• How Much Tech Will it Take To Make A Safe Motorcycle?

  • Radar Scanning of the Road Ahead More manufacturers fitting radar detectors to 'see' the road ahead, even in bad conditions. This illustration is of a proposed Indian Motorcycles system
  • Adaptive Cruise Control Rider can set the following distance. Motorcycle accelerates and brakes autonomously according to the vehicle in front
  • Making Motorcycles More Visible Car-mounted detectors might 'miss' motorcycles, so BMW came up with these golf-ball size reflectors
  • Simple to Retro-Fit The passive reflectors can be easily retro-fitted. Only helps cars 'see' bikes and not part of the bike's radar system
  • A Car's Field of Vision Because of the size of a car and the amount of space that is available, it is easier to fit more sensors and the accompanying processing hardware
  • So Far, So Good Motorcycle systems will get more powerful and will enable the bike to take avoiding action without input from the rider

New Technology Can Help, But There Are Problems

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Technology is advancing at an ever-increasing rate and much of it is being applied to the fields of rider safety. But, it’s not as simple as that: there are hurdles, such as cost, space to fit the systems and how the systems intervene without endangering the rider.

Can Motorcycling Ever Be Completely Safe?

How Much Tech Will it Take To Make A Safe Motorcycle?
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Radar Scanning of the Road Ahead
More manufacturers fitting radar detectors to ’see’ the road ahead, even in bad conditions. This illustration is of a proposed Indian Motorcycles system

Far from being a dying breed, motorcycling has never been more popular and motorcycles sales never more buoyant. There are several factors contributing to this, not all of them obvious: increasing congestion on urban roads, the rise in use of motorcycles for deliveries and even the recognition that motorcycles provide an opportunity for socially-distanced transport in the current Covid-obsessed climate. While small-displacement motorcycles have always been massively popular in Asian countries, a similar trend is being seen in Europe and America.

However, all this does have a down side, namely, a 15-21% increase in accidents and fatalities in the past decade. That motorcycles are more dangerous than cars is obvious but, with this in mind, it is ironic that motorcycles are the least regulated vehicles in terms of protection. While cars are safety-rated via the Euro NCAP system or the NHTSA in the U.S., no such legislation exists for motorcycles.

How Much Tech Will it Take To Make A Safe Motorcycle?
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Adaptive Cruise Control
Rider can set the following distance. Motorcycle accelerates and brakes autonomously according to the vehicle in front

The very nature of motorcycle riding presents unique problems that are difficult to overcome without endangering the motorcyclist him- or herself. New sensing technology is improving all the time but the way that they intervene is still a long way from being fool-proof. However, this same development of technology presents an opportunity to completely shake up rider safety for the first time in decades.

In cars, driver assist systems, such as blind-spot detection, collision warnings and radar-assisted cruise control have been successfully integrated. This has been made easier in several ways: a larger platform into which the systems can be incorporated, a lower cost in proportion to the overall cost of the vehicle and the fact that a car can be automatically braked or steered with little or no risk to the driver or passengers. The very nature of a motorcycle means that sudden deceleration or change of direction could take the rider unawares and cause them to lose control.

What Are The Issues?

How Much Tech Will it Take To Make A Safe Motorcycle?
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Making Motorcycles More Visible
Car-mounted detectors might ’miss’ motorcycles, so BMW came up with these golf-ball size reflectors

There are several factors to be considered. Firstly, motorcycles tend to travel faster than other vehicles and have longer stopping distances: if the car in front brakes sharply, the bike can’t match that stopping distance.

Secondly, motorcycle sensors have to be able to work when a motorcycle is leaning, thus narrowing the detection field-of-view. Thus the sensors have to have a much wider operating perspective.

How Much Tech Will it Take To Make A Safe Motorcycle?
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Simple to Retro-Fit
The passive reflectors can be easily retro-fitted. Only helps cars ’see’ bikes and not part of the bike’s radar system

Due to the nature of motorcycle operation, as mentioned above, detection of hazards has to be much earlier so avoiding action can be taken earlier, taking into account the dynamics of motorcycle operation. This means that the systems have to be extra-sensitive and lightning-fast in operation, which brings us to the fourth point.

Bikes are much smaller than cars, so the space to fit sensors and associated hardware is more difficult. The lack of acres of bodywork means that sensors have to be integrated into what is available, which might compromise their operation due to reduced line of sight.

How Much Tech Will it Take To Make A Safe Motorcycle?
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A Car’s Field of Vision
Because of the size of a car and the amount of space that is available, it is easier to fit more sensors and the accompanying processing hardware

Some issues are common to both cars and bikes. For example, camera-based systems have obvious drawbacks: they won’t work in the dark, or in fog, or when the lens gets dirty, nor can they see through solid objects.

The Solution

One potential solution is imaging radar, which neatly side-steps all the above problems with camera-based systems, while being much more accurate and giving more information. Crucially, it is also cheaper.

The best systems provide a 360 degree field of detection and can see forward up to 140 metres. Just two sensors - one in the front and one at the back - provide this coverage irrespective of prevailing road conditions and lean angle.

How Much Tech Will it Take To Make A Safe Motorcycle?
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So Far, So Good
Motorcycle systems will get more powerful and will enable the bike to take avoiding action without input from the rider

The main goal is to give the rider the quickest assessment of the road ahead and behind and, therefore, the longest time possible to react to those conditions. The sooner the bike gets these signals, the quicker and less sharply it has to brake and (eventually) steer autonomously, making it much safer for the rider who can’t see what the radar is seeing and who has to react to what the motorcycle is deciding it needs to do to avoid collision.

Motorcycling will never be completely safe. While those of us who have been riding for years - decades even - might opine that that is one of the reasons why we love it, there is a new generation of riders who will never buy into the whole ’danger is excitement’ thing. If motorcycling is to survive, it has to adapt. None of these systems are mandatory yet and, at the moment, can be turned off on the likes of the KTM 1290 Adventure S or BMW R1250RT but how far away is the day when they are there whether you like it or not?

Harry Fisher
Harry Fisher
Motorcycling Contributor
Born and raised in England, he has lived in South Africa with his family since 2002. Harry has owned examples of Triumph, Norton, BSA, MV Agusta, Honda, BMW, Ducati, Harley Davidson, Kawasaki and Moto Morini motorcycles. He regrets selling all of them.  Read full bio
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