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Beating Valentino Rossi: the race for autonomous motorcycles

BMW's Vision Next 100: a glimpse into the future. (Photo: BMW)

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Manufacturers are presenting autonomous (!) motorcycles. These innovations could bring new insights into technological developments – how artificial intelligence and deep learning might unseat a reigning champion.

Contests between computers and humans have always been of special significance in the history of technological development: Twenty years ago, IBM’s chess computer Deep Blue showed the potential of big data and so-called brute force searches by beating world champion Garry Kasparov. Last year Google’s artificial intelligence unit DeepMind applied machine learning to beat the 18-time world champion Lee Sedol in Go, an even more complex board game.

Meanwhile a third contest has been started between man and machine. Yamaha Motors and the US research firm SRI International challenged nine times World Champion Valentino Rossi: they are training their robot Motobot to ride a motorcycle around a race course faster than the famous Italian with his trademark number 46. So far, the purple robot made from composite material has already moved on from straights to cornering on complicated courses reaching speeds of 62 miles per hour (100 kmh).

More gung-ho than a human

But: why on earth would anyone invent a driverless motorbike? Just like IBM’s and Google’s challenges eventually resulted in valuable applications of big data and artificial intelligence in other fields, the motorcycle race could also bring more general advances. Probably the most important benefit: increasing road safety. In 2015, in the USA alone almost 5,000 people died in motorcycle crashes, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report. Motorcyclists were 29 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a crash. And just like with car automation, another expectation is to make the drive more comfortable. Taking your hands off the handlebar to do a little stretching during the ride? It could soon be reality.

Yamaha's Motobot aims to beat Valentino Rossi on the race track. (Photo: Yamaha)

To achieve those goals, intense research is necessary, as SRI’s public relations manager Dina Basin explains. “The topic of autonomous driving is one that SRI is deeply focused on, and our experts are actively working on key technology such as sensor fusion, data analytics and processing, applied artificial intelligence and machine learning for autonomous vehicle control and cyber security.“

More concretely, Philip von Guggenberg, SRI’s director of business development and advanced tech systems, explained to Wired. „We want to push the motorcycle beyond the limits a human being would feel comfortable.“ That could prove helpful in developing better systems for traction and stability control that were previously out of reach. As Hiroshi Saijou, CEO of Yamaha’s Motor Ventures, added: “Before we proved the concept, several smart people were not sure whether this was possible. Now the conversation has changed to what the future might hold!”

Automated driving for motorcyles is coming

Other companies have already given a glimpse of that. In January Honda unveiled its concept motorcycle Riding Assist at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The bike balances itself while moving at slow speed and thus reduces the risk of falling over when it is at rest. In contrast to other self-balancing systems it does not use mass-shifting devices such as gyroscopes, which add extra weight. Instead it increases the fork angle of the front suspension, lengthening the wheelbase and disconnecting the front forks from the handlebar. Then, like a cyclist standing almost still next to a traffic light, it applies very small steering movements to balance the bike.

Hondas's Riding Assist balances itself while moving at slow speed. (Photo: Honda)

Furthermore, Honda also showed the bike’s ability to drive itself. In a video presented by the company the bike slowly follows its owner as he walks away. This ability to park itself implies an ambition of Honda to develop self-driving technologies for motorcycles.

Safe enough to ride without a helmet

Last October, BMW presented its concept Vision Next 100 as part of its 100th anniversary celebrations. The zero-emissions bike also uses self-balancing wheels that are designed to stand upright without falling - even at a complete stop. A special pair of glasses allows the bike to project relevant information about road safety and other cars into the driver's field of vision. The company said that the motorbike was even safe enough to be driven without a helmet.

The Vision Next 100 comes with a special pair of glasses. (Photo: BMW)

Later this year, BMW went on to unveil a scooter called Concept Link. This future urban vehicle uses various forms of interconnection with the smart phone, surrounding traffic and even the driver, through functional clothes that can vibrate or blink in certain situations. Stephan Schaller, head of BMW Motorrad, recently told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Let’s think 20 years ahead: Cars will mainly use electric motors and will be heavily connected. To survive, the motorcycle will also have to become less noisy, emission-free and use the safety-features of connectivity that the car industry is developing for autonomous driving.”

“None of that is very far away”, predicts Schaller with respect to BMW’s two motorcycle concepts. “It is real, and a lot will happen in a timeframe of three to eight years.” However, what will happen to the fun of driving? After all, motorcycles have never simply been a means to get from point A to point B. Will people still enjoy riding autonomous motorbikes?  It’s a question only the consumer will be able to answer.

What do you think about this? Would you buy a motorcycle with automated driving features like self-balancing and fully automated driving?

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