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Spare Parts: Would you ride it?

By Ernie Copper

Spare_Parts

A few things had me thinking about autonomous vehicles again. Within the last few months, I saw a show featuring Jay Leno riding in an autonomous Audi RS7 named Bobby at Sonoma as it hustled around hands free. Later, Leno climbed behind Bobby’s wheel with the autopilot off to see how he stacked up against the computer and damned if he didn’t beat its time by less than a second on a two-minute lap. I don’t know much about Leno’s driving abilities, but based on his toy box, I’d say he’s probably somewhere above average, so it was a fair fight between him and Bobby. The show reminded me of how I felt when I agreed to take a ride-along in a vintage race car as a fundraiser once. The luck of the draw determined your car and driver, so you were pretty much putting your life in a stranger’s hands as he raced around the track at moderate speed. Even at that pace, it’s a little unsettling to get pitched into a corner by a total stranger. I imagine it would be even worse if the stranger were a computer.

It made me wonder if autonomous motorcycles would even be possible to make and if they were, would they ever be in demand? I found that Yamaha has a working autonomous robot rider and others have made autonomous, though completely riderless “ghost rider” bikes. I couldn’t find any autonomous bikes that a human could ride on—yet.

But what if there were? Let’s forget about the normal concerns of riding a bike, in traffic, that you aren’t controlling. Let’s think a little more extreme. What if you could, say, hop on an XR750 and do a lap at speed at the Springfield Mile? Climb on a vintage 101 Indian Scout and take a few laps around the Wall of Death? Maybe climb on a road racer programmed to keep up with “The Doctor?” Bet you never considered that option.

Technology is moving at such blazing speed that it might not be long before that would be a possibility. I’m not sure what kind of technology would be in charge of handling the variables concerned with the sure-to-be-shifting mass of a human aboard a bike with no actual control of it, but once it was sorted out, it might be like riding a roller coaster—the first autonomous thrill ride! Look how comfortable we got with coasters. The tallest is over 450 feet high, plenty of coasters top 100 mph and the fastest approach speeds of 150 mph. That’s no laughing matter and I’m sure there are plenty of riders who go “no hands!” We are already programmed and have a long history of being trusting, talentless thrill seekers.

But the question persists: would you ride it? If a bike could be programmed to perform at professional race speeds without any input from you, the rider, would you be able to talk yourself into it? Imagine you’re leathered up, waiting in line for your turn to lap Indy, Laguna Seca or Daytona?

Let’s assume you have any racing background at all, even if it’s limited to trying to beat your riding buddies through the twisties in your neck of the woods. As good as you may be, I’m sure you’ve followed someone into a turn who was going faster than you thought it was possible to make it out the other side and to some degree you rolled out of the throttle. Imagine being aboard a bike that you weren’t controlling but that was programmed to be capable of matching the pro’s entrance and exit race speeds. My palms are sweating just facing the possibility!

The idea of a ride-along for motorcycling motorsports just wouldn’t be the same as it is for our four-wheeled counterparts. Mario Andretti could blast you around Indianapolis in a two seater because you would pose no threat to him, strapped in beside him in your five-point harness, but if you could ride along with “The Doctor,” Valentino Rossi, you’d probably jump off or die trying to the first time he slid a knee! Not to mention the issues that would arise because of the increased mass of your body on the bike so the entire idea is a pipe dream, but once they get an autonomous bike that works, it sure would be cool to see if they could program the performance into it so the masses could see what it’s like to be fast, real fast. Isle of Man, anyone? Set it on John McGuinness, please.

I’m as anti-tech as anyone out there, but the idea of an autonomous joy ride has captured my imagination. We all like to think we’re fast, but would we have the nerve to hang on to a ride that had quick time built into it? I’m pretty sure it would need to be “detuned” for public amusement.

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