Connected Cars vs Disconnected Bikes: Using Technology to Make Biking and Driving Safer

In a current Chevrolet commercial, a group of children are invited to watch movies on their personal devices in the back of a connected Chevrolet; clearly they are happy and engaged with the technology. They are then invited to continue their viewing in the back of a Toyota, but as their devices are not connected, their enjoyment quickly ends. This example of passenger experience is indicative of where the Internet of Things is headed. Soon all new vehicles, if they wish to be taken seriously, will be connected devices and hubs that double as transportation, in the same way that smartphones can also be used to make phone calls.

By now we are familiar with the concept of the connected car. From streaming Pandora and having the kids watch Netflix in the back seat to real-time telematics and self-parking. Chevrolet has just announced an addition to OnStar, an alert sent to your smartphone when your car alarm goes off. That is unmistakable low-hanging fruit; the technology is already in place. Apple CarPlay and similar functionality for Android Auto will bring full smartphone mirroring in the next year or so. Commercially viable self-driving cars are but a relative short distance away. Internet technologies will revolutionize the way we interact with our cars and the services that we utilize when in them. With self-driving cars on the horizon, the car becomes an extension of our living room, our office, and our quiet space. However, according to a 2014 HIS Automotive study there are 253 million cars and trucks on our roads with an average age of 11.4 years. The transition to a fully connected roadway, let alone the driverless road, is still some ways off.

Bikers Want to Know: So When Does the Driving Happen?

So what does all this technology do for another large community of road users and their machine, the motorcyclist and the motorcycle? A friend and ex-colleague of mine, who is a passionate bike fan and regular blogger, recently wrote in no uncertain terms about the unintended, negative impacts that recent technological advances in cars have on the safety of bikers. He argues that the addition of gadgets and gizmos to cars so distracts drivers they become involuntary battering rams to bikers, cyclists and pedestrians, as well as other car drivers. Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the iconic original Mini, disliked even a radio in the car as he believed it was a distraction. Applying that logic to motorcycle design implies that there is even less of a case for distracting a rider with such innovation. Well, not if the technology is designed to be passive and adheres to a ‘safety first’ principle. Think of it as turning connected car from interactivity to passive guide and ‘guardian angel’.

Approximately half a million motorbikes are sold every year in the US; this is a market that demands attention. The creation of a self-driven motorcycle surely defeats the purpose for which most riders choose biking in the first place; the freedom and excitement of the open road. Is there then a case to be made for the connected bike in the same way that has allowed the connected car to become the new de facto norm?

To answer this question I reached out to a couple of biker friends, one in the US plus the friend I mentioned above in the UK, to solicit their opinions on connected services  that would appeal to bikers across the spectrum of biker demographics. From an interested observer perspective, it would seem to make sense to have connectivity for reasons of safety, emergency response, stolen bike recovery, navigation, along with more lifestyle opportunities with social media.

Let’s examine some of the connected services that received thumbs up from both sides of the Atlantic:

  • Emergency services dispatch – similar to General Motors’ OnStar service: “On a bike it could be a real winner because, by definition, a rider is often alone. If the bike goes down you know the call will be made, even if you’re laying 30 feet away in a ditch. It’s a great idea and I would say lots of bikers would relish having it (also great for manufacturers on their safety drives).”
  • GPS Navigation with real-time traffic conditions: “Top end sat navs do this but of course you can’t leave them on the bike when you park (they’ll get stolen) so it means carrying them about. Integrated or built in is a better solution.”  A qualified ‘thumbs up’ here but raises the issue about how to load complicated and expensive technology on a bike in a way that it isn’t easy to steal.
  • Engine Management / Real Time Telemetry: A connected bike could send real time engine management and telemetry data to the OEM or the dealer who in turn could proactively advise the rider, using advanced analytics, of probability of failure based on captured data. For fleets this could be invaluable to reduce in-service breakdowns  “Most top end bikes, like cars, need plugging in at the dealer and the system does collect lots of data, but the fleet application is very interesting (thinking police, couriers, etc).”
  • Ability to de-activate the machine: “The remote security thing is interesting too. Systems are available now which tell the cops where the bike is, just like on cars, but to the best of my knowledge there’s no way of interacting with the machine remotely. (I love the “wipe” idea – you could kill the ECU remotely, although you’d need to think about the insurance repercussions to replace or reprogram upon recovery). Making the device simple, so the user can easily control and locate is something which would render it more popular.”
  • Communication: “Between driver and passenger, driver and technology (whether on board or remote) needs to be more verbal than visual in order to keep hands on the handle bars and eyes on the road.” Bluetooth connected helmet with built in microphones, heads-up visor displays, for example.
  • Lifestyle and Social Media: “The GoPro HERO rules the biking roost (as it does everything – unquestionably a brilliant piece of kit…I have one). They’re expensive, obviously, but oh so very cool. Integrated cameras with a USB to download at the end of the ride? I think if it weren’t too expensive people would like it both for the fun and the safety element. However, to be secure the apparatus would need to be built in to the bike, and of course appearance is important in lifestyle biking so it would also need to be unobtrusive. That probably means concealment within the headstock area. Thus it’d be hard to retrofit, rendering the option nearly pointless. But, on big tourers with all that space around the screen and clocks, it would be easy. Either way, none of that is insurmountable and it’s a lovely idea.”

What Does Flo Say?

Having established that the concept of a connected bike has promise, let’s consider another potential area of benefit, insurance. Some of the apps listed above, for example stolen bike recovery, could attract discounts on premiums, in a similar way that alarms and lock-up garages do today.

Safety is always a factor when considering motorcycle risk profiles. According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2013 motorcyclists were about 26 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a crash per vehicle mile traveled and five times more likely to be injured.

With a connected bike comes the opportunity to monitor riding styles, which is undoubtedly information that would be of interest to insurance companies. A short visit to YouTube and you will discover a section of the motorcycle community that would absolutely not want their insurance company to know how they drive their machines. But, for the mid-life crisis inspired, weekend hog rider, or the safety conscious commuter, being able to reduce premiums through use of a ‘smartbox’ to monitor riding information; mileage, speed, stability, etc., may be welcome. As for Flo and her insurance industry colleagues, it is an easy extension to increase the risk profile of riders that do not wish to share telemetry data.

It would appear that there is a case for the connected bike. The technology is here already and could be built into the motorcycle structure in a way that it is a) unobtrusive and b) secure. This may not be the differentiator that motivates a buyer between buying a Harley Iron 883 and a Kawasaki Ninja ZX, but from a rider experience perspective, connected bike deserves a deeper discussion.

My thanks to James Clark of Oxfordshire, England (James can be read in Superbike Magazine, Motorcyle Deluxe website, and The Making Progress Blues blog) and Bill McGough of Wake Forrest, North Carolina for their contributions and interest in the topic.

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