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Will self-driving cars push motorcycles off the road?

Will there be a place on the road for motorcycles in a world with self-driving cars? FEMA’s Dolf Willigers takes a closer look at the future of our beloved bikes.

The question that concerns many motorcyclists is if there will be a place for them in a world with automatic and connected driving cars and other vehicles. Automated driving motorcycles is something that nobody seriously wants to consider. And be assured, despite some prototypes and views into the future, no motorcycle manufacturer has plans in this direction. But still, is there a future for us in an automated and connected environment?

Let’s start with looking what is already there and what we can expect. Cars are becoming more automated and connected. Every new car has some advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) on board. Think of adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, blind corner warning, advanced emergency braking, et cetera. In several years there will even be more systems.

In 2019 the European Union adopted the General Safety Regulation, which means that from July 2022 all new cars, vans, busses and lorries must be fitted with a large number of safety devices:
– Advanced emergency braking (cars, vans)
– Alcohol interlock installation facilitation (cars, vans, trucks, buses),
– Drowsiness and attention detection (cars, vans, trucks, buses)
– Distraction recognition / prevention (cars, vans, trucks, buses)
– Event (accident) data recorder (cars, vans, trucks, buses)
– Emergency stop signal (cars, vans, trucks, buses)
– Full-width frontal occupant detection crash test – improved seatbelts (cars and vans)
– Head impact zone enlargement for pedestrians and cyclists -safety glass in case of crash (cars and vans)
– Intelligent speed assistance (cars, vans, trucks, buses)
– Lane keeping assist (cars, vans)
– Pole side impact occupant protection (cars, vans)
– Reversing camera or detection system (cars, vans, trucks, buses)
– Tyre pressure monitoring system (vans, trucks, buses)
– Vulnerable road user detection and warning on front and side of vehicle (trucks and buses)
– Vulnerable road user improved direct vision from driver’s position (trucks and buses).

Not all these devices are ADAS or automate part of the driving, but most of them are smaller or bigger steps towards automated vehicles. Next to this, many car manufacturers are already connecting the cars to your smartphone and to the factory with services like App Connect (Volkswagen), Mercedes Me Connect, FordPass Connect and Ford Sync 4A, BMW ConnectedDrive.

Dolf Willigers, testing the automated systems in a Tesla (photo by Wim Taal)

Of course, all these systems are very nice, but not every vehicle, let alone every road user, is fitted with them. Also, cars and other road users are still not connected with each other and full connectivity, where everything and everybody is somehow connected, will probably never exist. So, cars that are fitted with ADAS and safety devices must be able to recognize not only other connected vehicles but also – and perhaps more importantly – other road users that are not connected. People can look ahead for kilometres and react to obstacles that are away. Human drivers will spot a tow truck or a van from a road assistance service with warning lights long before they are near them and can react in a proper way by shifting one or more lanes and reducing speed. Present cameras, radar and lidar sensors and their software still cannot. This has been illustrated several times by accidents with Tesla’s that did not react to stationary vehicles on the roadside. Also complicated situations with traffic lights, bad or even not existing road markings, pedestrians and cyclists, most of the time giving their own interpretation on traffic rules, provide an environment that automated vehicles cannot deal with.

A very simple example of failing sensors was given by a preliminary test of the Netherlands Vehicle Authority (RDW) in 2017, after complaints from FEMA and two Dutch organizations, showed that all the adaptive cruise control systems of the tested cars did not recognize motorcycles that rode on the edge of the lane. We wrote about this in March 2018. As a result of these tests RDW and FEMA agreed to work together to have a mandatory test with motorcycles for these kinds of systems. This resulted in a clause in the (still draft) revision of the UN ECE Regulation 79, in which – among other things – is regulated that cars can in future have an automatic lane changing assist system. This is the first step in the legislation for automated vehicles. Part of the regulation is also that new devices must be tested with motorcycles.

Connected vehicles
Connected is one of the buzzwords in present and future mobility. What exactly does it mean? There are several ways in which a vehicle can be connected:
IoT – The Internet of Things. This means that a car, or any other device, is connected with the internet with a smartphone, the network of the manufacturer, et cetera. These days, central heating, refrigerators and many other devices can be controlled from a distance by your smartphone or computer. When you have a car with internet connection, you can see on your smartphone where you have parked it, whether it needs servicing, you can control the heating system, but also: the manufacturer can look with you. Data from your car is sent to the server of the manufacturer. Think of: where you are (and have been), how fast you drive and brake, the mechanical condition of your car, your music choice, even the content of your smartphone (addresses, agenda, the lot) when it is connected by Bluetooth with the car can, and often will be, downloaded. Manufacturers consider this as valuable information which they can use and sell to third parties. This already happens. In general, this information is not used for road safety purposes.

V2V – Vehicle to vehicle. There are several ways to connect a vehicle to other vehicles and exchange information on the kind of vehicle, position, direction, speed, braking, obstacles, road condition, priority vehicles announce their presence, et cetera. In principle, the vehicle is permanently sending this information. This information is used for road safety purposes. Several applications of the Connected Motorcycle Consortium are based on V2V connection.

V2X – Vehicle to everything. The vehicle sends permanently information to sender/receivers along the road and to other vehicles. Again, on kind of vehicle, position, direction, speed, braking, obstacles, road condition, et cetera. It also receives information from and about the infrastructure, traffic lights, obstacles and from other road usres about the same things it sends information. This is information that is used for road safety and again several applications of the Connected Motorcycle Consortium are based on V2X connection. Also, eCall can be seen as V2X technology, but here the connection only is established in case of an accident.In the context if the article, connected means V2V and V2X connection.

Only a few years ago, between 2015 and 2018, CEOs of car manufacturers, politicians and the like were convinced that the real automated car (level 5 on the SAE scale, which is the highest level) were imminent and the first automated vehicles could be expected on the public roads as soon as 2020. In 2016 the European Ministers of Transport signed the Declaration of Amsterdam that was supposed to make it possible to use automated vehicles on public roads and cross-borders. The declaration stated that “Cooperative, connected and automated mobility is becoming a reality for EU citizens”. In these years, senior officials from research and development departments of the same manufacturing companies already told that we should not reckon with two or three years, but with two or three decades. This has never been picked up by the press.

Also, around that time, I attended a presentation by the Dutch new mobility professor Carlo van de Weijer. He showed a video clip of a typical street in Amsterdam. Pedestrians, cyclists, cars, a tram all swarmed on the street, everybody with his own interpretation of the traffic rules. Van de Weijer concluded that in a situation like this “the Google (automated) car would park itself within three minutes and start crying”. Now we can see that projects to develop automated vehicles have been stopped, goals were adjusted, budgets are limited. Predictions are adjusted to ten to thirty years. One can even wonder if automated cars for consumers will ever exist. They will probably be very expensive. Not only to purchase them, but also in taxes, maintenance and repair costs. With the growing number of sensors maintenance and repair will be much more expensive in future than we are used to. This also has an effect on the insurance fees.

Motorcycles do not need to be fitted with the above-mentioned safety devices yet, and several of them would probably do more harm than good. Nevertheless, suppliers like Bosch and Continental are developing ARAS (Advanced Rider Assistance Devices) especially for motorcycles. We have written about that extensively in December 2019, so I will not go into much detail about that. You can read the article here. The devices of Bosh and Continental take the specific dynamics of motorcycles into account and, although their function is sometimes the same as with cars, they work differently. More important is the work of the Connected Motorcycle Consortium (CMC). In this BMW, Honda, KTM and Yamaha, together with some other partners, work together on a connection of motorcycles with other vehicles in a harmonized way. The consortium has recently published its first Basis Specification. They develop new applications and set standards to let motorcycles, cars and other road users communicate which each other.

The CMC has already developed sixteen different applications, especially for motorcycles. Examples of these applications are Motorcycle Approach Warning (MAW), Forward Collision Warning (FCW), Left Turn Assist (LTA), Approaching Emergency Vehicle Warning (AEVW) and Broken-Down Vehicle Warning (BDVW). A complete overview you can find here. The motorcycle manufacturers, united in the European Motorcycle Industry Association ACEM have agreed in 2014 that in 2020 every member would have at least one model equipped with C-ITS (Connected Intelligent Transport Systems) technology. That goal has been achieved. Motorcycles may not be automated, but soon will be connected, and as we just saw on some occasions already are. This is the first step towards a situation where motorcycles will be part of an environment of automated and connected vehicles. More of this is to be expected from projects likes SAFE-UP, where sixteen large participants will try to enhance road safety for all road users, inclusive vulnerable road users (VRUs) as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists by proactively designing and analysing safety-critical scenarios in a highly automated and mixed traffic environment by integrating traffic accident data and future traffic conditions. By the way, although FEMA is not a participant in these projects, we are involved in them.

‘The self-steering motorcycles we see on YouTube were developed for research purposes and not as predecessors for real automated motorcycles.’

Will motorcycles indeed not be automated as I wrote above? Well, you might have seen the videos of a self-steering BMW without a rider, a slow-moving Honda following a person or the racing Yamaha that tried to beat Valentino Rossi. Yes, these are examples of self-steering motorcycles. And at the same time, they are not. They just followed a set and learned course on a track. The BMW copied exactly the movements of the rider, the Honda just followed its ‘master’ and the Yamaha was programmed to ride the racing track. None of them sought their own way or made decisions concerning other road users. They were developed for research purposes and not as predecessors for real automated motorcycles.

I doubt if there will ever be a market for automated motorcycles as we know them. Still, I foresee a growing need for small L-category vehicles for transport of people and goods. Costs like parking fees and tolls will rise when city councils discourage the use of cars in urban areas. We can already see the focus on public transport, cycling and walking when it comes to urban transport plans and policies. Action groups and in their wake city councils and politicians on all levels ask for a transition from the space that is now used by moving and parked cars to other users, for example cyclists, pedestrians and playing children. It is to be expected that in future there will be just no room anymore for private cars in the cities.

‘To ride safely in an environment with automated and connected vehicles, motorcycles must and will be connected too.’

We can also see a growing resistance to delivery vans for reasons of road safety and pollution. One can also question the efficiency and economic feasibility of big, heavy busses in the cities. The more when they are nearly empty outside rush hours, which is about 90% of the time. The answer to all the questions could well be small and light automated vehicles on two, three or four wheels for goods, personal and public transport. In several places in the world pilots are already running and in Wuhan (China) small automated shuttles are already used to deliver medical supplies, using public roads and negotiating with traffic. Also, outside the cities a growing need for small vehicles is to be expected.

Illustration by CMC

Cars will be more expensive in the future. Already many manufacturers like Volkswagen, Citroen, Opel (Vauxhall) have stopped building small A-class cars or have announced that the present models will not be succeeded. The reason is that it is becoming too expensive to develop and build cars like this and the margins are just too little. In some cases, they are replaced by electric models, but these are in general too expensive for the consumer. For travel from transport hubs like bus- and train stations to home or another destination, I foresee a shift from cars to, again, small electric L-category vehicles. That could be motorcycles, but also three- or four-wheeled private vehicles or automated shuttles. Of course, automated or not, all these vehicles will be equipped with safety applications as described above.

‘Is there a future for motorcyclists in an automated and connected environment?’

To conclude: there will be a future for motorcycles in a world with automated and connected vehicles. The future is to light and small vehicles, both in urban and rural areas. They can be automated too, although this is not to be expected for two-wheelers. However, the keyword here is connection. To ride safely in an environment with automated and connected vehicles, motorcycles must and will be connected too.

Written by Dolf Willigers

Top photograph by Lukas Barth/Audi

This article is subject to FEMA’s copyright

Do you think motorcycles will have a place in an automated and connected environment?