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Have you ever sat down and thought what the future of motorcycling looks like?
I’m not talking here about whether we’ll all be riding some battery powered variant of what you have today (you will; it’s not if but when), or if we’ll all be riding around on speeder bikes like Storm Troopers on Endor (yes please). No, what I am talking about is will you even be allowed to ride?
Before you accuse me of scaremongering, bear with me for a few minutes: Self driving cars are coming and I can see them being both a good thing and a bad thing.
Why Self Driving Cars are good for motorcycles
How many times have you been nearly hit by someone who SMIDSY’d you? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard that cheery “Sorry, Mate. I Didn’t See You” as I pull up alongside a car and I explain why the driver needs to put down their cellphone. Or stop at the intersection and look. Or just plain wake up. Self driving cars, are going to change all that.
SMIDSYs especially at T-junctions are the second most common cause of motorcycle accidents. Cars, pulling out of the intersection frequently don’t see us because we are small and faster than the driver is anticipating. But a computer, trained to look for that sort of thing, can only be better.
Let’s face it, most people are actually crap at driving. I think George Carlin put it best when he said, “Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac”. Everyone behind the wheel overestimates their capabilities, and yes, that also includes you and I.
It should be pretty obvious: Almost the entire adult population drives. Is there anything that the entire adult population is good at? I can’t think of anything.
Personally, I think most people will be quite happy to buy a car that can drive them wherever they need to go, because that way they can do other things. Kids will cram in extra homework on the way to school, business people will prepare for client meetings, and (more common in my neighbourhood) people will drive around speaking on cellphones whilst trying to simultaneously eat a donut and drink very nasty coffee. Or just drink a beer at 9am like I saw the other day.
And then there’s the congestion. We as motorcyclists shouldn’t have to suffer this. We can lane split. Or use a bus lane, and progressive states have already figured this out: If you’ve ever ridden in California or Europe, you’ll know what I mean.
On their own, increasing motorcycle usage makes roads better. In Belgium one study suggested that a 10% shift from cars to motorcycles improved commute times by 40% for everyone http://newatlas.com/motorcycles-reduce-congestion/21420
A new study suggests that moving only 10% of cars to self-driving could also reduce traffic congestion by avoiding those “human” mistakes, such as lane chopping, acceleration lag, etc. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/7845667/?reload=true
Once cars are under computer control, there’s no reason to increase road speeds. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can respond much faster to adverse conditions--which is the ultimate factor legislating road speeds we today.
As AI takes over navigation, cars will stick even more predictably to the main roads, leaving the often more interesting back roads to us.
The AI promise is big. Not only will we be able to improve congestion and travel time, but decrease pollution and accidents, too.
With all that, I think it’s fairly clear that the only logical choice for governments will be to conclude that some people are no longer allowed to drive. Over time, I’m sure that will become no-one is allowed to drive.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla is slightly biased, said this: “You can’t have a person driving a two-tonne death machine”. When you consider bad drivers today, you have to admit, he has a point.
Why self-driving cars are bad for motorcycles
That idea that no-one will be allowed to drive will put motorcycles in an odd position.
We riders will become the primary liability on the road. Yes, autonomous cars will be able to see us better and avoid us more readily, but we will become the unpredictable factors. How long before people start saying, “You can’t have a person driving a two-hundred kilogram death machine," especially when they get in the way of AI cars? In many places, government and driver attitudes already make it feel like motorcycles could be legislated off major highways dominated by self-driving vehicles.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, bikes will be the one refuge for those looking for an escape from the automated future of the cage.
Maybe motorcycles will finally be allowed to lane split, once authorities trust that self-driving cars can 'looking' before changing lanes.
The proliferation of self-driving vehicles can also lead to a greater usage of motorcycles on closed courses or off-road.
It would require land, and someone willing to build the facility. I, for one, hope it happens. With electric bikes, we can have inner city motocross tracks at last. Nothing quite matches the feeling of being able to ride a bike and I never want to stop.
I’m sure at least one company will build a self-driving motorcycle, or overrides your driving and takes over when you do something stupid or wander into danger--but do we really want that?
Hunter S. Thompson, once famously said of motorcycling “Faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death”. Would it still be motorcycling without that fear? Isn’t it just a fairground ride at that point? Then again, Hunter Thompson also mentioned something about the drugs kicking in around Barstow and begin buzzed by bats, so maybe it’s OK.
Besides, with ABS and engine management anyway, aren't we half way there already? Is avoidance management any worse?
The self-driving apocalypse or a golden age for motorcycles?
That, my friends, is the real question. Most of what I’ve said so far is a guess; my personal opinion, and now you want me to tell you when it’s going to happen so you can sell your bike?
I don’t think it will be that soon. BMW said they’ll have a full, level-five self-driving car in a few years. But that’s a high end, brand new vehicle.
I remember reading that it takes 7-8 years for half the cars in the market to be replaced. Given that technology needs to trickle down to lower-end models, I predict that mass market “you can no longer drive” type penetration is 15-20 years away.
The good point about all of this is that if I'm right, and that a few self-driving cars make the roads better, we have a window where road usage is about to get way more fun. Higher speeds, less congestion and safer access mean motorcycling may just be about to hit a new golden age.
And who doesn’t want that?