NEW YORK -- Self-driving technology promises to pretty much transform the auto industry as we know it. It may also change the business of selling motorcycles -- but in a very different way.
It all comes down to safety, according to Karl Viktor Schaller, head of development at BMW Motorrad. When robots are at the wheel, far fewer bikers will die on the road, which won’t be lost on all those people who pine for a motorcycle but have always been too scared to buy one.
“It would mean a dramatic enhancement in safety for the motorbike,” Schaller said. “And it would guarantee a wider user group.”
The math is as straightforward as it is compelling. Consider a left turn on an American road: A vehicle turning across a lane of opposing traffic has little to do with the bike rider, but is one of the most dangerous things in motorcycling. When motorcyclists die on the road, this is how it happens one out of five times, according to crash statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
This year, about 1,000 riders in the U.S. will lose their lives to the left turns of others. Cars traveling in the same direction as the motorcycle often don’t notice the bike overtaking on the left. Cars making a turn while coming from the opposite direction either fail to see the oncoming bike, or misjudge its speed.
Robot cars, in theory, won’t make either of these mistakes. At first, they will be able to “see” the motorcycle with sensors or radar and either alert the driver or actively prevent the vehicle from cutting off the bike.
But that’s just the beginning. Eventually, motorcycles will “talk” to all of the other vehicles on the road, constantly reminding them where they are, where they are heading, and at what speed.
“We can use that to build an electronic safety cage around a motorbike,” BMW’s Schaller said.
Once every aspiring biker realizes that the driver next to him isn’t an existential threat, sales will climb in some places. Xavier Mosquet, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, said the bike boost will be most pronounced in markets such as the U.S., where people ride for fun, and in China and India, where many choose motorbikes because they are relatively inexpensive transportation.
Conversely, in such places as Europe. where motorcycles are often the best way to avoid traffic, self-driving cars may actually dent sales, according to Mosquet. If all goes as planned, there will be fewer tie-ups or accidents, less rubbernecking, and thus less to be gained by jumping on a bike and splitting lanes of standstill traffic.
“I think it’s going to depend on the motivation and the location,” Mosquet said.