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BMW is teaching this motorcycle to drive itself — so it can help save lives

BMW says its autonomous vehicle will help boost the safety and handling of conventional motorcycles.
BMW wants to use autonomous systems to make motorcycles safer.
BMW wants to use autonomous systems to make motorcycles safer.BMW Motorrad

Self-driving cars have quickly moved from a far-out idea to a here-and-now reality. Now one German automaker has built a self-driving motorcycle — one that can start, accelerate, steer and brake to stop, all without a rider.

No one is looking to fill the roads with riderless motorcycles. Rather, BMW sees its autonomous motorcycle as a test bed for technologies that would improve the safety and handling of conventional motorcycles.

“We want to teach the motorcycle how to ride a bike,” said Stefan Hans, the engineer who leads the self-driving motorcycle project for BMW Motorrad, the company's motorcycling division.

BMW's self-driving motorcycle resembles the $22,000 R 1200 GS model on which it’s based, except for the equipment cases mounted alongside and above the rear wheel that house the self-driving computer and other electronics. A radio antenna mounted at the back receives instructions from test engineers and sends real-time data on the performance of the motorcycle and its self-driving systems.

The motorcycle is steered via a small electro-mechanical actuator developed by the project team, Hans said, with other actuators controlling the throttle, clutch, gears and brakes. There are no sensors to detect obstacles in its path, as the motorcycle is only being tested on a track near BMW's headquarters in Munich.

Some modern motorcycles are already equipped with antilock braking systems (ABS), traction control and other rider-assist technologies that are commonplace in automobiles. But with these systems “the rider has to act first and the system can reduce brake pressure or engine torque if otherwise the motorcycle would become unstable,” Hans said. “In my opinion, future systems should be able to look ahead a few seconds and inform, warn or intervene before the situation becomes dangerous.”

Would motorcyclists welcome such technologies? Zack Courts, a motorcycle journalist who co-hosts a show on the Motor Trend channel, isn’t so sure.

“I think there will be a lot of riders who will hate the idea of the bike trying to predict anything,” Courts told NBC News MACH in an email. “Then again, there were, and are still, lots of riders with a lack of faith in ABS or traction control, when the fact is those are good safety systems to have. ... I've learned that even if new technology isn't perfect right away, it has the potential to help keep us all safer.”

Hans declined to give details on BMW's plans for development of the new technologies, saying only that he was confident that the ongoing work on the self-driving motorcycle would lead to changes in conventional motorcycles.

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