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Autonomous cars could make motorcycles a thing of the past


Forget the perennial debate over lane splitting. The new discussion is the future of motorcycles, period. Will self-driving cars make motorcycles obsolete (or illegal)?

No need to panic. Motorcycles aren’t going away anytime soon. But some wonder whether manually operated motorcycles and biker culture will be compatible with “robot cars” of the foreseeable future. Will riding a motorbike be considered unreasonably dangerous? Will controlling a vehicle with one’s hands and feet seem quaint?

Might motorcycles become extinct?

The 2004 movie “I, Robot” depicts a future of self-driving cars that run at high speeds in tight formations. Will Smith’s character, a throwback who distrusts smart technology, is the rebel who still (1) rides a motorcycle (2) using manual controls, to the dismay of his boss and loved ones.

That science fiction scenario is getting closer to reality. We already have semi-autonomous cars, with a human in the driver’s seat who can take over the controls. Before long, cars and trucks will be fully autonomous, and humans will literally be along for the ride. At some point, the act of driving a car could become either outlawed or uninsurable – and riding a motorcycle would be out of the question.

Or could motorcycles co-exist with robot cars? Riding a motorcycle could actually become safer in the future. Autonomous vehicles will be better than humans at “seeing” motorcycles. Unlike car drivers who are startled when a lane splitter comes zooming by, smart cars would sense the cycle coming — and maybe even move over a bit to give the bike a wide berth.

As is, motorcycles are statistically dangerous. Cycles account for less than 1 percent of all vehicle miles, 3 percent of all registered vehicles, but 14 percent of traffic fatalities. Nationwide, motorcycles are linked to 5,000 fatalities and 88,000 injuries each year, including about 500 fatal motorcycle crashes in California alone. Any technology that brings those numbers down is welcome.

Self-driving motorcycles are more likely

BMW, Honda and other manufacturers have already developed self-balancing motorcycles that literally can’t tip over. Many of the safety technologies that enable cars to avoid collisions or pilot themselves will be adapted for motorbikes. Motorcycle fatalities may actually decline, especially if airbag vests and dash-mounted airbags become standard. The “smart” cycle that can go on autopilot will even be welcomed by some motorcycle enthusiasts, especially for long-distance touring bikes.

But there will always be the purists who want the wind in their hair, their hand on the throttle, a rumbling engine between their legs … and a little bit of danger. Robots be damned.