Let’s face it, we knew this day would come. Technology has finally progressed to the point where our beloved past time of riding motorcycles can now be done by a robot. Sarah Connor was right. Skynet is coming. I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.
As tinfoil hat as we can make this story, let’s be honest…it’s pretty cool that Yamaha is developing a humanoid robot that can ride a motorcycle. It’s sorta creepy, but it’s also really cool.
To help lighten the blow, Yamaha is playing off its “Motobot” with a little bit of humor, having the machine taunt factory MotoGP rider Valentino Rossi, and suggesting that one day the robot will beat the
ten-time nine-time World Champion at what he does best.
That’s fun and all, and it certainly grabs headlines, but the Yamaha Motobot is a really big deal for a lot more reasons that are less obvious than what has been put forth. Let me explain.
Yamaha Motobot > Honda ASIMO
First up, the Yamaha Motobot is a direct assault on Honda, which has been working on the ASIMO robot for 15 years now. While any engineer in robotics can tell you that ASIMO is light years ahead of Motobot in terms of accomplishing complex tasks, ASIMO has been slow to evolve in relatable ways.
After all, ASIMO just learned how to kick a soccer ball last year – a very difficult task, but one that a child masters rather quickly. There’s also the slight issue of ASIMO’s very public failures – the poor bastard should really just avoid taking the stairs, at all cost.
Yamaha’s Motobot is effectively trumping Honda’s ASIMO by taking on a task that is perceived to be more complex. Motorcycles are fast, Motobot is fast. Walking is slow, ASIMO is slow. Yamaha is good, Honda is bad…you get the idea.
Make no mistake, the release of the Yamaha Motobot at the Tokyo Motor Show is very deliberate. Just as the Suzuka 8-Hour is the place where the race teams of Japanese manufacturers go to beat their chests, the Tokyo Motor Show is where the Japanese engineers go to shine. This is the breeding ground of nerd bragging rights.
If the location of Motobot’s debut, at the Tokyo Motor Show, is so important, then we also must give weight to where Yamaha shows us the Motobot testing: Alameda, California – with a view of San Francisco in the background.
The Alameda Naval Air Station, now retired from military duty, serves as a great place to test stuff in an open area. The Mythbusters come out here occasionally, the second installment of the Matrix was filmed here, and it’s also where autonomous vehicles were first given their driving orders.
It’s of note that Yamaha is developing the Motobot in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only is the company surely tapping into the wealth of engineers who specialize in this sort of project, but also it positions Yamaha to tap into the tech community that abounds in Northern California.
Google and Tesla, two darlings of Silicon Valley, have made no secret about their autonomous vehicle projects, and even Apple is heavily rumored to be working on autonomous vehicles of its own – you may have heard the recent bullshit about Apple causing Mission Motors to fail.
While those companies are focusing on business-to-consumer (B2C) products, there is a huge potential for business-to-business (B2B) applications. Basically, imagine semi-trucks hauling loads non-stop…because they have no driver that gets tired. Trains are about to become obsolete.
For shorter stints, motorcycles and even drones might make sense, making a self-driving motorcycle a potentially lucrative technology to have. Rest assured, one day Motobot won’t have his human-like features, it will simply be the motorcycle.
The autonomous vehicle revolution might be closer than we think, but it is still some years away, as algorithms that predict traffic and judge risks continue to improve, and the ability to control every aspect of a vehicle permeates that market (brake-assist, adaptive cruise control, automated steering, etc).
Before we have a robot that learns how to balance, apex, brake, and wheelie a motorcycle, we are going first to learn a lot about rider dynamics, and that has tremendous value.
Manufacturers like Honda and Yamaha have learned a great deal about how to make a motorcycle achieve its maximum potential. In fact, the rules in MotoGP are specifically designed to less the advances engineers are making in traction and stability control, though race teams have also found some pretty clever ways around these rules.
Watch any rider mid-turn though, and you will see them whack the throttle wide-open with their right hand, leaving the motorcycle’s software to figure out how much throttle to actually give the race bike, in order to maximize traction and thus attain maximum speed.
The one things race teams cannot account for though is the rider. Teams can physically setup their motorcycles so that in theory they should provide the ultimate lap time, only to have the rider return to the pits and say the setup is all wrong.
This is because there is a very human component to riding a motorcycle, a component we know little about.
With all the telemetry available to teams, concrete objective data analyzing and expressing what the motorcycle is physically doing, we still have a very poor understanding of what the riders do on their machines.
This is because riding a motorcycle quickly is a very subjective analysis that only the best minds in the paddock can truly master.
As such, understanding the rider dynamics that go hand-in-hand with riding a motorcycle to its full potential is the next big frontier for MotoGP and other motorcycle racing classes. How does a Valentino Rossi, Marc Marquez, or Jorge Lorenzo really ride a motorcycle to the limit? We’ll have an answer to that soon, thanks to Motobot.
In time, it’s only logical to believe that engineers will be able to tell riders how they need to ride the bike in order to get the maximum, not the riders telling the team what they need in order to go fast. That should be an interesting day.
Yamaha’s Motobot might not be more than a really expensive and complicated RC toy at this point, but it has big implications for the industry, for motorcycle racing, and for the general public at large.
Yamaha can learn a great deal from this project, and the benefits can extend beyond just making better motorcycles for you and I to ride.
So with that, remember this day: it’s the day that it all started to change. If you don’t believe me, just read the last line of Yamaha’s press release on the Motobot:
“We want to apply the fundamental technology and know-how gained in the process of this challenge to the creation of advanced rider safety and rider-support systems and put them to use in our current businesses, as well as using them to pioneer new lines of business.”
In other news, Terminator is really just about a near-future where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets stuck in a paradoxical loop where he perpetually travels through time…naked.