Self-driving motorcycles have been in many sci-fi films. Instead of a loyal horse racing to save his cowboy rider from a certain death, a self-propelled motorcycle speeds onto the scene, its urban rider hops on, and they ride off into the sunset.
Since the advent of self-driving cars and trucks, people have been asking: Will there be self-driving motorcycles? Motorcycles use a mixture of balance and momentum to stay upright, make turns, and stop. This begs the question, how is it possible for a motorcycle to start and move on its own?
Vehicle manufacturers over the last decade have performed astounding feats, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that there are self-driving motorcycles in the testing phase. Right now, Yamaha is leading the pack.
Yamaha’s Self-Driving Motorcycle
Many organizations have developed autonomous motorcycles for testing, but none have been as successful as Yamaha. Yamaha’s Innovation Center has developed what they’re calling MOTOROiD, a computer that will make autonomous motorcycles possible. They debuted this system at CES in Las Vegas this year.
MOTOROiD uses an advanced system to give the bike stability. It uses an AI-trained Active Mass Center Control System (AMCES), which enables the bike to shift its center of gravity in real-time to stay upright throughout the drive. Parts of the machine will rotate, and the real wheel is on a special axis to enable a shifting center of gravity.
The bike is equipped with an onboard control system that receives data from every part of the vehicle in less than 0.0005 seconds. The data comes from an accelerometer and gyro sensor that detect axis rotation and velocity, so the bike knows how to shift accordingly to stay upright.
The effect, according to presenters, is that “the rider resonates harmoniously with the machine.” It’s a smooth ride, thanks to the impressive technology.
According to the CES presentation, Yamaha’s vision for an autonomous motorcycle goes beyond simply transporting people from point A to point B without a problem. It also includes facial recognition and the ability to summon the bike with a single wave of the hand.
Yamaha Wants Every Motorcycle to Be Self-Driving
Yamaha has also produced a humanoid robot call MOTORBOT through Yamaha’s SRI International’s robotics program. This computer system can supposedly be applied to any stock motorcycle, without major modification, to turn any motorcycle into a self-driving machine.
“Yamaha was mainly involved in designing the algorithms for high speed motorcycle riding, analysis of vehicle dynamics using simulations, and reliability design of electronics; while SRI was involved in developing the robot based on our requirements and developing the position sensing system,” a Yamaha spokesperson told Medium.
The actuators of MOTORBOTS system will manipulate a regular bike’s steering, throttle, brake, clutch, and shift capabilities just like a human would so people can ride it without being in control.
As you can imagine, this announcement has raised some skeptical eyebrows, and there’s still plenty of testing and tweaking on the road for this motorcycle bot.
Shifting the Culture of Motorcycle Riding
Motorcycle accidents are all-too-common, and the injury and fatality rates are high. Adding motorcycles to the list of effective self-driving vehicles could be exactly what we need for a safer realm of riding.
Despite the safety implications here, there’s still some expected backlash at introducing self-driving motorcycles to a culture of riders who love to be in charge of their bikes.
“There is a culture war on the horizon between Americans who want to drive their own vehicles and those who want to be driven by a robot,” says Eric Ristau, director of a new television series about autonomous vehicles. “On an engineering level, motorcycles pose enormous challenges to autonomous vehicle technology.”
Lifelong motorcyclist Neil Olson agrees with this sentiment. “The independence of motorcyclists to ride where they want, when they want is ingrained in their DNA,” he says. “The idea of someday seeing that right disappear due to technological shifts in our transportation system…is every biker’s worst nightmare.”
However, Yamaha doesn’t seem too concerned about their technology taking away control of the vehicle. They believe it will still be a popular option for both motorcyclists and those who have always wanted a motorcycle, but who have been afraid to ride one.
They say their next step is human driver testing to see how the dynamic between robot motorcycle and human rider will play out.
“We hope to visualize the human side of motorbike riding and use the information gathered to identify the relationship between the rider and the bike,” the spokesperson said. “That would help us to develop more exciting vehicles in future. We could also adopt the control and maneuvering programs to other vehicles such as marine jets and snowmobiles.”
Yamaha is well ahead of the race for self-driving motorcycles with their endless innovations and foresight. It’ll be several more years of testing before this tech goes mainstream, but no one can deny that it’s on its way.