Opinion

I, For One, Welcome Our Driverless Car Overlords

The future is not scary. In fact, motorcycling is set to become even better

You might have seen the news last week that Ducati is continuing to work on high-tech safety systems, promising radar-equipped bikes by 2020 and working with parent company Audi to develop so-called C-V2X interconnectivity between bikes and cars. Though Ducati hasn’t stated as much directly, it’s a system that seems likely to be able to control a person’s bike to some degree – either by cutting throttle or easing the brakes.

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Ducati isn’t the only one. KTM, for example, is also working on tech that will independently exert control over a bike, announcing earlier this year that it will be bringing adaptive cruise control to some of its models. That’s a feature that will inherently control throttle and, presumably, be able to apply the brakes.

Neuburg, 03.07.2018: xxx. Foto: Lukas Barth

This sort of technowhizzbangery, however, has the ability to put the fear o’ Jeebus in some riders and more often than not lends itself to anxiety over a future in which many “drivers” will really be passengers in automated vehicles. It’s a dystopian future for some, but personally I’m really looking forward to it. Here’s why:

It Won’t Matter That No One’s Paying Attention

Have you ever noticed how many drivers there are who clearly don’t want to be driving? They’re on their phones, they’re putting on makeup, they’re busy having a domestic argument with their passenger, they’re tucking into a three-course meal, and so on and so on. The most immediate effect all this has on their driving is they become erratic and inattentive. These are the folks making blind and un-indicated lane changes, the ones blissfully unaware of the fact they’re flying through red lights.

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Meanwhile, as a rider, the piece of advice I always wish I could impart to car drivers is this: just be predictable. You can drive fast, you can drive slow, you can drive in this lane, you can drive in that lane – I don’t give a damn, as long as you do it predictably/consistently. One of my key aims in terms of interaction with other road users is to not spend too much time hanging around them, keeping my TED (Time Exposed to Danger) to a minimum.

man in white dress shirt holding smartphone

Predictability and consistency facilitate my ability to do that. So, cars being driven by software are inherently going to make my life easier. They’re going to hold their speed, they’re going to stay in their lane, they’re going to indicate their turns.

They Won’t Get Angry

Sometimes people who don’t want to be driving allow their subconscious unhappiness with the situation to bubble into emotional frustration. And unfortunately, many of us when we get frustrated, rather than being good little Buddhas, choose to adopt the “If Mama ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy” mindset; we choose to spread our misery around.

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So, every once in a while (though, far less often than YouTube road rage videos would have you believe) drivers get emotional and behave like jerks. Often they’ll perceive your actions as an insult or challenge, and will seek to rebuke or punish you in some way. They’ll speed up when you try to pass, swerve to block your progress, tailgate aggressively, etc. – all the while waving their fists, gnashing their teeth, and showing the worst side of themselves.

This won’t happen in the era of self-driven cars. When you accelerate past a self-driven car it won’t feel that its manhood is being threatened. An autonomous vehicle – even one that’s been stuck in traffic all day – is not going to think you need to be taught a lesson for “cutting in line.” And the people inside the car will be too busy Snapchatting or wanking to pay any attention to what you’re doing.

Indeed, I’m willing to bet that self-driving cars will have the indirect effect of helping to improve people’s attitudes toward motorcyclists because they’ll no longer feel as much anxiety about having to interact with us on the road.

They Won’t Get Lost

Some of the worst behavior I see on the roads comes as a result of people not knowing where they are. No doubt you’ve encountered a driver that’s swooped across several lanes of traffic to make an exit at the last possible moment, or suddenly turned right from the left lane, or driven the wrong way up a one-way street. I’ve seen people back up on the motorway, go the wrong way through roundabouts, and come to a complete stop in the middle of an intersection – all the while staring intently at the screen of a GPS device or mapping-app-equipped phone.

auto automobile automotive car

Satellite navigation has done the world a lot of good, but some drivers have a tendency to block out the rest of the world when obeying the commands of their tiny electronic master – completely blind to anything that’s not on the screen.

A self-driving car, however, will know where it’s going. It won’t get in the wrong lane by accident. It won’t be playing the game of thinking: “Now, when the GPS says turn right in 400 meters… what’s 400 meters? Do I turn right here? Or up there at the lights?”

All of which means that the vehicles with which motorcyclists are interacting will, again, be more consistent and predictable, and, as such, safer to be around.

There Will Be No Reason to Oppose Lane Splitting

Traffic may move more efficiently and quickly in the not too distant utopian future, but it seems unlikely that autonomous vehicles will somehow eliminate road congestion. As such, motorcyclists’ desire to filter through heavy traffic – ie, the act of riding between rows of cars, be they moving or stopped – will remain pretty strong. What won’t be as strong, however, is opposition to that idea.

With most of the cars on the road acting in a consistent and predictable manner, moving between two of them will be far less risky. When cars are stopped or moving very slowly, it’s likely they will all maintain the same position within a lane, creating clear and easy corridors for bikes to ride through.

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Currently, most driver opposition to filtering seems to stem from jealousy – the idea that motorcyclists are somehow “cutting in line” – but when they’re no longer playing an active role, and thereby no longer getting worked up at every perceived sleight, it really won’t matter to “drivers” what the two-wheelers around them are doing.

Lastly, although there have been thus far been one or two (literally only one or two) incidents involving motorcyclists and vehicles with some form of self-driving technology, it is the case that manufacturers are developing their self-driving tech with the reality of filtering motorcyclists in mind. These cars will be built for us to ride around them.

The People Who Are Driving Will Be Pretty Cool

Have you ever seen a person riding a horse on a public road? You have? What an archaic form of transportation! And yet people still do it, and will continue to do it as long as there are horses – because they enjoy the experience.

photography of red car on road

By the same token, I think it’s reasonable to assume cars that need actual human input will never become fully obsolete. There will always be people who want to drive. Autonomous vehicles will remove the majority of the issues caused by road users who don’t actually want to be driving, and the bulk of those left will be people who will be engaged, attentive, and mindful of others on the road.

Motorcyclists will fall into a similar category of road user. Paranoid regressive panic boys like to titillate themselves with thoughts of the motorcycles being outlawed by an oppressive liberal government, but here in the real world that’s not going to happen. We’ll always have motorcycles in some form or another.

With autonomous cars we’ll find ourselves sharing the road with a handful of fellow enthusiasts and a bunch of predictable and relatively safe people-moving machines. Personally, I’m looking forward to it.