TOKYO -- Japanese motorcycle makers, struggling with a shrinking and graying market, are desperate to attract a new generation of riders. They are hoping that flashy new technologies -- including electric power, self-balancing capabilities and internet connectivity -- do the trick.
This year's Tokyo Motor Show, which ended Sunday, gave bike lovers a chance to check out some of the latest advancements.
Bikes that can stay up by themselves and respond to hand gestures was one. "Come on, Motoroid!" called Hiroyuki Yanagi, president and CEO of Yamaha Motor, with a wave of his hand at a demonstration. Out rolled a futuristic looking two-wheeler. "Stop," said Yanagi, bringing the bike to a halt. It stayed upright without a kickstand.
The Motoroid, an electrically powered concept motorcycle, can recognize the face of its rider and understand various gestures using artificial intelligence. Yamaha's Active Mass Center Control System, electronically maintains the vehicle's attitude using an accelerometer and other sensors to detect tiny movements of the bike. Components such as the battery casing, swing arm and rear wheel shift to keep it balanced.
Honda Motor is also working on technology that will keep its motorcycles upright at low speeds. In a demonstration at the motor show, a rider on a Honda Riding Assist-e took his hands off the handle bars as the bike stayed balanced on its own.
"This is an applied version of the balance-control technology that we have invented through robotics research," said Honda President Takahiro Hachigo. The technology can automatically steer the bike in response to shifts in the vehicle's position. The company says this will help prevent bikers from falling while riding slowly.
According to Honda, the major advantage of the self-balancing system is its compactness, which allows it to be incorporated into motorcycles of varying sizes, from commuter bikes to larger machines. Helping riders maintain their balance could help would-be motorcyclists make the switch to two wheels. Self-balancing technologies may also be useful for autonomous vehicles.
Another feature drawing attention from visitors at the show was "connected car" technologies that lets people go online safely while on the road.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which makes large to midsize motorcycles, recently joined a consortium that is promoting an open-source software platform called SmartDeviceLink that connects cars to smartphones. The platform lets people operate apps on their handsets through voice commands and other technologies, rather than using their hands.
Kawasaki Heavy is keen to develop technologies that keep motorcyclists happy. Since last year, the company has been working on an AI-based driver-assistance system that can understand a rider's intentions or mood by picking up key words in the driver's conversation, drawing on a database in the cloud.
Motorcycle makers in richer, Western countries are seeing markets shrink as riders age and fewer young people hop on bikes. Harley-Davidson of the U.S. is forecasting 6-8% decline in unit sales for 2017.
The industry is searching for a way to attract new bikers and keep them riding. Motorcycle buyers tend to be motoring enthusiasts, who are more interested in the mechanics of how their machines work than the typical car buyer. So manufacturers are working feverishly to incorporate cutting-edge technologies into their products.
"I want my bike to find a parking space by itself," said one visitor to the show, suggesting one idea. "It would be helpful when riding [in an area without enough parking spaces, like] in Tokyo," he said.