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Do motorcyclists need to stay in control?

FEMA’s mailboxes overflow with messages about autonomous driving cars, C-ITS (connected intelligent transport systems), or just ITS, smart roads and other developments that suggest driver-free traffic in the very near future.

Or at least a situation where control is more and more transferred from human drivers to machines. Daily new developments, congresses, workshops et cetera are announced. Sometimes it makes me think that human drivers and riders are an endangered species and technique is taking over control on the road.

Often I take part in meetings about all kinds of ITS. I do this for two reasons. It is the best way to know what is going on and how it will affect us riders. The second reason is that all those people working on ITS, C-ITS, smart infrastructure and autonomous driving cars do this from the perspective of car drivers. Oh, of course they take the vulnerable road users into account, but usually it turns out that with vulnerable road users they mean bicyclists and pedestrians. Motorcyclists, moped riders and even bicyclists who go a bit faster on their e-bikes are out of scope.

These are the moments I have to stand up and remind them of our existence. Not too long ago a Belgian professor presented his new invention with a device built into a car that recognizes potholes and other road damages and warns other car drivers and the road authorities. When I asked where motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles came into scope he was really surprised. In his view we could easily evade the potholes, so why would we need a warning system?

Recently the FIA, the federation of car driver associations, launched a campaign ‘my car, my data’. Cars are riding computers these days that can send and receive data. The received data is mostly entertainment, like digital audio broadcast (DAB) or traffic information that is processed by the build-in navigation system. Sometimes it is updates of software. The sent data…. Well, we really don’t know yet. The car manufacturers consider these data their property and want it to discover malfunctions of the cars in an early stage, to enhance driving performance. At least, that is what they say. But of course there is another reason too: data is money and to have access to the data and to control the data is a way of making money. This is the reason why the FIA advocates to store the data into a cloud that is controlled by manufacturers and other stakeholders like the car owners and to the right to switch off the signals from the devices. Like FEMA they consider the data the property of the owner of the vehicle.

Some cars are already connected, no motorcycle is connected yet. However: if you own a BMW motorcycle your BMW workshop reads out the data of your on-board diagnostics system device (OBD) and transmits part of this (anonymously) to BMW headquarters for further use. BMW claims this is for quality management reasons. Reading out data online is a first step to connected riding. But data can also be used to enhance road safety. Data about your direction and speed can be used to warn other road users of your existence and a possible risk of collision. SMIDSY’s (Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You) can be something of the past with a well designed and regulated use of data from your bike. FEMA is engaged in the C-ITS working group of the European Commission, which deals with the questions around C-ITS and the answers and solutions to these.

Autonomous driving cars are hot. The first car manufacturer hasn’t yet presented his new inventions, often paired with a very optimistic time schedule for implementation, or the second one comes with an even nicer gadget and an more ambitious schedule. And then Tesla says: “But we already have an autonomous driving car, we have just updated the software!” This is the moment you have to step back and take a good look to what is really happening. Yes, Google has its ‘self-driving cars’, but when you read a bit further it turns out that these drive in a very limited area with a speed of maximum 40 km/h (25 mp/h). They have not been tested in heavy rain or snow yet, do not recognize potholes, do not notice instructions given by human beings on the road (like stop signs from policemen), have some difficulties with traffic lights that are not in its system and cannot predict what other road users might do. This already caused some accidents. The other projects have similar restrictions, although maybe not all of them at the same time. The Tesla for example is not an autonomously driving car. At best the autopilot is an advanced driver’s-assistance feature for use on the highways. It has its limits, like needing painted lines on the road and not being able to recognize stop signs.

We don’t know when really autonomous driving cars will hit the public roads. Cars that without human interference can go from and to any place in the world and that can deal with other traffic, with all the seemingly not logical things and behaviour you see on the road, and where you have to stick with unwritten rules to have a smoothly moving traffic. And then: where will we – the riders – be in this? The autonomous driving cars will have to be able to deal with motorcycles that behave different from cars, that are often not ‘connected’, that cannot suddenly brake in corners, but that can ride between the lanes in heavy traffic and that are much more agile than cars. To deal with this goes further than just applying the clever techniques we see nowadays launched and this will take much more time.

I’m not afraid of autonomous driving cars as such. I think there will be room for us next to them, but it will take some fights to be recognized and to establish our rights as road users. The thing that worries me is this: the manufacturers are involved in a very strong competition and all want to be the first to adapt new techniques. The results are recalls, malfunctioning cars and motorcycles, clients who rightfully have the perception that they are used as test drivers. Even Volvo recently had a recall of some models because of malfunctioning software that affected acceleration and breaking. At the same time Volvo claims that the first ‘self-driving’ Volvos are already on the roads in Sweden and next year the first 100 ‘autonomous driving’ Volvos will be used by real-world customers in the area of Gothenburg.

We must really make certain that the manufacturers will take their time and the first autonomous driving cars will be free of teething problems and be tested in an environment with motorcycles.

Written by Dolf Willigers