TOKYO -- A motorcycle cannot stand on its own because it is too (two) tired -- this joke may become history. With self-driving for four-wheeled vehicles having entered the practical stage and safer cars in demand, Japanese motorcycle makers are directly challenging the conventional wisdom of two-wheeled vehicles.
"Everybody knows motorcycles are dangerous, but the industry has continued to turn a blind eye to the issue. We want to face it squarely," said Makoto Shimamoto, Yamaha Motor's director in charge of mobility technology. In this spirit, Yamaha is working to develop safer motorcycles that do not fall over. The key technology for this effort is called "leaning multi-wheel" technology (LMW), which uses three or more wheels but makes the vehicles feel like motorcycles, turning in the direction the rider leans toward.
Yamaha has already introduced several motorcycles using this technology. The first model in the series was the Tricity 125, a scooter with two wheels in front and one in back, introduced in 2014. In 2016, the company introduced the Tricity 155, with increased engine displacement. The two front wheels provide stability that helps keep the scooters upright even on slippery surfaces.
At the end of September, Yamaha released the Tricity 300, which features a system letting it remain upright when parked. Company President Yoshihiro Hidaka said he hopes to introduce a motorcycle that does not fall over "in a few years." The company aims to step up efforts to develop safety technologies, which will include the use of artificial intelligence to increase the accuracy of onboard systems monitoring situations surrounding the vehicle.
Safety has been a major issue for motorcycles for a long time because their riders are more exposed to danger than car drivers are. But as the domestic market has shrunk and the motorcyclist demographic has grown older, Yamaha aims to retake its former strong market position by enhancing safety.
Though motorcycles still are a key means of transportation in emerging countries, in Japan, where 3 million motorcycles once were sold annually, people have shifted to four-wheeled vehicles or electric bikes for transportation, and motorcycles are now mainly for hobbyists. Their market size in Japan is just one-tenth of what it was in the peak decade of the 1980s. An insider at a motorcycle maker said a movement to discourage high school students from riding motorcycles has contributed strongly to the decline.
Still, motorcycles have advantages of their own. They have a light environmental impact compared to cars because they discharge less exhaust gases. As they are smaller, they can help alleviate traffic congestion and shortages of parking spaces. If the safety issue can be overcome, motorcycles still have a chance for a comeback as a popular means of transportation.
Yamaha is not the only maker that sees a chance for growth with high-safety motorcycles.
Rival Honda Motor is also working to develop a safe motorcycle, taking advantage of the balance-control technology it developed for its Asimo bipedal humanoid robot.
Auto parts makers also have focused efforts on developing components for the safety features of two-wheeled vehicles, taking advantage of technologies and know-how they have acquired through their work on four-wheeled connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles -- sometimes collectively referred to with the acronym CASE -- including self-driving functions.
Koito Manufacturing, for example, is in the process of developing a technology that enhances the safety of motorcycles by using light beams to project where the vehicle is heading onto the road surface. As self-driving vehicles do not have a driver, a key issue is how they can communicate with other vehicles and pedestrians around them. Koito also is in the process of developing a "communication lamp" system that projects information onto the road surface for the benefit of those around the vehicle, working in connection with cameras and sensors.
The company plans to adopt the technology for headlamps on motorcycles. It can project light beams to show where the vehicle is heading to help other vehicles and pedestrians notice its presence in, for example, intersections with bad visibility.
Robert Bosch, the world's largest auto parts manufacturer, has conducted tests on a driving assistance system for motorcycles on public roads in Japan since March 2019. According to the German company, the probability for motorcycle riders to die in traffic accidents in Japan is 13 times that for drivers of four-wheeled vehicles.
The company is developing the system using its advanced safety technology for four-wheeled vehicles. The system can monitor situations surrounding the vehicle using radars in the front and back. It guides the vehicle to maintain a safe distance from the one ahead of it. It vibrates the handlebar or sounds an alarm to alert the rider if a collision appears imminent. Bosch researchers believe the system can reduce motorcycle accidents by over 10%.
KTM and Ducati, motorcycle makers in Austria and Italy, use Bosch's system in some models. In Japan, Kawasaki Heavy Industries also plans to equip some of its motorcycle models scheduled for release in 2021 or later with the system.
Smart helmets, which project information onto the face shield, are another key technology in the efforts to eliminate two-wheeled vehicle accidents. Riders of motorcycles have less information on their surroundings compared to drivers of four-wheelers. Such information is becoming increasingly available to motorcycle riders as sensor and connected car technologies have improved, but getting it from displays like smartphones can distract the rider's attention.
Smart helmets prevent the rider from looking too far away from the road ahead by displaying information on the face shield, using head-up display technology originally developed to project information on the windshields of four-wheeled vehicles. Such helmets are being developed by companies including Shoei, a major motorcycle helmet manufacturer in Japan.
The average age of new motorcycle buyers in Japan is 54.7 and is rising year by year, according to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. People who enjoyed motorcycle riding in the past are increasingly returning to the hobby out of nostalgia. Many of them are in their 50s to 60s. As many bikers are no longer young, demand for safety features is believed to be strong.
Although safety technologies have improved, the malfunctioning of a motorcycle rider assistance system can easily lead to accidents, according to an executive at a motorcycle maker. If a system wrongly detects an obstacle, the rider may brake suddenly and lose balance. The road to zero accidents for two-wheeled motor vehicles is not at all smooth. But because the benefits of achieving this would be significant, manufacturers are likely to further step up efforts.