SEARCHING FOR A ROLE FOR MOTORCYCLES
In the near future, when on-demand autonomous electric vehicles (EV) are the norm, and very few people own a car, what role will there be for motorcycles?
One can argue within 10 years, autonomous EV service based transport will likely be common place. The current vehicle ownership model is likely to move from most households owning at least one vehicle to most not owning any vehicles and using a short term, on-demand rental service, in the form of a transaction for a taxi-style ride; in essence, a trip based service you have access to via an app on your smartphone or whatever device rules our mobile future. Remember Apple introduced their mobile smartphone just over 10 years ago. Technology can drive change at a rapid pace.
A BRIEF LOOK INTO OUR TRANSPORT FUTURE
Profound changes in the way we travel are just over the horizon. Economic efficiencies and capital entrepreneurship will drive these changes. Cost savings for most users will be significant; if
they aren’t, it’s difficult to see why people would move away from the car ownership model given the significant benefits such a model provides, such as quick access to destinations, freedom of
travel, plenty of consumer preference choices, etc. There will probably be no need to purchase a vehicle and pay for ongoing maintenance and running costs. Although one can always think of
outlier examples where vehicle ownership will be economic and/or desirable, it’s hard to know if these examples will influence at scale a mass market movement away from vehicle ownership towards
on-demand, autonomous EV services.
Obvious societal benefits include freeing up large amounts of land. Think parking areas in urban areas and on-street parking spaces. Building road and public transport infrastructure to address traffic congestion, caused in large part by increased vehicle use/ownership, economic growth, and land use polices, will be significantly scaled back. Travel will be safer and many lives will be saved. A massive reduction in hydro-carbon powered combustion engines will result in large benefits for human health and reduced environmental impacts such as less carbon dioxide (contributing to global warming) and exhaust/vehicle-wear pollutants (local air quality pollution and road runoff). Other benefits include reduced road noise and lower impacts on the amenity value of neighbourhood spaces.
Now if we accept this future, or something similar but maybe over a longer timeframe, if the Silicon Valley companies need 20 rather than 10 years to solve the computer-vehicle-driver problem or governments can’t get beyond a bureaucratic tendency for conservative decision making, then motorcycles look like a very odd fit in this rather radical transport future. Could you order an autonomous electric motorcycle to pick you up and transport you to your desired destination? Or would that single seat autonomous vehicle be a little car rather than a motorcycle, thus appealing to the majority rather than the minority motorcycle lover? Will people ride their own motorcycle in the same traffic stream as countless autonomous EVs?
So an old way of travel is superseded by modern, safer, more efficient technology. But it’s not clear what role motorcycles can have in this future. It’s really all up for grabs and difficult to know, but here’s some slightly informed speculation.
SCENARIO 1. CARS VS MOTORCYCLES: A BUSINESS AS USUAL CASE
In modern high-income countries, motorcycles are a minority form of transport. Outside of certain countries (e.g. in South East Asia) and conditions (e.g. commuting on congested networks where lane splitting is allowed), the choice to ride a motorcycle looks like it’s based on strong personal preferences. That is, the net benefit a riders gains from their transport choice is strongly weighted and aligned with their personal preferences. I like bikes, I like to ride bikes, I think bikes are better than cars, bikes are fun. Objective measures along the lines of motorcycle road safety, commuter comfort, high insurance costs, cost per km travelled generally tend to show greater travel benefits come from high occupancy car travel and public transport, especially for commuter trips. So for some people the personal gains from riding a motorcycle outweighs the negative aspects, particularly around an assessment of safety risk and the lack of comfort.
This superficial assessment suggests a small percentage of the travelling public will continue with riding motorcycles unless there’s some very significant changes in economic costs and social pressures or possibly government regulation. It's also worth noting the current trends in two wheel or single person transport, specifically the emergence of ride-share electric scooters/bicycles for short distance urban trips. There is clearly demand for independent, on-demand low cost travel. The market for personal individual electric vehicles is likely to expand significantly over the next few years with electric motorcycles offering a longer distance transport option to the local, short distance trips provided by electric scooters or electric bicycles (ebikes).
This scenario is basically a business-as-usual case with electric rather than petrol powered motorcycles and almost all other road vehicles will be on-demand autonomous EVs or autonomous freight/emergency response/trade service EVs. Local, short distance urban travel options could be a mix of ride-share two wheel technologies, maybe some hybrid motorcycle design better suited for the average traveller, and cycling/walking.
SCENARIO 2. MOTORCYCLES LOOSE BUT MAY ALSO WIN
A different scenario could involve some form of government regulatory ban on motorcycles. Certain types of roads could be made off limits to motorcyclists, like the way traffic regulations are
sometimes applied to freight truck movements to restrict their routes, often to address urban neighbourhood amenity issues or limit access to roads not designed for large, heavy goods vehicles.
This type of legislation is relatively common. A current, topical example is the proposed regulatory intervention to ban diesel vehicles, particularly older models, from European and UK cities as
a proposed solution to reduce unacceptably high levels of air pollution and the need to meet stringent new health and environmental standards. Road safety outcomes that seek zero casualty rates
may also push for the removal of old technology.
An interesting question in this context is how would autonomous electric vehicles deal with non-autonomous motorcycles? Advanced autonomous vehicle technology and a bike-friendly regulatory environment may allow for the use of non-autonomous motorcycles. One clear beneficial result would be significant safety benefits, thanks to less human error related car accidents where the vulnerable motorcyclist pays a greater cost. Questions regarding the amount of demand for motorcycle travel, as speculated above, in this new autonomous transport future and the costs associated with the technology to allow for this outcome seem difficult to answer at this stage. However, if past activity is the best indicator of future actions, motorcycles will remain a minority mode rather than disappear altogether.
If there are insurmountable technical problems that result from mixing autonomous electric vehicles with non-autonomous motorcycles, and given the small current modeshare of trips by motorcycle, it’s reasonable to assume motorcycle travel could be banned. To start with, polices to ban motorcycles could be targeted to exclude use of specific parts of the road network, such as motorways, main arterials, and state highways, thus addressing the safety and movement efficiency conflicts that could arise with different transport modes on roads designed for high speed traffic and through traffic movement. It’s also possible the whole road network could be solely allocated to autonomous EVs. This outcome will, however, likely be the result of an incremental planning process, where the slow and deliberate implementation of policies ensure a safe and effective transition to a fully automated, service based transport system. Such an outcome will require significant work by government and local transport authorities to fully develop and implement.
An out right ban of motorcycles from public roads may open up other opportunities. Shared on-road lanes or off-road paths is an option. This looks very promising as a future direction for transport planners and policy makers to investigate. If the streets of the future are, by necessity, given to autonomous vehicle on-demand EV services, there will most likely be a need to provide for the individual independent traveller, the short distance trip to the local shops by human and electric powered bicycle, electric skate board, and electric scooter. Separated on-road lanes and off-road paths that cater for electric two wheel personal travel would add a human dynamic back into our automated transport future. With less road space needed to transport commuters, thanks to the efficiency of computer controlled decision making and reduced need for on road parking, excess road infrastructure could be allocated to the old fashion two wheelers.
However, safety issues that come from too great a speed differentiation (e.g., slow and fast vehicles on the same path) along with traffic movement issues at crossing points, pedestrian access points, etc are non-trivial and may be very difficult to solve. Other potential problems could arise with slow implementation of new road rules as technology out paces the current regulatory environment. The conflicts between different modes of transport will need to be carefully thought through and addressed in the design and management of the lanes/paths. A local, community based solution for neighbourhood trips, maybe including the development of on-road lanes and off-road paths as part of the transition to a fully autonomous on-demand EV fleet, is an important transport planning and urban development problem to be solved.
FINDING YOUR PLACE
So is there a bright future for the motorcycle? There probably is a future, but not like we have now. There will certainly be an off-road motorcycle future, riding in recreational parks, on
farms, or public land, and in dedicated urban areas, but on our streets and highways, especially for longer distance trips, it's difficult to know. The sport and recreational off-road
motorcycling sector will likely continue or even increase as people seek the thrill of actually controlling their transport vehicle, rather than just paying for the pleasure of riding as a
passenger. Off-road recreational parks for 2 and 4 wheelers will likely become popular in high income countries.
For short distance trips, on-road lanes and off-road paths provide a possible use case scenario, however, transport lobby/user groups, neighbour associations, and government transport agencies will likely have strong opinions regarding the use of motorcycles (in their current form) in these spaces. It will be interesting to see how electric (motor)cycle use develops and evolves over the next 10 years, including the ride-share technology that's currently employed on urban scooters/ebikes, especially in the face of community acceptance and regulatory attempts to manage the various conflicting issues.
Finally, there's significant uncertainty about what a service based transport future would look like, or even if it happens at all. Motorcycle travel is undertaken by a relatively small number of people that seek to meet their personal mobility and accessibility needs on two wheels. Although, there is growing demand for some form of personal individual electric vehicle/motorcycle (and ride-share travel options) for urban trips. Maybe personal individual electric vehicles will have a significant transport role in the near future. Electric motorcycles could still fill a long distance transport role. And it also seems important there is adequate planning for a potentially greater demand in off-road activities as an outlet for transport related fun, freedom, and self expression.