Motorcycle advocates and enthusiasts believe autonomous technology in other vehicles could yield tremendous safety benefits for riders, but they remain protective of the freedom to operate their bikes themselves instead of being pushed onto self-driving machines.
Detection by other road users is a “constant challenge” for the riders of the nearly 8.5 million registered motorcycles in the U.S., Megan Ekstrom, Motorcycle Riders Foundation’s (MRF) vice president of governmental affairs, told Bloomberg Government. Autonomous vehicles pose the same challenge, but could also be a solution if the technology takes into consideration motorcycles, advocates believe.
“We see a huge potential in automated vehicles helping to eliminate the human factor,” Ekstrom said. “However, in order for that to happen, we need to make sure that the concept of detection and response to motorcyclists would be an integral part of any sort of policy or regulation.”
That’s why MRF spent $2,500 in the third quarter lobbying on transportation issues, including the House and Senate autonomous vehicle legislation (H.R. 3399 and S. 1588), according to Bloomberg Government lobbying data.
Motorcyclists are included among the objects self-driving vehicles must be tested to detect in the Senate bill, but not in the House measure.
“We’re certainly hopeful that we can work something out if the bills do advance,” said Ekstrom about the difference between the two chambers’ bills.
One reason the Senate bill took into account motorcyclists? Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a bill co-sponsor, is the co-chair of the three-member Senate motorcycle caucus. (Other members are co-chair Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine.)
“I love motorcycles, that’s my thing,” Peters told Bloomberg Government. Peters said he started riding minibikes at the age of 12 and does a motorcycle ride across Michigan every year.
Through working with the offices of the Senate bill co-sponsors, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Peters, Ekstrom’s group got motorcycles included in the bill.
Thune is not a rider, but his state of South Dakota is home to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held over about 10 days in August.
“Given the tremendous safety and mobility benefits that self-driving vehicle technology offers, all road users, including motorcyclists, should be taken into account as the testing and deployment of innovations advance,” Thune said in a statement to Bloomberg Government.
“The main reason why motorcyclists are injured or die is because of drivers of cars that don’t see them and pull out and are engaged in errors. So if you eliminate those errors, the motorcycle fatality [rate] should go down dramatically,” Peters said.
Though that assumes AV technology can detect motorcycles.
A Tesla vehicle operating in autopilot mode struck a police officer on a motorcycle in Phoenix in March, AZ Central reported. Neither vehicle was damaged and no one was hurt, but Ekstrom used that as an example of the sort of detection AV technology needs to be able to ensure the safety of all road users.
“What’s scary is that motorcyclists have largely been left out of automated vehicle testing protocols,” Ekstrom said.
MRF has been speaking to legislators and regulators to make sure riders are considered in the evolving legislative and regulatory landscape for AV technology.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released two iterations of guidance for autonomous vehicle developers and manufacturers, most recently in September of this year. The Obama-administration document didn’t mention motorcycles at all; the Trump administration document includes the word motorcycle, but only in relation to jurisdiction, not safety testing.
“We’re seeing an emphasis placed on car vs. car crashes, car and pedestrian, car-bicycle and even in the NHTSA guidance, car-animal, but there’s nothing explicitly addressing car-motorcycle crashes,” Ekstrom said.
Her organization raised this concern at a recent NHTSA listening session about AV technology and intended to submit written comments of the same nature.
“Our biggest concern is that if motorcycles are not correctly identified by these automated vehicle systems, an unintended consequence would be that there is potentially an increase in the frequency of car-motorcycle accidents. Even if car-and-car accidents decrease,” Ekstrom said.
NHTSA officials reassured Ekstrom that motorcyclists are part of the AV safety landscape, she said.
“The problem is that we’re not actually seeing that on paper,” she said.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in September when she released “A Vision for Safety: 2.0" that her department is already working on a 3.0 guide for the AV industry.
“We’re hopeful that this next iteration will include motorcyclists in the context of specifically object and event detection,” Ekstrom said.
No thanks, is the answer most motorcycle enthusiasts will give you to the notion of a self-driving bike, according to Ekstrom. That’s true even for enthusiasts who are actively working on autonomous vehicle technology, she said.
Greg Winfree, the former assistant secretary in DOT’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology, currently serves as agency director for the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which has its own autonomous vehicle testing site. Winfree is also an avid motorcyclist.
“It will probably be a cold day in Hades before a motorcyclist agrees to an autonomous motorcycle. I don’t think we’ll see that,” Winfree told Bloomberg Government.
“I will never have a self-driving motorcycle,” Peters said. “That’s my line in the sand.”
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