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.
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”?