TOKYO – A motorcycle cannot stand alone because it is too (two) tired – this joke can be a thing of the past. Now that self-driving for four-wheel vehicles has entered the practical stage and there is a demand for safer cars, Japanese motorcycle manufacturers are directly challenging the conventional wisdom of two-wheel vehicles.
“Everyone knows that motorcycles are dangerous, but the industry continues to condone the problem. We want to face it fairly,” said Makoto Shimamoto, Yamaha Motor’s director of mobility technology. In this spirit, Yamaha is working to develop safer, top-down motorcycles. The main technology for this effort is called “leaning multi-wheel” (LMW) technology, which uses three or more wheels but makes the vehicles feel like motorcycles and turn in the direction of the rider.
Yamaha has already introduced several motorcycles that use this technology. The first model in the series was the Tricity 125, a scooter with two wheels at the front and one at the rear, introduced in 2014. In 2016, the company introduced the Tricity 155, with a larger displacement. The two front wheels provide stability so that the scooters remain upright even on slippery surfaces.
In late September, Yamaha released the Tricity 300, which features a system that keeps it upright when parked. Company president Yoshihiro Hidaka said he hopes to introduce a motorcycle that won’t tip over “in a few years”. The company is committed to increasing efforts to develop safety technologies, including the use of artificial intelligence to increase the accuracy of on-board systems that track situations around the vehicle.
Safety has long been a major concern for motorcycles as their riders are more exposed to danger than motorists. But now that the domestic market has shrunk and the number of riders has aged, Yamaha wants to regain its former strong market position by increasing safety.
While motorcycles are still a major mode of transportation in emerging countries, people in Japan, where 3 million motorcycles were once sold a year, have switched to four-wheel vehicles or electric bicycles for transportation, and motorcycles are now primarily for hobbyists. Their market size in Japan is only one-tenth of what it was in the top decade of the 1980s. An insider at a motorcycle manufacturer said a movement to discourage high school students from riding a motorcycle has contributed greatly to the decline.
Still, motorcycles have their own advantages. They have a light environmental impact compared to cars because they emit less exhaust fumes. Because they are smaller, they can help reduce traffic congestion and parking space shortages. If the safety issue can be overcome, motorcycles still have a chance of a comeback as a popular mode of transport.
Yamaha isn’t the only maker to see an opportunity for growth with highly safe motorcycles.
Rival Honda Motor is also working on the development of a safe motorcycle, using the balance control technology it developed for its Asimo bipedal humanoid robot.
Auto parts manufacturers have also focused on developing components for the safety features of two-wheel vehicles, taking advantage of technologies and know-how gained through their work on four-wheel connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles – sometimes jointly referred to referred to with the abbreviation CASE – including self-driving functions.
For example, Koito Manufacturing is developing a technology that increases the safety of motorcycles by using light beams to project where the vehicle travels on the road surface. Since self-driving vehicles do not have a driver, the main question is how they can communicate with other vehicles and pedestrians around them. Koito is also developing a “communication lamp” system that projects information onto the road surface for the benefit of the people around the vehicle, in conjunction with cameras and sensors.
The company plans to apply the headlamp technology to motorcycles. It can project light beams to show where the vehicle is going, so that other vehicles and pedestrians notice its presence at intersections with poor visibility, for example.
Robert Bosch, the world’s largest manufacturer of auto parts, has been testing a driver assistance system for motorcycles on public roads in Japan since March 2019. According to the German company, motorcyclists are 13 times more likely to die in road accidents in Japan. that for drivers of four-wheel vehicles.
The company is developing the system using its advanced four-wheel vehicle safety technology. The system can monitor situations around the vehicle with front and rear radars. It guides the vehicle to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front. It vibrates the steering wheel or sounds an alarm to warn the rider if a collision is imminent. Bosch researchers believe the system can reduce motorcycle crashes by more than 10%.
KTM and Ducati, motorcycle manufacturers in Austria and Italy, use the Bosch system in some models. In Japan, Kawasaki Heavy Industries also plans to equip some of its motorcycle models that will hit the market in 2021 or later with the system.
Smart helmets, which project information onto the face shield, are another important technology in efforts to eliminate accidents involving two-wheeled vehicles. Motorcyclists have less information about their environment compared to four-wheeler drivers. Such information is increasingly available to motorcyclists as sensor and connected car technologies have improved, but obtaining information through displays such as smartphones can distract the rider’s attention.
Smart helmets prevent the rider from looking too far from the road by displaying information on the face shield, using head-up display technology originally developed to project information onto the windshields of four-wheel vehicles. Such helmets are developed by, among others, Shoei, a large manufacturer of motorcycle helmets in Japan.
The average age of new motorcycle buyers in Japan is 54.7 years and is increasing year after year, according to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. People who have enjoyed motorcycling in the past are increasingly returning to the hobby out of nostalgia. Many of them are between fifty and sixty. Since many motorcyclists are no longer young, it is believed that the demand for safety equipment is high.
While safety technologies have improved, the malfunctioning of a motorcycle rider assistance system can easily lead to accidents, said a motorcycle manufacturer executive. If a system incorrectly detects an obstacle, the rider can brake suddenly and lose balance. The road to zero accidents for two-wheel motor vehicles is not going smoothly at all. But since the benefits of this would be significant, manufacturers are likely to step up their efforts further.