Motorcycling as sustainable transport?

ACEM 2018Brussels, 31/01/2018. ACEM’s ‘Sustainable motorcycling in Europe’ conference last week in Brussels was a fascinating blend between the usual Brussels EU conference (suits, eurocrats, industry execs, etc.) and what has traditionally been seen as a niche pursuit (riding motorcycles).

ACEM’s aim (representing as it does the motorcycle manufacturers) is of course to widen the market for and social acceptability of motorcycle riding – though powered two-wheelers or PTWs is the term they prefer.

To this end, ACEM quotes the example of a 2012 Transport and Mobility study in Leuven, Belgium, “.. a modal shift from private cars towards motorcycles positively influences the propagation of traffic flows and traffic congestion, with a beneficial impact on emissions from overall traffic, including those of greenhouse gases.”

However 2012 was before the emergence of the whole Dieselgate saga of large-scale emissions cheating from car manufacturers. Three years on from that scandal, we know that nitrogen-dioxide pollution is a far more immediate threat to public health than future climate change from greenhouse-gas emissions (although that long-term threat remains).

Electric bikeMotorcycling should have benefited from the whole sorry story of Dieselgate (as they pollute far less than cars), yet the industry still faces problems in public perception. Riders are frequently viewed by non-motorcyclists as, variously, hooligans, likely criminals, foolish elderly men chasing their lost youth, outlaws, and outright lawbreakers. Some of us can be forgiven for thinking we should just have joined the one percenters from the start.

Yet if you are (like me) someone who has ridden bikes for years and knows there is no other pursuit quite like it, you know that it is not about speed, but about practicality and ease of movement. Especially so in cities that are more and more crowded with people who seem to have little idea of driving as a discipline.

Motorcycle industry changing fast

So the conference was interesting, and many of the industry execs present were themselves riders, as were some of the EU representatives including at least a couple of MEPs. The focus of the event, sustainable motorcycling, ranged over regional differences (in southern Europe it is all about practicality), emissions standards, air quality in cities, internal combustion versus electric power plants, and the future of motorcycling.

ACEM 2018 (by Benjamin Brolet)Motorcycle industry reps made much of the improved emission standards of modern motorcycles; the industry has moved rapidly from Euro 0 to Euro 4, with Euro 5 (the equivalent to auto-industry Euro 6) in the offing. Surprisingly perhaps, they did not mention the inherent advantage of two wheels – that a lighter vehicle will pollute less because it requires less energy to move it. Two-wheeled vehicles have an inherently lighter environmental footprint.

Electric bikes (meaning electric motorcycles) had their proponents of course, including one or two clean-air hawks who had obviously never ridden a motorcycle in their lives and believed that the future had to be all-electric. In fact, two riders (from arrived from Groningen on a pair of them, proving that the technology exists and is usable. But with a price tag of around € 35,000 they are yet to be mass-market offerings.

A ‘connected-bike’ future means one of external control?

For me however, the most interesting part of the conference was that on the ‘connected bike’, as represented by the Connected Motorcycle Consortium. The CMC focuses on communicating-vehicle technology as applied to two wheels, and links its work with other EU research into vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. The CMC’s mission is to use advanced technology to help reduce vehicle accidents and thus save the public purse money, and it includes the world’s major motorcycle manufacturers in its ranks.

On the face of it, such efforts are worthy, as the most common serious accident for a motorcyclist is a SMIDSY (Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You), caused by a driver pulling out from a side street into a motorcyclist’s path. Who could argue with technology that enables two vehicles to communicate and thus prevent such an accident.

And yet, how is this to be done? Only by adjusting vehicle speeds relative to each other. In other words, by controlling the power output of one or both vehicles to ensure that they never reach close proximity.

Connected Bike (by Philip Hunt)It is typical of such Brussels conferences that those present tip-toe around the more thorny ethical questions of such technology. All the talk is of enabling technologies, communication standards, software, etc. No-one wants to deal with difficult questions such as – will riders accept external control of their bike while they are riding it, even if such control can be made safely (itself questionable)?

So, yours truly jumped in with both feet and asked the question. I liked the safety aspect of avoiding collisions, but what about having my vehicle’s engine output subject to external control? Was this not a dangerous interference with citizen freedoms?

Of course I got slapped down for my pains. The answer that made sense was that you need an over-ride button for such technology.The answer that didn’t was that other people are better judges of whether your freedoms are good for you or not, i.e. we the experts know better than you.

You can see why such questions are avoided. No-one wants to admit it, but the motor industry and EU institutions are moving inexorably toward a future in which vehicle movements are controlled. You will be able to use your vehicle as you see fit, but only if the transport authorities decide that it is permissible.

For better or for worse, all the technological improvements, ride-by-wire, automatic braking, autonomous vehicles, convoy driving, follow-me, adaptive ABS and even the electric vehicle itself, all are facilitating a future in which external authorities will be able to control your use of a vehicle, for your own good of course.

Such prosaic freedoms are important

The difficulties with this progression are two-fold. First, how many citizens, EU or otherwise, have signed up to the idea that, in future, they may not be able to drive or ride their vehicles when they choose? Licences and/or agreed temporary access restrictions backed by fines are one thing, but a block on even being able to start your vehicle is another.

Speaker at ACEM (by Benjamin Brolet)In the type of illustration beloved of Hollywood, suppose your wife was giving birth and you need to get to hospital, despite it being a non-driving day. Most people would break the law in such circumstances, penalties regardless. But if your vehicle will not even start, then you have to remain at home, helpless.

So are we putting a dangerous amount of power into the hands of the institutions with such technologies? More to the point, have we even been informed or asked about it? A prosaic subject maybe, but relevant to the functioning of true democracy nonetheless.

Such technologies are ‘for the benefit of society’ of course. But whose society? When you hear that 30% of the population of the United States does not use the internet, and what’s more feels no need for it, you do start to think more deeply about where the real benefits of ‘the connected society’ lie.

Can external control of two-wheeled power ever be safe?

The second difficulty with such technology is specific to two wheels. Riding a motorcycle, scooter or even a bicycle is a matter of balance. And maintaining that balance is usually a blend between rider action, power output and braking.

On a motorcycle particularly, fine adjustments in engine power output are critical to maintaining the vehicle’s balance and direction, particularly so when cornering. Even in a relatively straight line, as on a motorway for example, a rider is constantly making fine adjustments to the throttle in order to maintain his or her balance.

Thatcham Research (by Philip Hunt)Given this requirement, it is easy to see that externally cutting the power of a two-wheeler while it is in motion is fraught with difficulties. Put simply, motorcyclists need rider control of engine power in order to remain upright. Take away that control and put it in the hands of someone sitting in a remote control room, and you have a guaranteed accident statistic.

In 2015, I attended a series of road-safety demonstrations organised by Thatcham Research on behalf of the UK motor insurance industry. Automated emergency braking, follow-me technologies, automatic parking even – some impressive vehicle-safety technologies were on show; many of which are now on the market.

But when I asked the question of how such technologies could be applied to motorcycling, the answer I received was less promising. Basically, I heard, motorcycle dynamics are so complicated that they will probably have to remain purely under rider control for the forseeable future.

Although such technologies are advancing all the time – I believe that this still remains the case.

© Philip Hunt, 2018.


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