Skills, Phenomenology, and Motorcycles: Why following rules, then forgetting them and taking risks makes you a better rider.


A few commentators have postulated driverless (autonomous) cars will soon make motorcycles obsolete. It’s easy to make this claim, and with some justification. However it's difficult to conclude, at this stage in early 2019, the death of motorcycling. One clear conclusion, nevertheless, is that development of new transport technology will likely have profound impacts across society, and not just for motorcyclists.

From the perspective of motorcycle travel, it is interesting to speculate whether a future of driverless vehicles results in a transport system incompatible with the designs and models of motorcycles we use today. This would require an outcome where autonomous vehicles disruptive land transport to such a degree most current forms of transport will not survive. Predicting the outcome of rapid technology change is difficult. The only real certainty is change. In the following article we'll look at a few possible outcomes.

There are apparent technical difficulties with including motorcycles within an autonomous vehicle network [1]. Some evidence suggests motorcycles have been excluded from, or at least not fully included, in work to develop autonomous vehicle systems. However, there is also work underway to fully integrate motorcycles into Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) (see Connected Motorcycle Consortium). It’s not all bad as it’s likely off-road / dirt bike riding will continue as an option for riders independent of what happens with on-road transport. Therefore, the main issue around the future of motorcycling speaks to on-road transport by two wheels. More specifically, how two wheel micro-mobility transport develops and whether motorcycling adapts and evolves in this changing environment or sadly becomes extinct.


One area of work to future proof motorcycles falls under the scope of general land transport ITS. Historically, ITS has focused on information and communication technologies that provide management of infrastructure and services, traffic monitoring, and in-vehicle tech like GPS routing. More recently ITS has expanded to include emerging technologies to support drivers like Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) including vehicle Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), and lane departure warning systems, smartphone based services like Uber, and various new driverless technologies under development for autonomous vehicles. These later technologies have special value for motorcycles because they have the potential to provide connected network vehicle intelligence. In effect, vehicles will ‘talk’ to other vehicles broadcasting information on where they are located, sharing data on heading and speed, etc. All vehicles will map the road and their surrounding environment using new types of technology; sensors, cameras, communication protocols, and data processing. Under this scenario motorcycles can be ‘seen’ by other vehicles, and a form of ‘electronic safety cage’ places the motorcycle under electronic surveillance by nearby vehicles and intelligent road side infrastructure. The optimal outcome is significantly improved road safety for riders. Motorcycles will likely also get similar advanced rider help technology where on-board systems map the road and alert the rider to hazards and/or manage the bike under certain conditions like current ABS technology.  

The technical term for this new vehicle communication structure is V2X, it stands for ‘Vehicle to Everything’ and covers a range ADAS and autonomous vehicle technologies including ‘Vehicle to Vehicle’ technology (V2V), ‘Vehicle to Infrastructure’ technology (V2I), Vehicle to Pedestrian (V2P) and so on (see What is V2X communication?). As semi-autonomous vehicles start using the public road network, being able to recognise and allow for rider controlled motorcycles will hopefully be a necessary condition of ITS/ADAS. This also applies to other vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians. The (semi-)autonomous vehicles will need some form of V2X technology that caters for vulnerable road users.  

A public facing organisation supporting and promoting this new technology for motorcycles is the Connected Motorcycle Consortium (CMC). This organisation is a “collaboration between manufacturers, suppliers, researchers and associations to make Powered Two Wheelers (motorcycles and scooters) part of the future connected mobility… CMC is a non-profit organisation established by key motorcycle makers with the unilateral goal to promote and develop Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) on a global scale”... “CMC targets to improve motorcycle rider safety and comfort. Connected mobility / Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications / Cooperative Integrated Transportation Systems (C-ITS) are being developed, but motorcycle-specific safety aspects haven’t been taken into consideration sufficiently so far. CMC is paving the way for motorcycle connectivity by making motorcycles part of C-ITS and connected mobility. CMC aims to create a common basic specification for motorcycle ITS, with as many cross-manufacturer standards as possible.”

Private firms working in this area include the German company BOSH with a range of research and technologies covering sliding mitigation for motorcycles, radar-based assistance, motorcycle stability control, motorcycle-to-car communication, and development of intelligent crash algorithms to detect and communicate accidents. Another is the Canadian company Damon Riding Innovation currently developing 360-degree sensor and camera technology, along with smartphone apps, to assist and alert riders. And Ridar Systems is developing technology to make “motorcycle and bicycle riders more visible to cars & trucks in order to reduce collisions”.


Based on the above discussion we can look at three possible scenarios.


Motorcycles are not compatible with semi and fully-autonomous vehicles. It is uneconomic and/or technically very difficult to retro fit motorcycles with the technology to allow motorcycles to operate in the traffic stream of semi and fully-autonomous vehicles. This would be the worst case scenario and is not a good outcome for riders. This outcome would also potentially be problematic for cyclists and pedestrians unless the main issue is the speed and/or agility of motorcycles. The lower speed of two wheel vehicles like bicycles, mopeds or scooters could make these modes of transport easier to include in an ITS. Under this scenario it’s likely infrastructure such as bicycle lanes/paths would become crucial in providing an option for non-motorised and slow modes of transport. This scenario provides few options for a future that includes motorcycles in their current form.

Over time, some other form of two wheel, micro-mobility technology or autonomous vehicle will make motorcycles obsolete. There will be little to no demand for the current on-road motorcycle class of transport in this future. This scenario is possible, maybe even probable, but difficult to predict (see Motorcycling in a World of Autonomous Self Drive Vehicles).

Advancements in technology will effectively integrate riders and their motorcycles into all vehicle ITS road networks. Autonomous vehicle technology will result in dramatic improvements in road safety for all road users, and particularly for motorcyclists. Although motorcycle use is declining in high income countries, and trips by motorcycle make up a small fraction of all motorised vehicle travel, the motorcycle market is in fact very large, especially in low income countries. It appears there are many opportunities for motorcycle companies and tech startups to invest in new rider management and safety, particularly ADAS and V2X, technology.

Let’s expand a little on this third scenario. What could be described as a connected future for motorcycles. If we look at trip data we see, at least for high income countries, a rather unique trip making pattern (see Can Motorcycle Travel Patterns Predict Future Mobility Trends) where motorcycle travel is biased towards commuter, work, and business trips, and is used for longer than average trip distances. This positions the motorcycle as the current micro-mobility, individual transport (commuter ready) option for what transport policy makers generally consider high value trips (undertaken in the peak period traffic flows where urban road space is limited and shorter travel times are highly valued).

However the short distance (say around 1-10km noting the average walk distances of less than 5km) urban trip is the main battle ground for micro-mobility, especially for on-demand share/service options like e-scooters or e-bikes. A 2019 report from the Portland Bureau of Transportation found average trip distance for e-scooters in a recent 2018 trial was 1.85 km (1.15 miles) [2]. Technology advancements in this sector are going through rapid change. Intense competition coupled with factors such as short ‘vehicle’ life spans is driving innovation in the e-scooter marketplace. In the near future the urban scooter companies will likely offer safer and more intelligent scooters that better manage vehicle performance based on, for example, road type, provide a host of rider safety assistance technologies like traction and breaking control and collusion avoidance alerts, V2X connectivity, smart (maybe even autonomous) charging, and trip GPS like guidance.   

If the technological changes currently underway in the area of small individual electric vehicles transfers to motorcycles, with their greater capacity for covering longer distances, then a connected future for motorcycles looks bright. Benefits like greater access (as new technology would mean less skill is be required to master riding a bike) and lower entry costs would be considered positive factors potentially supporting increased use of motorcycles. Improved road safety outcomes would likely increase demand along with lower costs, including social costs like funding first response agencies and financial costs like private motor vehicle insurance.

Another area worth considering is public-private partnerships to share funding of infrastructure provision for micro-mobility lanes/paths. This has the potential to significantly lower government infrastructure costs and increase demand for micro-mobility options as e-scooter riders prefer to use local, low traffic streets and off-road paths/lanes [2]. However, infrastructure provision needs to be economically efficient. Predicting demand for this type of infrastructure, building paths/lanes and then not meeting the predicted use levels has been a problem for many cities.           


Motorcycles are currently used for trip distances and purposes similar to a car. If you look at the types of trips, and particularly the average trip distances undertaken by motorcycles, there is very little overlap between motorcycles and e-scooters. E-scooters being generally more suited to short distance urban trips. In fact, medium (say between 10 to 20km) distance trips may become less attractive for motorcycles as e-scooter transport gains market share and evolves to provide greater range, especially if appropriate off-road infrastructure is provided. Therefore the role for, and maybe even the design of, motorcycles will most likely need to change and evolve.


Under a best case scenario, appropriately designed ITS can allow for motorcycles to safely operate in the traffic stream occupied by semi-autonomous and autonomous cars and trucks. It will be far safer riding a motorcycle under these conditions. This is a positive.

Nevertheless, motorcycles will need to find a place in this future of intelligent and connected (semi-)autonomous vehicles. As outlined above, there are plenty of opportunities and challenges. But changes in transport systems could be significant as recent research has shown “one shared, automated vehicle can replace nine conventional vehicles but also generate increased vehicle miles traveled due to empty operations and repositioning” [3].

Stay tuned as big changes in our transport systems are on the horizon, and motorcycles and their riders are right in the middle.




[1] Give a Shift, Crashing the System - Adding 2 wheels to the V2V conservation, Dec 2017

[2] 2018 E-Scooter Findings Report, Portland Bureau of Transportation, Jan 2019

[3] Socioeconomic Impacts of Automated and Connected Vehicles, Summary of the Sixth EU–U.S. Transportation Research Symposium, July 2018