Tomorrow’s Commute: Self-Driving Cars Against Motorcycles

As a Millenial that’s fallen in love with carbureted throttle response, a friend of classic car owners, and a frequent motorcycle commuter, I have concerns about how future technology will impact my enjoyment of motorcycles. Considering recent gas prices, much is being published about electric cars, and it’s hard to discuss electric cars without talking about Telsa. In that same breath, it’s hard to talk about Telsa without mentioning “advanced driver aids”, or that a number of said cars that have struck and killed motorcyclists. I obviously love riding my motorcycle and I want to continue riding it to work for as long as possible. Unfortunately, my pessimistic imagination can’t help asking, “will motorcycles be permitted in the commute of the future?”

The Fear of Self-Driving Automobiles

I’ve had a few debates about the future of self-driving cars with my buddy Flynch. He’s pointed out, when considering the small population of motorcyclists on the roadways, there’s a reasonable threat that law-makers will ban motorcycles from primary, if not all public roadways in the interest of “progress”.

I can’t help but hear Jeff Goldblum’s famous line from Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Technology has now progressed so far that machines can realistically navigate along roadways without human input. This of course isn’t news to anyone. However, for non-riders, there may be some ignorance of the fact that said machines seem to have trouble identifying pedestrians and motorcyclists.

Solutions to protecting pedestrians seem pretty easy; GPS geofencing that disables self-driving features, pedestrian traffic controls, and other things are likely to keep pedestrians from entering the roadway. Pedestrians are obviously more common in urban areas, places with significant stop-and-go traffic, which isn’t necessarily the most ideal place to utilize “driver-aids” for mundane commuting. Interstate highways however seem to be the first, most logical place for self-driving adoption. On the freeway, traffic is typically moving in the same direction and pedestrians are typically banned. Unfortunately, the real challenge for motorcycles is that they’re intended to operate equally to automobiles, and even expected to behave the same way.

One Size Fits Cars

While the Bureau of Motor Vehicles sees motorcycles (nearly) identical to cars, I strongly disagree. Aside from the fact that motorcycles are predominantly used for recreation (while permitted on public roadways), traffic controls, road design, and even traffic laws don’t seem to fit motorcycles as clearly as they fit cars. This point becomes abundantly clear if you’ve ever sat a light for ten minutes that never changed since your motorcycle lacks sufficient metal to trigger the electromagnetic sensor.

I’ve been commuting across the downtown Dayton construction zone via motorcycle for over a decade now. Gridlock, combined with the jersey barrier re-routing and lane shifting has led to the evolution of all kinds of survival habits. Considering they’re sized for cars and knowing I’m otherwise invisible, I constantly shift position in the lane to make sure my headlight is shining into the driver’s side mirrors; praying the driver looks before they change lanes. I also tend to exceed the average traffic speed, in the hopes that I’m not rear-ended by an inattentive driver.

Beyond “dead red” lights and endless construction, there’s no doubt that the minuscule motorcyclist population has led to ignorance of the distinct differences between cars and motorcycles throughout the commuting experience. Motorcycles are banned from filtering at red lights in most states. Parking spaces are designed for cars, but excess or oddly shaped space is marked with lines and a “no parking” sign despite room for multiple motorcycles. Car drivers will be ticketed for not wearing a seatbelt while motorcyclists chuckle at the irony.

Is There a Difference Between Inattentive and Disengaged?

Riding across the city on a taller motorcycle has given me a front row to some of the silliest human behavior. We all know the scene: a car wandering left and right about the lane, perhaps with the occasional harsh correction. This fool is looking at their phone right? Oh, wait, no, they’re looking directly at their passenger while talking to them. I’ve seen women applying mascara with a miror, dudes eating a bowl of cereal… you name it. For the frequency I see someone texting on their phone about to run off the road, I also see drivers dart across three lanes of traffic to avoid missing their exit… because they were so distracted by their passengers.

I’m in absolute awe of how little attention some humans place on watching the road. The regularity with which they’re not playing with a phone is more disturbing because if they weren’t looking at the road, their erratic driving would make more sense. This situation makes me question why they’re distracted in the first place. It’s popular to say “because cell phones!” I however have great suspicion modern technology is the symptom, not the disease.

Sanitizing the Driving Experience

In the purchase of my carbureted Harley, I discovered the distinct “smell” of a bygone era. That familiar scent is immediately obvious when my buddy rolls up in his ’69 Mustang: refined petroleum products. Said Mustang is a wonderful example of everything that’s changed about the driving experience in the last fifty years. Automatic transmissions, fuel injection, power steering, noise damping, air conditioning, exhaust muffling, emissions reduction, satellite radio, blind spot detection, reverse cameras, and lane assist technology to name a few. Modern passenger vehicles have all these things, and yet I find myself asking, “is this better?”

Safer? Absolutely. More comfortable? Sure. But “better”? At the end of the day, modern cars do what they did 70 years ago; they drive you to work, to the grocery, and back home. Cars are now so good at these activities, I’ve seen drivers video chat and drive. If I told a motorcyclist to “facetime” while riding to work, most would tell me to get real. Why? Probably because they need a brake or clutch hand to hold their phone. If nothing else they realize they need to scan the road to avoid a crash. Don’t drivers need the same? Well, not exactly. Most modern cars do the shifting, and undoubtedly drivers “feel safer” inside the crash cage. There’s also this dirty secret I don’t hear people talk about: drivers are flat-out bored.

While not exclusive, much of my passion for riding motorcycles stems from the inability to think about anything else while doing it. Hustling down a curvy road, or leaning between the trees on a gorgeous stretch of single track, I’m singularly focused on riding as fast and smooth as possible. Have you ever felt like that in a car? I have, and it was disturbingly illegal. That’s actually why I purchased the before-mentioned Harley-Davidson; I don’t need to go anywhere near as fast to feel just as mentally engaged. In the modern car, the left side of your body is essentially useless. It’s safer and more comfortable, sure, but I argue it’s invited unintended consequences.

Technology Changes but the Laws Remain the Same

I’m just old enough to remember when the speed limit everywhere was 55 miles per hour. Not long after that was changed, the speed limit for trucks was slower than that for cars. Recently, I’ve been shocked to see 70 MPH speed limit signs showing up on freeways outside the city. As far as government evolution goes, that’s about all I can think of. I continue to be astounded by the amount of time I spend idling at red lights with no cross traffic to be found. “Smart lights” exist, and yet the traffic patterns remain terrible. Automakers have adapted emissions restrictions by turning off the engine at these lights. Ironically, the government that caused the idling, refuses to adapt technology, be it improved sensors or old-school roundabouts. Furthermore, while speed limits have been marginally increased in my lifetime, they remain mostly static, in all conditions, while modern cars exceed them at rates like never before in isolated quiet and serenity.

Auto-Pilot Engaged

Last year my commute was extended by another ten miles or so. With this increased “observation” time, I’ve noticed numerous distracted drivers that can’t maintain their speed. Stereotypically, they speed up as I try to pass. I can’t help but laugh as they’re quite obviously not interested in the driving experience, and yet insist on being “in control”. I say, “in control” because they can’t be troubled to engage the cruise control; they’re still using the analog pedals.

I would actually suggest that the above situation is an ideal case for self-driving cars. Folks with longer commutes could be handling work e-mails, recording a podcast, or doing some other productive activity while the machine maintains the lane and speed. The activity of commuting is now so mundane, that it feels of no consequence to answer a text or surf Tiktock apparently. Why not embrace it?

From the motorcyclist’s perspective, I’m actually more inclined to welcome the machines driving if the human can’t be bothered with watching the road. Unless it’s a Microsoft operating system, I expect the auto-pilot to be slightly more predictable than the human. I admit I’m concerned about being squished at a traffic stop or by a half-hazard robotic lane change. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that a human wouldn’t do the same.

It’s Not the Distraction, It’s the Lack of Stimulation

Look, I get it; trying to convince people to be uncomfortable is an impossible task. As much as my Luddite worldview says “make stick shifts great again”, that ship has sailed. Americans have already tasted the forbidden fruit.

We could eliminate cell phones, install governors, mandate techno-nannies, and all kinds of things in an attempt to remove distractions from inside the vehicle, but we’re never going to eliminate passengers or flat-out daydreaming from the driving experience. Moreover, without removing comfort and modern convenience, unless experienced first-hand, it’s more difficult than ever to re-insert any sense of danger back into the driver’s seat.

With that in mind, can we make the roadways “smarter” and more engaging, while maintaining safety? At the same time, how do we maintain a world where “classic” owners can still commute with their antiquated machines? What do you think, will technology advance, or will self-driving applications be limited to “hyper-lanes”?

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15 Responses to Tomorrow’s Commute: Self-Driving Cars Against Motorcycles

  1. parasympatheticsynapse says:

    Ain’t no stinkin robots in the country. Only thing I gotta dodge is hay balers cresting hills. Well them and idiots in cars who can’t stay on their own goddamn side of the road. I have PTSD from Ohio drivers doing that. Saw a 27 yr old girl got splattered by a Mac truck going the opposite way on 380 the other day crossing into oncoming traffic. It’s only a matter of time for incompetents in the country side.
    Anyway, I wouldn’t fear the automation thing much. In sunny So Cali, maybe. None of that shit is going to work in mid-west storms and blizzards.
    Nice write up as always, but you hit my nerve engineer. Dampen means to make moist, like the girls panties. Damp means to quell things like vibration. A sprinkler is a dampener. A shock absorber is a damper.

    Liked by 1 person

    • MotoADVR says:

      I actually edited our comments about how I suspect “self-driving” will be disabled by inclement weather and whatnot. To your other point, I’m shocked by the number of “locals” who text and drive down some of twistiest country roads I know. “Mundane” has no bounds apparently.

      Liked by 1 person

      • parasympatheticsynapse says:

        I can’t really tell what they’re doing, though I suspect there is a lot of digital distraction. I was following a car yesterday who just decided that slowing down and taking the turn in his lane was too much trouble, so he just blasted into the opposing lane with his entire car where oncoming traffic was blinded not only by the corner but by a hill crest too. I believe that is worth establishing an old Asian punishment known as “caning.”
        Funny, I used to be able to ride all over W Virginia and those people all drive like Ricky Bobby, but they could somehow maintain their lane on MUCH twistier roads. Not sure what’s wrong with Ohioans.

        Liked by 1 person

      • MotoADVR says:

        Just wait till you meet some Indiana drivers

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul Douglas Uhlman says:

    One area that has never been addressed in this country is actually requiring serious drivers training. If you have traveled and spent time in some foreign countries, you will know what I mean. And I have seen some of the articles of vehicles that are in auto pilot mode, which isn’t what people think it is, that have struck motorcycles from the rear because the system and the operator failed to acknowledge said vehicle.


  3. Bud Bingham says:

    We could spend a whole evening at one of our favorite watering holes discussing this. There are numerous articles in the AMA Magazine addressing this issue. I only seeing it continuing to get worse for all of us on two wheels.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dan says:

    I’d rather contend with self-driven cars than cars driven by my X wife (or similar)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David Kuck says:

    Cool topic for sure, Drew. I can say that riding motorcycles has made me a better more attentive car driver, because it breeds (in most) a higher level of awareness which can carry over to caged driving. Defensive driving is both a skill and a mindset. Lane position awareness, follow distance, brake light tapping, etc etc are examples. You have to think ahead on a bike, or suffer consequences eventually. I’m usually just trying to create space between myself and “the possible idiots” on the road with me, and that habit has carried over to my caged driving.
    My point is I don’t know how the tech will progress, or how the roadways will adapt. I only know that I will have to ride defensively because that is what I can control, and it’s saved my ass many times. No matter how the egg heads or our “leaders” adapt AI driving, I will adapt my defensive skills so I can keep my knees in the breeze. That said, I could see possibly big brother forcing us to all “network” our vehicles with some type of transponder/tracker (in the name of “safety”) which would be read by any AI operated vehicle to eliminate lane change swipes and rear enders. Your ’69 Camaro and your Harley may end up networked and tracked in the name of safety/progress, and to be honest that is one the most likely scenarios for the tech. But I’m sure there will be NO unintended consequences…

    Liked by 1 person

    • MotoADVR says:

      That’s an interesting point. Until now there’s not been a push for retrofitting classics. I can also see such a push. Thought provoking indeed! Thanks for reading Dave!


  6. Simon says:

    Well thought out and very well written. Very thought provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • MotoADVR says:

      I commute by motorcycle because I find it slightly less infuriating to cross the city on two wheels… it gives me lots of time to ponder! Thanks for reading!


  7. Jim Wilson says:

    One of the things I enjoy most about riding is being “fully engaged” – focused on what I’m doing and what those around me are doing. I agree that driving is far too boring for most folks, and that it is difficult to resist the temptation to add another action to lessen the boredom. Modern cars are one of the factors; modern attention spans another; and the roads themselves a third. Unlike some other countries, our highways (in particular) are built so that they are as straight a path as possible- lowering the cost, but also the input needed by the driver. I’m not suggesting we scrape them up and build more curves to make drivers pay attention, but it wouldn’t hurt.

    Liked by 1 person

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