I thought the BMW video was an April Fool at first, but no. It was released last week and shows an R1200 GS riding around a German track with nobody on board: moving away, leaning gently though corners and finally parking itself on its side stand.
This bike has been two years in development because “the prototype helps us to expand our knowledge about the vehicle’s dynamics,” says Stefan Hans of BMW, “so that we can classify the rider’s behaviour and determine if a future situation will become dangerous or not. If so, we can inform, warn or intervene directly.”
There you go: remove the weak link, the variable factor, and the motorcycle is less likely to crash. Makes sense, except the weak link is the actual rider – the one thing that can’t be removed from a bike. If BMW’s research helps to make motorcycling safer, though, then it should be applauded and encouraged. We need all the help we can get.
Automotive technology has improved exponentially over the last decade, with blind spot detection, active cruise control and lane-guidance becoming common. Cars are safer than they’ve ever been, but we can’t say the same for motorcycles. The mirrors on the Harley FXDR I rode last week reflected mostly my elbows, basic cruise control is still a novelty (and my 10-year-old Hog has the screw beneath the grip for just tightening up the throttle resistance, which is potentially lethal), and most riders don’t even know where to ride in the lane, or how to ride staggered in groups.
We do have effective and commonplace ABS on most bike brakes, fortunately, and traction control is frequently an option (though not on that FXDR). Ducati’s just announced that its new Scrambler Icon 800 will have leaning ABS, like on the high-end sport bikes, which means you can haul on the brakes while tipped into a corner and the computer will help avoid a high side. And on sport bikes, wheelie control makes sure you don’t flip over backwards when cranking the gas.
That’s about it so far for on-the-road safety improvements, but a rider’s needs are different from a driver’s. All the car companies tout their semi-autonomous technology as being there to assist a drowsy driver, but the reality is that it assists distracted drivers – people behind the wheel who are busy looking at their phones. Beeping warnings, idiot light signals and even the brakes are all ready to step in when the driver is late to realize a potential danger.
Motorcyclists, however, do not text and ride. Yes, we can fit our phones to our handlebars with a Ram Mount, and theoretically, we could tap away on the screens while riding, but I’ve never seen it and you can’t hide it. We do have distracting intercoms and the ability to make phone calls while riding, but it’s no worse than having a passenger in a car and hands-free connectivity. When we need saving from our own stupidity, it’s generally for a narrower range of reasons than when driving a car.
So thank you, BMW, for working to make riding safer, as you announced with the Vision Next 100 bike and now with your riderless GS. Thank you, Harley-Davidson, for working on an autonomous braking system that would help stop the bike when it really needs it. And thank you, all the Japanese and Italian makers, for working on traction control and self-balancing and collision awareness sensors that can step in to help when help is needed.
It’s not why I ride a bike, though. I just want something simple that will keep the wind in my face and the road rolling beneath my tires. If these systems can help with that, then great, but until then, I’ll rely on practice, education, awareness and a defensive attitude. Those four qualities seem less important now with cars; I hope they’ll only become more important with motorcycles.