BMW made a self-driving motorcycle

By Sean O'Kane

Motorcycle riders die at a rate 28 times higher than that of people behind the wheel of a car. It’s safe to say, then, that motorcycles theoretically stand to benefit from the recent boom in the development of driver assistance technology. There are unique challenges, to be sure, but the application looks more possible than ever, thanks to a new video of a self-driving motorcycle released by BMW Motorrad, the company’s two-wheeler division.

BMW Motorrad says it’s been working on the technology for more than two years, and the effort shows. The short video showcases a BMW motorcycle cruising around a test track with no driver, starting from a stop, leaning into turns, and braking all by itself.

The plan isn’t to sell a fully self-driving motorcycle, though. Instead, BMW says it wants to work some of the technology into its motorcycles to offer “more stability in critical riding situations.” Much like how new cars keep getting slowly but surely endowed with features like automatic emergency braking or lane keep, BMW apparently wants to start by just helping to cut down on the most avoidable accidents.

Translating these kinds of driver assistance features to a motorcycle will certainly be a challenge. You can program a car to slam on the brakes to avoid a crash, and the driver will (likely) come out just fine. But if you do that on a motorcycle, the rider would go flying off the bike. Given the level of control motorcycle riders have over the balance of their bikes, even subtle automated corrections could create new danger.

If BMW can find a way to make some of these ideas work, it may help put a dent in the decline of motorcycle sales. (Of course, cost has been a big reason for that decline, and this kind of tech will likely not start out cheap.) It’s welcoming to see that a big motorcycle manufacturer is willing to throw some resources at figuring all this out. While Yamaha has tinkered with a robotic motorcycle for a few years now, many of the recent advancements in this space have instead been coming from startups.