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autonomous vehicles

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If you were reading other moto-news sites this week – first of all, shame on you – then you would have noticed much noise being made about Ford Motor Company applying for a patent on detection technology for when a motorcycle is lane-splitting between cars. What you didn’t notice, along with those other publications, is that this is nothing new from Ford, as the American automobile manufacturer was already granted a patent for this technology over a year ago. Much ado about nothing? Not quite, but the story isn’t remotely close to what was being reported elsewhere. In fact, this news of Ford’s lane-splitting patent strategy is much bigger, and much more important, than what has been in the media thus far.

I often berate the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) for not doing enough to promote and protect motorcycle riding in the United States, but we also have to give credit where credit is due, and the MIC is due a little credit for a change.

Working in conjunction with the Congressional Motorcycle Caucus, the MIC hosted a briefing titled “Intelligent Transportation Systems and Automated Vehicle Applications Impacts on Motorcycle Safety,” which focused on vehicle-to-vehicle technologies, and how they apply to motorcycles.

The briefing featured a panel of industry and research experts on the issue: Sam Campbell, BMW Group; Gary Higgins, American Honda Motor Company, Inc.; Shane McLaughlin, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute; and Eric Teoh, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Every year the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) releases data about motorcycle fatalities in the United States. The results are never that surprising, and despite some fluctuations year-to-year, the basic takeaways are always the same. Motorcyclists are way more likely to die (28x more likely per mile traveled) than automobile drivers and passengers; fatal motorcycle crashes are more likely to involve alcohol than other vehicle fatalities (25% vs. 21% for passenger cars); and motorcycle fatalities closely correlate to new motorcycle sales. The figures are of course important, but reporting the results is an exercise in playing a broken record, over and over again. Except for one statistic that caught our eye this year: motorcycle fatalities as a percentage of overall vehicle fatalities.

If you are riding in California anytime soon, you might want to think twice before blaming the state’s fleet of drivers, as The Golden State just made it legal for self-driving cars to operate without a human behind the wheel. While similar actions have stalled in the US Congress (the SELF DRIVE ACT is stuck in a Senate committee), states have begun to take matters into their own hands, like they did in Arizona. That is right, the dawn of truly autonomous vehicles has just arrived, and it is primed to change the driving landscape as we know it, which by correlation means changes for the motorcycle community as well. Announced on Monday, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) approved rules that would make it legal for automated vehicles to operate without a human behind the wheel. 

The day will come when we have to report to our autonomous vehicle overlords, and it will be an interesting day when that happens, as it will have big implications for the motorcycle industry. Until autonomous vehicles become the status quo though, they will have to continue to conform to the transportation landscape as it is right now, and one of the more difficult challenges that automobile manufacturers face is how to handle motorcycles, especially as they filter and split lanes. The Ford Motor Company is already working hard on that issue, and recently it was granted a patent by the USPTO for its lane-splitting detection system for autonomous vehicles.

When you think of the Piaggio Group, in terms of its two-wheeled creations, your thoughts probably conjure up images of motorcycles made by Aprilia or Moto Guzzi, or maybe a scooter with a Vespa badge on it. Surely, the Gita is not what first comes first to your mind, but it might be the most impactful idea from the Italian brand to-date. Sure, the brightly colored self-balancing rolling cylinder doesn’t seem like much of a novel creation, even with its ability to follow its owner, or autonomously navigate a prescribed route. But then again, you have probably been carrying stuff around in our arms, or on your back, like a big sucker.

vimeo.com/19217972

So, this is what the future is going to look like. “Drivers” will hop into their cars, and zip around town, without paying any attention to the road in front of them. Cynics might say that already happens, but this scenario is about to move from hyperbole to reality very, very quickly, in a very, very interesting way.

When I say it will be interesting, I mean it in the old Chinese curse of “may you live in interesting times” sort of way.

Autonomous vehicles are going to usher in a revolution for transportation. They will change the way we commute, and change the way goods are transported. They will reduce on-road fatalities in motor vehicles, while also increasing the ethical concerns of transportation. It will be interesting.

For motorcyclists, it’s not clear what this all means. Motorcycles might become the two-wheeled escape from the autonomous grind, pushing our industry further into the “consumer discretionary income” realm and novelty. We should ask ourselves: is this a good thing?

It’s also just as easy to imagine a world where “unsafe” non-autonomous vehicles get outlawed, if for no other reason than the divergence they pose to the system.

Our one saving grace is that autonomous vehicle technology has to grow up in a world where it is several standard deviations outside of the norm. Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, etc do not feed into the system that pilots a car like the Tesla Models S, shown in the video after the jump.

Instead, these vehicles have to evolve and grow-up in a world that doesn’t cater to them. That’s interesting too, but more so when you look at how a Tesla Model S perceives the environment around it – reading road signs, assessing objects in its path, understanding the markings of its environment.

It’s something to think about on your commute today.

I had to check the A&R archives to see if we have even mentioned Lit Motors before, mostly because the the San Francisco startup has been slow to develop its self-balancing motorcycle, and I’m not terribly bullish on the project. That doesn’t mean the concept is without merit though, and its apparently caught the interest of Apple. If that sounds strange to you, then you need to understand that Apple, along with a bevy of other tech giants, is working on an autonomous car for the masses. This “Project Titan” as it’s called, has already seen Apple poach a couple of Lit Motors’ personnel, and now the most valuable company in the world is looking at acquiring Lit Motors, and/or other automotive entities, according to the New York Times.

Coverage of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s referendum whether to continue as a member of the European Union, has largely been ignored in the United States, and it certainly hasn’t been a blip on the radar recently within our microcosm of the motorcycle industry. But of course, the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union will have far-reaching consequences, even in our beloved little two-wheeled world. There is a lot of politics at play here, and I don’t care to rehash it, other than to say that it could be a foreshadow of what could come soon in the United States as well. What I do have to say though is an examination of how the United Kingdom leaving the European Union can and will affect the world of motorcycling.

After much buzz and fanfare regarding the future of Volkswagen, which in-turn called into question the future of Ducati, today we finally get a glimpse into how VW is going to soldier forth from the fallout of its “Dieselgate” scandal. Instead of announcing how the company was going to restructure itself, and review its current business holdings and ventures, as was reportedly widely in financial circles, instead today saw Volkswagen strongly staking its future in electric and autonomous cars. For Ducatisti, some good news does emerge, as Ducati certainly won’t be leaving its home in the Volkswagen Group. To drive that point further, a Ducati representative confirmed to A&R the words of Audi Chairman Rupert Stadler, who said emphatically that “Ducati is NOT FOR SALE”.

When Valentino Rossi was in the US for the Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin, a little bird told us he would be stopping by Yamaha’s San Francisco offices, where the Yamaha Motobot autonomous riding robot project is coming to life.

It looks like our sources were right, as Yamaha has released a video showing Rossi “meeting” Motobot, at what looks like Thunderhill Raceway, just north of San Francisco.

The video is interesting, because it shows the rapid progress that Yamaha, and its partner SRI International, are making with automated two-wheeled systems.