Motorcycles Are On-The-Road To Becoming Semi-Autonomous And Fully Autonomous

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By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

At last week’s TechCrunch TC Sessions: Mobility summit in San Jose, California on July 10, 2019, at one point the main stage was adorned with two awesome looking motorcycles (shall I dare say “gnarly” or “coolest” as they were tech-laden feature-packed prototypes).

Jay Giraud, founder and CEO of Damon, a high-tech startup seeking to reinvent personal mobility, came onto the stage and shared his vision of how smarter, safer, electric motorcycles are the wave of the future and showcased his assertion by demonstrating the two working prototypes that he had brought with him. He’s got e-motorcycles on his mind and besides showcasing the tech that his firm has infused into the motorcycles, he also pointed out that the global enterprise motorcycle market is around $90 billion annually and growing at a serious clip, making this a sizable market worthy of tackling and transforming.

For more about TechCrunch’s TC Mobility summit, see: https://techcrunch.com/events/tc-sessions-mobility-2019/

For more about Damon, see :https://damonxlabs.com/

We all know that riding a motorcycle in today’s car-crazed dog-eat-dog traffic morass can be extremely hair raising and outright dangerous.

Car drivers often neglect to notice motorcyclists, or see a motorcycle but don’t seem to give a motorcyclist the same roadway respect that they might of another car. Motorcyclists have to be extraordinarily vigilant as drivers of a motorcycle. It doesn’t take much of a momentary lapse in attention or judgment to find yourself hurling toward a dicey moment, leading to a possible crash or otherwise becoming another injury or fatal motorcycle death statistic.

Generally, those trying to advance the tech associated with the actual driving of a motorcycle can be categorized into these buckets:

  1. a) Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) – these are features that aid the motorcyclist by detecting traffic situations and offering a warning or minor assist to the human driver of the motorcycle
  2. b) Semi-Autonomous Systems – these are features having the AI drive the motorcycle in some notable respect and yet only as a co-sharing “driver” with the human driving the motorcycle
  3. c) Fully Autonomous – this is a motorcycle entirely driven by the AI and the human on-board is a passenger and no longer considered a motorcycle driver per se

Let’s consider some facets about the challenges involved in trying to achieve heightened levels of autonomy for a motorcycle.

As readers of my column know, seeking to create autonomous cars is pretty much a “given” in that everyone assumes that’s where the AI systems are going to be developed and applied for roadway self-driving aspects. Few realize that the same kind of autonomous driving is being pursued with motorcycles.

If you ponder the topic for a moment, it becomes apparent that this is a daunting task, for a myriad of reasons (I’ll be covering many herein).

For my article about self-driving cars as a moonshot, see: https://www.aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/self-driving-car-mother-ai-projects-moonshot/

For the affordability of self-driving cars, see my article: https://www.aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/affordability-of-ai-self-driving-cars/

For the cognitive aspects involved in the AI of self-driving cars, see my article: https://www.aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/cognitive-timing-for-ai-self-driving-cars/

For my article about Machine Learning and self-driving, see: https://www.aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/machine-learning-ultra-brittleness-and-object-orientation-poses-the-case-of-ai-self-driving-cars/

Motorcycles Are Alluring

When I was in my late-teens, I wanted to ride motorcycles. It was considered cool, and still is by many. There was this maverick image of being a motorcycle rider. You were free. You went with the wind. You were different. You were someone that bucked the system.

A good friend of mine was a dirt bike rider and he offered to show me how to drive a motorcycle.

Notice that I just used the word “drive” when mentioning a motorcycle. There are motorcyclists that don’t like the use of the word drive when referring to being on a motorcycle. They say that you “drive a car” but that for a motorcycle you “ride a motorcycle.”

I certainly don’t want to quibble on this point, but I would say that when you “ride” on something it could be that you are merely a passenger, while when you “drive” something it implies you are actually directing the activities of the machine. This will be an important distinction here, and so that’s why I bring up the semantics aspects of the words “drive” versus “ride.”

Anyway, my parents were completely opposed to my riding and/or driving on motorcycles.

They felt strongly that a motorcycle was a dangerous form of transportation. They emphasized that those on the motorcycle could easily be thrown off the motorcycle and therefore could then be vulnerable to being run over by cars or that your body would certainly get torn apart if you hit the pavement at say 70 miles per hour.

They also pointed out that there are a lot of car drivers that don’t pay attention to motorcycles and thus even if I was really good at motorcycle riding or driving that nonetheless a car at any time could plow into me. They showed me pictures of people that had been involved in motorcycle accidents and deaths (these were rather gruesome photos to look at), along with sharing with me the sobering statistics about the number of motorcycle incidents annually (a chilling number).

This was a quite rational, sensible, logic-based way of explaining why I should neither ride on and nor drive a motorcycle.

So, of course, being a rebellious teenager, I completely disregarded their advice and sneaked out to the desert with my friends so that I could learn how to drive a motorcycle.

Yes, that’s the maverick in me.

In the end, I admittedly never personally took to motorcycles that much. I would go riding with my friends in the desert, but never pursued getting a motorcycle license for the public roadways riding and did not drive or ride a motorcycle on city streets. Each to their own cup of tea.

I am now though quite interested in motorcycles.

Nowadays, I am interested in motorcycles because of their potential for being self-driving vehicles.

How Motorcycles Can Be Self-Driving Vehicles

When I bring up the topic of self-driving motorcycles at my various presentations on driverless cars and autonomous vehicles, I usually get some pretty quizzical looks.

People will often say to me that it makes no sense to have a self-driving motorcycle. In their view, the whole purpose of a motorcycle is that it involves the close relationship between the human rider (driver) and the bike itself. A motorcycle is intended to provide that freedom of driving that allows the maverick to go where they want and how they want. This seems completely antithetical to the concept of having a self-driving capability.

I know that at first glance it might seem like an odd combination.

Motorcycle and AI combined together to have a self-driving motorcycle. Where does the human fit into that equation, you might wonder.

In a sense, you could look at this combination in a different light and see that if you did have a self-driving motorcycle that it could open the door toward morel humans riding on motorcycles than we have today.

Yes, when you consider that driving a conventional motorcycle does require a sufficient skillset and you technically do need to get a motorcycle driving license, there is a bit of a barrier to entry of deciding you want to be a motorcycle driver. Even if you are a motorcycle driver today and think that the getting of a motorcycle driver’s license is a bit of a joke (some would say it is extremely easy), it is indeed a perceived barrier to a lot of people that have contemplated getting a motorcycle. Also, the mechanical aspects of using a motorcycle just seems overly complicated to many in terms of how to use the clutch, how to use the throttle, etc.

Voila, imagine if there was a self-driving fully autonomous motorcycle that all a human needed to do was sit on the motorcycle and the rest of the driving was done by the on-board AI.

No driver’s license needed for the human. No awareness of how to start, drive, or stop the motorcycle is needed by the human. Just jump on the motorcycle and away you go—I assure you that this would attract a whole lot of people that otherwise would not have ventured onto a motorcycle.

It could blast wide open the sales of motorcycles.

Motorcycle Consumer Trends And Self-Driving Cars

You might find of interest that the current market for consumer use of conventional motorcycles in the United States is somewhat in the doldrums. Sales have been flat and tend to be falling. Baby boomers are aging out of the motorcycle industry.

Millennial’s aren’t as attracted to motorcycles as were the baby boomers. Most of the buyers of motorcycles continue to be predominantly men. If you are a motorcycle dealer, it is rough times, for sure, and right now the future of conventional motorcycles looks gloomy.

There are some critics that are predicting an utter meltdown in the motorcycle industry once the self-driving car comes along.

The thinking is that people will not care anymore about using motorcycles and will be very happy to just ride along in self-driving cars.

And, there are some that predict we will change the nature of our roads to accommodate self-driving cars, making special lanes for them and ultimately forcing human driven cars into slow lanes to discourage humans from driving cars. Likewise, they claim that motorcycles won’t be allowed around the self-driving cars since a human driven motorcyclist will mess up the coordinated dance of self-driving cars that are trying to make traffic flow maximally efficient.

There was even a recent accident in San Francisco involving a human driven motorcycle and a self-driving car—so far, the motorcyclist was considered at fault. Supposedly, the motorcyclist made a lane change and the motorcycle and the self-driving car bumped into each other—the police faulted the motorcyclist for not making a safe lane change. This kind of circumstance will likely give rise to self-driving car proponents including politicians of seeking some kind of ban of motorcycles on the roadways that have self-driving cars.

I don’t agree that we’ll as a society be entirely banishing human motorcyclists to be in a second-class citizen position on our highways, and nor do I see that the motorcycle messes up the traffic smarts of self-driving cars per se (in my view, the self-driving cars should be AI savvy enough to deal with this and not place the burden onto the shoulders of the motorcyclists).

You can divide the marketplace into consumer-used motorcycle efforts, for everyday and occasional riding, and then there’s also a significant chunk of motorcycle riding involving fleet motorcycle efforts. By fleets, I’m referring to police and other authorities or workers that use motorcycles as an integral part of their job.

So, you could have fleets of self-driving motorcycles that are being used by workers that need to use a motorcycle as an element of their job.

And, you could attract gobs of people that might have never considered riding on a motorcycle, allowing them to finally taste the joys and adventure of being on a motorcycle.

Just as being an occupant in a self-driving car won’t take any skill by a human, nor would the human need to have any true skill in riding on a self-driving motorcycle. In theory, it would be like sitting on a motorcycle behind a top professional motorcycle driver, and just hanging on and enjoying the ride.

Big Question About Driving Of A Motorcycle

This does bring up one knotty question that I know you motorcycle driving fans have.

Will a self-driving motorcycle allow the human rider to drive the motorcycle, or will the motorcycle be only driven by the AI?

For those that aren’t into motorcycles, you might think this question is not important, and your view might be that of course we wouldn’t let the humans drive the motorcycles any longer once we have AI-proficient self-driving motorcycles. Certainly, it would be better and safer to always have the AI driving the motorcycles. The humans would be passengers, that’s it.

Some motorcyclists will tell you that you will only pry their “cold dead hands” from the throttle of their motorcycle and that never shall it be that humans cannot actually drive a motorcycle.

As a relevant aside, the same question has yet to be resolved about self-driving cars.

Will we as a society decree that a fully autonomous car can never be a human driven car? In other words, you get into a fully driverless car, and decide that you want to be the driver, so you flip a switch that says the AI is no longer the driver and instead you are the driver. Some automakers are saying that their Level 5 fully autonomous cars won’t have any driving controls for humans, thus, presumably a licensed human driver in such a car would not be able to drive it even if they wanted to do so.

It’s still an unresolved matter.

Let’s put to the side for now the debate about whether humans will be allowed to drive a motorcycle, and focus on the topic of self-driving motorcycles overall.

Aspects Of Self-Driving Motorcycles

A fully autonomous motorcycle would allow for a human passenger or passengers to glide along and enjoy the wind and freedom of being on a motorcycle.

The humans would not need to know how to drive the motorcycle.

Presumably, they would not manipulate or utilize any of the controls. The humans would not steer, nor brake, nor accelerate. The human is strictly a rider.

The human though does need to actively participate in the riding process per se. Of course, the human rider would need to lean properly into the riding process for the physics of the ride, and would need to make sure they stay on the motorcycle. In other words, the human does have some duties, but the duties are all about being a good passenger. This doesn’t require much of any skill and is really just more about doing the right thing when on the motorcycle.

You could somewhat say the same thing about being an occupant in a self-driving car, in that you are expected to not roll down the windows of the self-driving car and climb out on the hood of the self-driving car. There are proper things to do when being a passenger in a self-driving car and likewise for a self-driving motorcycle.

Nonetheless, I think we’d all agree that a motorcycle rider is likely to be more involved in the maneuvering and actions of a self-driving motorcycle than they will be as an occupant inside a self-driving car.

Some of you might be wondering whether the human passenger would have to be on the motorcycle in order to keep the motorcycle balanced while it is being driven by the AI. In essence, would it be a requirement that a self-driving motorcycle could only move along if there was a human passenger on it.

The answer is no.

I say this because Honda for example has developed a new concept motorcycle that can balance itself, doing so not only at regular speeds but also at a low-speed crawl and even when the motorcycle comes to a complete stop (as are other motorcycle makers). So, interestingly, we could have motorcycles that drive along our roads all by themselves. No human needed.

Admittedly, this would be at first a bit eerie.

Though, keep in mind that we are going to have self-driving cars that drive around all by themselves and there won’t necessarily be any human passengers in them either.

It’s a new reality that we’ll need to come to accept.

The envisioned future of self-driving cars is that your AI self-driving car will be able to drive on its own here-and-there as based on the needs of the human owner; for example, it takes you to work, and then maybe you opt to send your self-driving car home where it can then be used by the kids to get over to school, and later in the day your self-driving car picks them up after school and drops them back at home, and finally at the end of the workday it comes to pick you up. All the time, the self-driving car is without any human driver, and for some of the time there isn’t any humans inside the self-driving car at all.

You could do the same with a self-driving motorcycle.

Maybe ride it to work, and then send it on its own over to a friend that needs to use it for some errands, and then the friend routes it back over to your office.

Some of the motorcycle-futurists envision that a motorcycle might be redesigned as a result of the self-driving capability.

For example, one concept is the Exocycle, which is a self-driving motorcycle that looks somewhat like the ones used in the movie Tron. It is an enclosed cockpit like contraption. The human occupants sit inside of a frame and are protected from the environment similar to sitting inside a car. A distinction for the Exocycle over a self-driving car is that the Exocycle remains relatively slim in comparison to a self-driving car.

That being the case, the designers also came up with the idea that two Exocycles could connect to each other, side-by-side, and drive together, doing so in a width that is somewhat the same as the width of a car.

It seems doubtful that the Exocycle would give the same kind of thrill ride that a conventionally shaped motorcycle would provide. As such, I think that the concept of an enclosed self-driving motorcycle is perhaps closer to a self-driving car concept than it is akin to a self-driving motorcycle per se.

BMW has a futuristic concept motorcycle called the Motorrad Vision Next 100, which pretty much resembles a Speed Racer look-and-feel. They suggest that the design eliminates the need for the rider of the motorcycle to wear any protective gear (this seems somewhat questionable), but anyway the design of the Motorrad assumes that the rider is the driver, and so it is not envisioned as a self-driving motorcycle. If you are a believer that motorcycles will always (or should always) have a human driver, the BMW approach might be rather appealing to you.

Robot That Rides A Motorcycle

An interesting alternative to a built-in self-driving motorcycle consists of having a robot that can drive a motorcycle.

This is clever because it means that all existing motorcycles could (in theory) become “self-driving” by simply having the robot sit on the motorcycle and drive it along. You could then sit behind the robot and hang-on as a passenger, or you could send your robot-driven motorcycle to go do errands for you.

Yamaha pitted an early version of such a robot against a professional motorcycle driver, and the company admits that trying to develop such a “humanoid” type robot is like a moonshot. I’d speculate that having a fully functional humanoid-like robot that could also drive a motorcycle is a lot further off in the future than the formulation of a self-driving motorcycle.

But, anyway, it’s an intriguing notion that posits the idea that rather than trying to reformulate the motorcycle itself, just create a human shaped robot that could drive a motorcycle.

Let’s take a moment and consider what makes a self-driving motorcycle a difficult proposition.

Why Self-Driving Motorcycles Is A Moonshot Plus

I’ll start by considering the hardware side of things, and make a comparison to self-driving cars.

When you look at a self-driving car you’ll notice that there are numerous sensors on the self-driving car. The added bulk of the sensors is not especially overwhelming and so a car can bear the added weight and such.

For a motorcycle, putting those same kinds of sensors onto the slim frame of a motorcycle is not going to be easy, especially if we wanted to include multiple cameras, radar units, sonar units, LIDAR, etc. In that sense, one must question the viability of having a self-driving motorcycle simply due to where to put all the sensory devices, and yet at the same time keep the motorcycle slim and trim.

You would either need to accept the idea that the shape and size of a motorcycle will need to blossom a bit, or, perhaps the sensors themselves will gradually become increasingly miniaturized.

Fortunately, the tech industry is continually trying to reduce the size of such sensory devices and that bodes well for the self-driving motorcycle.

The next aspect to keep in mind is that there is a lot of computer processing needed to undertake the AI part of the self-driving vehicle. Once again, for a self-driving car, we can hide the computers in the underbody or in the trunk, and so it doesn’t particularly bulk-up the size of a car. For a motorcycle, we are faced with the sizing aspects of a slim and trim bike, and the question arises as to where we’ll fit the computers needed to sustain the self-driving capabilities.

There is also a significant cost factor involved in a self-driving vehicle. The sensor devices and the computer systems all add quite a bit to the cost of a self-driving vehicle. We tend to think of motorcycles as a less expansive alternative to cars, but a self-driving motorcycle could skyrocket in price due to all the added hardware and software.

The same can be said of a self-driving car, though we are all pretty much used to seeing expensive cars on the road and so adding another chunk of cost might not be as bad for the self-driving car buyer as it would for the self-driving motorcycle buyer.

Hopefully, the costs of the hardware and software for a self-driving vehicle will gradually come down, which makes sense as the technology becomes more commoditized and as the volume of such vehicles rises in the marketplace.

Stretching Beyond A Self-Driving Car For The AI

There are ways in which a self-driving motorcycle needs perhaps more sophisticated capabilities than does a self-driving car, and this will make it harder perhaps to develop a truly autonomous motorcycle.

A self-driving car would usually be abiding by the lanes of the roadway and stay within a lane. Indeed, most self-driving cars do a rather simple process of lane following, which is achieved by scanning for the lane painted on the road and following it along. Lane changes by a self-driving car are intended to take place only when needed and it is not an especially continuous practice.

For the self-driving motorcycle, we can assume that the motorcyclists will want to do what human drivers do, such as lane splitting. This is a harder problem than what the self-driving car faces. Also, a motorcycle can go places that a conventional car cannot readily go, such as in narrow spaces or even off the roadway and onto other areas. This again ups the ante in terms of the needed sophistication of the AI for the self-driving motorcycle.

This brings up an ethics related question that somewhat confronts self-driving cars, but perhaps even more so for self-driving motorcycles. Namely, should a self-driving motorcycle be able to undertake either illegal maneuvers or at least even ill-advised maneuvers? Or, should the AI be shaped in such a means that it won’t allow for any kind of ill-advised driving and nor any illegal driving. For existing human drivers of motorcycles, I am guessing that if a self-driving motorcycle has severe restrictions to keep it legal and not allow ill-advised driving, some of the value and joy of motorcycle riding will be driven out of the self-driving motorcycle for those human riders.

Would a self-driving motorcycle be allowed to exceed the speed limit? Would a self-driving motorcycle be allowed to do a street race against another self-driving motorcycle? Could you “burn rubber” with a self-driving motorcycle? These are all questions that aren’t technological, since any of those aspects could be undertaken by the AI, and instead fall into the realm of societal and political dimensions.

Other interesting aspects of a self-driving motorcycles also arise that aren’t necessarily raised with self-driving cars.  For example, suppose a self-driving motorcycle comes up to a red light at an intersection and properly comes to a stop. It has been sent on an errand by its owner and there is no human riding on the motorcycle.

Meanwhile, while stopped at the red light, a pedestrian decides to run over and hop onto the self-driving motorcycle. What happens now?

Should the self-driving motorcycle proceed along and allow for the interloper to join for a free ride?

Presumably, we wouldn’t want that.

So, somehow the self-driving motorcycles needs to be able to sense the presence of a rider, and also then determine what to do when a stranger decides to jump on.

Another similar kind of question involves a self-driving motorcycle that has a human rider and suppose the human rider falls off the bike. Then what? Should the self-driving motorcycle come to a halt? Suppose though that the halting action takes the self-driving motorcycle some number of yards ahead to achieve.

Would we expect the self-driving motorcycle to turn around and come back to where the human rider fell off?

I think you get the overall gist.

Conclusion

There are going to be lots of situations involving self-driving motorcycles that differ from a self-driving car. Therefore, developing a self-driving motorcycle does not imply that we can simply port over the AI of a self-driving car and voila have ourselves a functional self-driving motorcycle.

The particular aspects of a motorcycle will require a specialized AI capability. This then brings up an economic question – will there be enough money to be made from a self-driving motorcycle market to warrant the motorcycle makers or tech firms or auto makers to invest in developing self-driving motorcycles?

Some would say that the self-driving car will be sufficient and that fewer and fewer people will want or see the need for a self-driving motorcycle. There are others that say the self-driving car will gradually become so commonplace that there will be rising desire for something else, and that the “else” will be self-driving motorcycles.

We’ll have to wait see what happens as the future of the open road and how we all want to drive on it reveals itself.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.