Life on bikes

We are ready for the smartbike

Has the time come for our bikes to be a lot smarter – so smart they could defeat bike thieves, tell us exactly what’s wrong with them and even take control to avoid an accident? Is it time for the smart motorcycle to arrive?

It’s rare for me to be jealous of cyclists, but when I read about the VanMoof ‘smart bike’, complete with smartphone connectivity, theft detection and fingerprint unlocking, all for a retail starting price of just $1,000, I had to wonder why motorbikes are lagging behind.

We’ve already said motorbikes should by now be using the same technology as smartphones to reduce theft, but Marc Ryan’s article on motorcycle technology got me thinking that it’s about time manufacturers started delivering technology with more comprehensive and arguably real-world benefits.

As Marc pointed out, “It would make my life slightly easier if I could wake up in the morning, glance at my phone, which is connected to my bike and see whether I need to get petrol, put air in the tyres, how long it is to the next service, what the condition of the battery is, or how many more years it’ll take to finish paying for it.”

The technology is already here

When you hire a Mini Cooper using the Drive Now app, you can use either a smart card or the Drive Now app to both unlock and start the car. To finish your rental, you just tap a button on the app and then your account is charged – unless the vehicle’s parking sensors feel the car is parked too close to the car in front, in which case you’ll need to move the car accordingly.

If you are confused or concerned by anything, you can be patched through to a call centre who can immediately see what is happening with the car and where it is, and take you through a remedy. They can presumably also remotely disable the vehicle when they can see it’s stationary. App, customer service centre and car are completely connected.

Using this as an example, it is currently entirely possible to install devices on a motorcycle that will allow the bike to collect data and share it with a central database; to improve the owner’s knowledge and interaction with the vehicle, and to monitor its use to reduce the potential for theft. It’s exactly the same technology as after-market trackers connected to call centres, only this time hardwired into the bike and its ‘brain’.

So, if it’s all possible, we only need the manufacturers to rise to the challenge, because as bikers/consumers/customers I think we are more than ready to embrace data-driven technology.

BMW is close, with its optional Motorad Connected system that links bike, smartphone and helmet via apps, but as you’ll see in the video below, the emphasis is on media – making calls, listening to music and navigating maps – rather than useful tools for motorcycle use and ownership.

Yamaha has gone down the security route with its top-of-the-range TMAX DX and My TMAX Connect app, where you can remotely manage your bike and help to keep it secure. Features include an engine lock (immobilises the engine when the bike is stationary), bike finder, usage data, geofence and theft management functions. Bike and app are connected to Vodaphone’s Stolen Vehicle Tracking and Recovery Service operating centres, which manage alerts 24/7 and liaise with the police.


So here’s the first challenge for the motorcycle manufacturers: When are you going to equip ALL bike management systems with a SIM card, as standard? This simple step would mean the bike can be connected to both the owner’s app and a central operating centre who can step in during an adverse event, such as theft.

The engine management system could report richer diagnostics than just service intervals. It could indicate potential problems looming, such as problems with fuelling. A really smart system would tell you, via your app, how much a repair would be and go on to book the bike in with your preferred dealer.

Open up the data

Here’s the second challenge for the bike makers: Make the data available.

Using ‘old thinking’, manufacturers like to get a leap on their competitors by creating their own new, innovative technology. But the process is slow because they are each working on their own development, generally with small teams. This slows progress down.

For example, BMW was the first to introduce ABS braking to motorcycles, over 25 years ago, but anti-lock brakes are still not fitted to every new bike as standard. Instead of sharing the knowledge, other companies had to play catch up. As well as taking longer to see a universal application of the technology, this makes the overall industry cost of developing that technology much higher than it needs to be.

‘Open source’ is the term the IT industry uses to describe software where the original developer who designed the software’s code makes it freely available so that others can not only use it but improve on it. They might monetise their work by offering support to anyone who wants to use the code, seeing as they’ll know it best.

Open source systems have a considerable benefit over closed or proprietary systems that are designed and developed by a single person or company: the core software can be expanded upon and improved at a much faster rate, by the community of developers who adopt and run with the new software.

For bike manufacturers using the same principle and applying it to the data a bike can produce, they would likely see rapid advancement in the technologies that would make ownership easier and more enjoyable – making their products and motorcycling as a whole more attractive.

By making the data that the bike can produce available, even if it has to be on a licenced basis, smart startups can use that data to develop new ideas, tools and products. It would be a similar ecosystem to the app developers who are given access Apple and Google’s tools and data for making apps. Bike technology would be freed up to accelerate at an astonishing rate compared to today’s advances.

Make yourself more visible

Cars are moving towards dispensing with the driver, and while there is seemingly no point in having the same aim for motorcycles, bikes will start adopting the C-ITS [Cooperative Integrated Transportation Systems] technology cars will use.

So the last challenge is less for manufacturers, but more for us: would you be willing to lose some of your privacy, in return for making your ride much safer?

Many motorcyclists, myself included, have deep misgivings about digitally-connected lanes on motorways, where vehicles can be electronically ‘hitched’ via the cloud, to run at the same speed in a connected line of vehicles. Motorcyclists naturally wonder what happens when a non-connected bike wants to move through a vehicle line that is preventing access to a junction exit.

But take the SMIDSY, for example.

If a connected network was in place, two vehicles heading for a collision could be prevented from doing so by computers in the cloud taking each vehicle’s movement data. Working out an accident was imminent, each vehicle could be provided with an automatic strategy to at least reduce or hopefully completely avoid the impact of the collision.

© Connected Motorcycle Consortium

That cloud technology is currently entirely possible, but some way off implementation, not least because of drivers’ reticence to be continuously monitored. Motorists can already install insurance apps and black boxes that record and report their journeys to central databases. Understandably, the vast majority of road users have not adopted the technology for fear of having their driving behaviour too closely analysed.

Yet many drivers are already being monitored, with whole fleets of commercial vehicles tracked using GPS to improve logistics and vehicle security. Their exact locations and speeds are known all of the time. Many of these truck and van drivers are bikers themselves, but I suspect it will be some time before the majority of them will be prepared to have their private journeys monitored, even if it could lead to safer roads.

The motorcycle industry itself is interested, with seven major manufacturers supporting the Connected Motorcycle Consortium, whose stated aim is for every manufacturer to, ‘introduce at least one of their PTW models equipped with C-ITS functionality by the year 2020’.

As of Spring 2018, very little info has broken through to show that they may be likely to hit this target, although again it is BMW who are leading the way, having demonstrated its ConnectedRide technology in Autumn 2017.

In an unconnected world

Right now, this all feels a long way off. It’s doubtful that we are going to see a fully connected vehicle-to-vehicle system in place anytime soon, at least not in the UK where we can’t even build train lines and runways without 20 years’ hand-wringing.

So it’s back to challenges for the manufacturers; to put in place the technology that will improve safety for the motorcyclist. Seeing as we are currently stuck with old thinking, here’s the final challenge to the industry: You know what to do, can you do it quicker, please?

Radar equipped cars can already detect an accident in the making, by assessing the change in vehicle movement ahead. They can apply brakes and disengage cruise control automatically. Without stabilisers like Bosch’s recently announced pressurised gas anti-slide technology, it’s going to be difficult to achieve full safety on a motorcycle, but not impossible.

By simply linking radar to an audible warning system, or even directly to the throttle and ABS-equipped brakes, the chances of being injured in a SMIDSY incident could be significantly reduced. Linking to the bike’s ECU would mean the system could detect town or country use and be sensitised accordingly so that the anchors aren’t applied every time you pull up behind a bus.

That’s not even ‘smart’ technology. It’s fairly basic stuff, and we should have it on our bikes already. Both Ducati and Suzuki have patented technologies that can pretty much do this, but it will be 2020 at the earliest before we see them on actual production bikes.

It seems an odd thing to say to an industry obsessed with speed, but motorcycle manufacturers, please get a move on. We want smartbikes and we want them now.

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The Author

Ian Malone

Ian Malone

Ian is the Editor and a co-founder of Biker & Bike.

He is obsessed about bikes to the point that he often starts conversations with new people by saying, "Please don't get me onto the subject of bikes. We'll be here all day."

Inevitably, the next question asked is nearly always, "What bike have you got, then?"

He's 'down' to three bikes at the moment:

'97 Triumph Daytona T595
'11 Triumph Tiger 800
'13 Triumph Speed Triple R

He's not even a huge Triumph fan, it just turns out that's how the stable is filled at the moment.

Having been on every continent except Antartica (as long as Cuba kind-of qualifies as South America) he is a big fan of travelling. However, to his deep but hopefully not eternal shame, he's only ever explored Europe on two-wheels and only started doing this a few years ago.

His main mission now is to explore as much of the world on two wheels as possible, at the same time as trying out as many new motorcycling experiences as he can and go on to inspire other bikers to do the same.