WASHINGTON, DC – On Thursday, at a briefing put on by the Senate Motorcycle Caucus, the subject of automated vehicles or self-driving cars was examined through a different lens; the vieszpoint of a motorcyclist.
Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) opened the briefing as the Chairs of the Caucus. Both avid riders, they discussed the need to be inclusive of all roadway users when advancing legislation and regulations related to the emerging technology. Both agreed that the Senate Bill – the AV START Act – and which Peters helped to author, would achieve this. Specifically, they addressed a section of the legislation that required automakers and technology developers to include motorcycle recognition, identification and responsiveness in a required safety report that would be reviewed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Panelists chosen to address the audience (packed with Congressional and Administration staff from the Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration along with motorcycle industry representatives including Harley-Davidson, and the Motorcycle Riders Foundation) discussed that while automated driving technology could yield tremendous benefits for riders by helping to eliminate driver error, motorcyclists were wary of how they fit into this new driving environment.
At one point, the discussion turned to detection by other road users as a constant challenge for the nearly 8.5 million registered motorcycles in the U.S. Distracted driving is on the rise according the latest reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the failure by some motorists to “see” motorcycles with their smaller profile can end in disastrous – and often fatal – consequences. But whether self-driving vehicles would actually improve this problem remains up for debate.
Panelists recognized the obvious need to make sure that automated vehicles would appropriately detect and respond to motorcyclists. However, some feared that this message has been diluted. The recent NHTSA guidance on driverless vehicles failed to mention motorcycles in this context whatsoever. Further reinforcing this concern was an incident last year involving a Tesla vehicle operating on autopilot. The vehicle struck a police officer on a motorcycle in Phoenix, AZ. Even recently, news reports surfaced about Chevy Bolt which allegedly veered into a motorcyclist while traveling on a San Francisco freeway while on autopilot.
Panelist John Lenekit from Dynamic Research discussed his preliminary research which reviewed a driver assist technology that was currently on the road; forward collision warning systems. Designed to alert the driver if they were too rapidly approaching the vehicle in front of them, this technology is widely-used in the current market, even coming standard on some makes and models. Dynamic Research’s project looked at the reliability of this warning system and found that between car to car, the warning system worked over 90% of the time. However, with a car approaching a stopped motorcycle, the warning system failed 40% of the time either warning the driver too late, or failing to warn the driver at all.
This research lead into the discussion about what was needed to ensure motorcyclists’ safety and the entire panel agreed that more motorcycle specific research was needed – and fast.
The panel concluded by musing on a question raised by the audience. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation’s chief advocacy officer pressed the panel on how motorcycles fit into a world with truly autonomous vehicles. Citing potential disincentives to drive as a way to achieve market penetration for self driving cars, she asked panelists how motorcycles could co-exist, if at all. Harley-Davidson’s Director of Government Affairs Ed Moreland responded, “We need to continue to tell the story of motorcycles – they omit less emissions into the atmosphere, cause less stress, wear and tear on our nation’s infrastructure, decrease traffic congestion and improve travel times – there is a world for motorcycles. As long as there are riders, there will be motorcycles.”
And as for self-driving motorcycles? “I will NEVER ride a self-driving motorcycle,” stated Sen. Peters. “Doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose?” The riders in the audience responded with rousing applause.