Editorial

May 31, 2017

Chronicle

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For lovers of things two-wheeled, it’s been hard to get excited about the self-driving revolution that’s sweeping the auto industry. Oh, to be sure, the benefits to cage drivers are enormous. At the very least, the (semi) self-driving cars promise to reduce the scourge of distracted driving that is taking over as the number one cause of accidents among teens and Millennials. At best, fully autonomous automobiles may some day relieve the tedium of traffic jams by letting you work, read or even have sex in the back seat while your computerized car navigates to the office all by its own self.

And to be sure, there are some peripheral benefits of the connected car to motorcyclists. Although it’s not strictly necessary to allow cars to self-navigate, the promise of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication promises to alert sometimes somnolent drivers to our presence, eliminating the “But I didn’t see him!” excuse so prevalent in car-and-motorcycle collisions. But, apart from that, so far it’s been hard to get excited about a self-riding motorcycle. Oh, Yamaha’s R1-riding Motobot robotic rider is kinda nifty, but its pace hardly threatens Valentino Rossi, though, he too, professes — feigns? — intrigue.

But, what’s the point? What purpose could a self-riding motorcycle serve? The whole reason we put up with the cold, wet and windy conditions we suffer is that we actually like riding our steeds. And, unlike car drivers who have all manner of infotainment options to occupy their new free time, we motorcyclists have none. Have you ever tried to read a book in a 120-km/h gale? Work on a laptop? Can you imagine trying to text while your Yamaguchi triple R is scraping a peg at the apex of a high-speed sweeper?

So, the question remains; will autonomous technologies provide benefit to motorcyclists?

Honda thinks it’s found one. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show — once a pure geek show, but now with an increasingly heavy car and motorcycle presence as vehicles become more computerized — in Las Vegas, Honda introduced “Moto Riding Assist.” Officially, Honda says Riding Assist “frees the rider from the hassles of low-speed movement and the stresses of stopping in traffic”—in other words, electronic training wheels for the lazy or inept. The winner of both “Best Innovation” and “Best Automotive Technology” at the 2017 edition of CES, Riding Assist would seem to be the practical application of Honda’s UNI-CUB stationary/slow-speed self-balancing technology brought to the mainstream (the test mule is based on the NC750 platform and looks almost production ready).

Before explaining how Riding Assist works, first a quick word on how we motorcyclists actually balance our motorcycles. I don't think it requires much of an explanation that to keep a motorcycle upright you need to keep the bike’s (plus rider’s) centre of gravity over the tire contact patches (or, more accurately, the imaginary line connecting the two tires’ contact points). How we keep those two planes aligned, however, can be somewhat deceiving.

Though, intuitively, it might seem we use our body weight to move the centre of gravity, what actually keeps motorcycles upright is that we steer the motorcycle — or, again, those tire contact patches — underneath the c of g. At low speeds (gyroscopic precession is the predominant balancing mechanism as speeds increase), what you are doing is subconsciously steering the motorcycle’s two support points directly under its centre of gravity. That’s what’s keeping your bike upright. Think of it like trying to stand on one foot. If you don’t hop to one side or the other once in a while, you’re going to fall flat on your face. Unfortunately, at least for a motorcycle, when you’re not moving forward, it’s difficult to move those support points sideways so they’re underneath that centre of gravity.

Difficult, but not impossible. We’ve all seen bicyclists at stoplights “track standing” at stoplights and marveled at trial riders who can seemingly perch atop their Betas and Gas Gases interminably without falling over. They too are trying to move their tires under their bike only this time it’s a whole bunch harder because the bike is not moving (admittedly, trials riders are also using their weight to help balance their bikes, an act helped immeasurably by the fact that their bikes weigh next to nothing). Balancing a two-wheeler — bicycle or motorcycle — at a standstill is typically the purview of a highly skilled rider.

Or a computer. In the video Honda released at its CES presentation, you can see the NC750’s handlebar flail to and fro, all while the test “rider” is standing on the footpegs, seemingly unperturbed that without the aid of a computer he’d be ass over teakettle. Honda even automatically rakes out its steering when the NC starts its stationary little dance because, as the company’s engineers point out, it lowers the bike and also produces a negative “trail.” Lowering the centre of gravity makes balancing the bike easier and Honda says that, by putting the front tire’s contact ahead of the steering axis, the bike is forced upright “when the handlebar is turned in the direction the bike is falling” Whatever the exact mechanics, it’s all part of the same two-wheeled pas de deux; trying to keep the bike’s centre of gravity over the tires’ contact patches.

Riding Assist may also have other benefits. Since it can balance a motorcycle at a standstill, the technology is also capable of self-riding at low speeds. Indeed, the same Honda video shows the NC crawling out of Honda’s headquarters — even stopping to “look” both ways when it exits the main doors — following its owner like a love-sick puppy.

Though we hardly need our motorcycles to follow us around like a lap dog, it does point to another feature autonomy is promising the car crowd: self-parking. Not nearly as useful to motorcyclists perhaps as it might be to car drivers, it would nevertheless be pretty cool to be dropped off at the front door of ye olde biker bar and then have our semi-robotic motorcycle go park itself.

Assuming, of course, that it also had Kickstand Assist.