike makes a lot of its own decisions. Our bikes might become less like an extension of our own bodies and more like pets with personalities.
As a technophile I’d love a robot bike. I can see myself riding to the park, getting off and taking it for walkies and throwing a stick for it. “Who’s a good boy? You are! YES, YOU ARE! Oh, no, come back! Stop that! I’m sorry, he’s just being friendly!”
More seriously it would be genuinely handy to be able to tell the bike to go and find its own parking space. Or I could ride to point A, go hiking and then summon the bike to pick me up at point B. Especially if point B happened to be a kebab shop at the end of a pub crawl and the bike could cope with my dozing weight lolling around all the way home.
Once this technology becomes commonplace new uses will be found for it. Police patrol bikes might be quite capable of monitoring traffic and chasing crims without needing an actual copper on board. One Police rider might direct a little squad of bikes to a location and then let them do their own patrols.
A paramedic might ride a bike to an accident scene followed by a couple of robobikes carrying tons of emergency equipment. Carving through the traffic or getting to places where an ambulance would grind to a halt.
Motorcycle touring in the future might be a case of one rider on one bike being faithfully followed by a pack horse robobike laden with luggage. Remember you wouldn’t need to buy the robo bike just hire it.
Drug dealers could dispatch riderless scooters to drop off their little packages while unmanned police bikes are sent out to chase them. What a spectator sport that would be!
Obviously, someone will attach guns to autonomous bikes… That’s a different debate though.
Businesses are always keen on any technology that increases profit. So forget about drones, in the not too distant future your locust and seaweed-protein pizza with extra synth-cheese might be disgorged from a slot on the side of a driverless scooter. Authentically late, cold and squashed to one side of the box just like in the good old days when humans used to do delivery jobs.
New technology always opens up new possibilities. This new tech could easily turn into an Orwellian hell where fun becomes illegal and loads of jobs are lost. Or it might be liberating by reducing accidents, eliminating congestion and parking problems. Maybe we should all sit up and take notice while we still have a chance.