We are all by now familiar with self-driving cars and trucks – barely a couple of weeks goes by without another progress announcement from some company or other. So what next, a self-driving motorbike? Yes, daft as it might sound I guess it had to happen, and BMW is the company that has managed to get their prototype into the public eye ahead of the competition – meet the BMW R 1200 GS self-riding motorbike.
A self-driving car is one thing (it doesn’t fall over when it stops moving) but a motorbike has just two wheels, making stability a much bigger hurdle to overcome.
The magic is all hidden away in those panniers; various computers, sensors and GPS units that intelligently communicate with the steering actuator as well as the clutch and throttle – and if you’re wondering about gravity taking over once the bike comes to a standstill, then a kick stand pops out automatically to stop this happening.
Curiously, there is no self-balancing dynamic technology or stabilising gyros like a Segway has to make sure it balances and stays upright. The Segway uses such patented devices to enable the user to stay upright and control the unit by leaning forwards, backwards or sideways – but a Segway is in part battling with gravity rather than using gravity in the manner that a motorbike or bicycle does.
A motorbike can change direction with minimal turning of the handlebars through leaning. Leaning changes the overriding central gravity point (of the rider and the bike) in relation to ground contact. The result is that friction on the inner side is increased, and the unit subsequently wants to travel in a curve rather than a straight line and you turn. Travelling forwards, each side becomes balanced; the friction is even and creates what is called counterbalancing centripetal acceleration. I’m no scientist, but I think the upshot of all this is that you don’t fall off.
If your brain is starting to hurt trying to imagine a time when a self-riding motorbike would be a viable choice on our roads, then you can stop there – BMW has no intention of putting this prototype into production. You won’t be seeing your neighbour setting off to work late still eating a bowl of cornflakes, reading the paper or putting her (or his) makeup on in the mirrors. Like with the development of many other similar technologies, it’s all about thinking down less obvious paths – what could be the benefit of such tech in other scenarios? It could be that this becomes a safety backup for example, though how that would quite work is not set in stone as yet. We do have traction control and ABS on modern motorbikes of course (thank goodness) so self-driving technology might one day be able to sit alongside these safety options to help keep bike and rider safer in a sudden emergency. With just two wheels, such tech helps keep the motorbike upright rather than just avoiding skidding as might happen with your average four-wheeled vehicle. Any addition to safety for the bike rider is going to be very welcome.