Blog: The age of the rider-less bike is upon us - Beware the killer snails

Steve Rose


When I was a research scientist I quickly learned the value of a good headline. When your funding is finishing, you have to generate some crazy story about how white wine gives you cancer/cures cancer, prevents hair loss/impotence/dementia etc. The only thing that matters is that your research somehow becomes valuable and you get More Funding. The best I ever saw was a story about toxic snails that could kill you unless we invested more money in snail toxicology.

Last week there was a story (see last week’s other garbled blogrant) even dafter than the rise of the psycho-mollusc, about how Ducati were working on blind-spot detection and radar-controlled autonomous braking for motorcycles. Now it seems KTM are at it too. I’m guessing maybe they both use the same electrician, who, following the VW emissions scandal and subsequent sales plummet has found himself with a job lot of unwanted sensors and black boxes that needing shifting pronto.

Trouble is that while the tech might work on a bench or the confines of a trade show or a test track, on the road in day-to-day use, it’s rubbish. My last car was a VW Golf, which I chose because, generally (this was pre-scandal) VWs ignore the sensational and just build simple, functional cars…properly. Somehow I managed to choose one with an electronic handbrake, an additional and entirely separate electronic device that auto-holds the brakes on at a standstill and a radar-controlled cruise control (with an identical-looking sensor to the one KTM are using) that automatically adjusted the speed when it got too close to a car in front.

All of which broke within the first 4000 miles and, in the three years I had it, the radar sensor needed replacing twice more too. When it got hit by a bird and broke the mounting bracket I had to kangaroo home with the car applying the brakes again and again as the sensor bounced up and down. It turns out said radar sensor is adversely affected not only by pigeons trying to get their wings down, but also a build-up of insects or mud, or snow. Or being hit by something thrown up from the road. Which would be fine if it wasn’t mounted right in the firing line of all of this, for example below the fairing of a motorcycle.

So, now, as well as the prospect of driverless cars, we are heading for autonomous motorcycles too. – which presumably rely on the same technology as my wayward Golf, to not bump into things and run your children over. How many miles will they do before their sensors fail or get clogged up? And what happens next? Do we just come to a halt or plough through a hedge, into a school and massacre a class full of infants?

What happens when 50% of traffic has this technology and the rest doesn’t? In my old Golf, when the radar triggered it shut the throttle first, before applying the brakes, but how does the vehicle behind know I’m slowing? Is the daily commute set to become a computer controlled demolition derby, resulting in a large pile of broken, twitching plastic at every junction?

We’ve become obsessed with solving problems through electronics and no one looks for an analogue solution anymore. Which is a shame because analogue more often than not involves a person making a decision and no matter how dim or distracted a real person might be, I’d rather take my chances against a working brain than an algorithm – especially an Italian one.

I once read a fascinating article comparing the abilities of the simplest brains with those of the most sophisticated artificial intelligence. Put simply, Honda’s Asimo robot might be able to do impressive things…for a robot, but in truth, your average goldfish knocks it into a cocked hat.

Let’s take the simple act of riding a motorcycle. We have a sensory system capable of detecting hazards long before they occur because we have learned to interpret the data around us in a presumptive and predictive manner that a machine based on sensors will never learn to replicate. When a machine detects a car alongside, it has no idea that the driver is texting and drinking coffee while steering with their knees and so has no idea that it is about to veer right into your path as was demonstrated by a recent incident in San Francisco.

We see the changes in a road surface and our brains tell muscles to react, so we either bend elbows, brace knees or ready ourselves for the bars to twitch, while at the same time, backing off the throttle a touch and shifting body weight. It’s beautiful. And subconsciously, it’s why we enjoy it, because riding uses parts of our brains and limbic systems that lay otherwise dormant

The muscles in your arms and fingers are capable of movements a million times quicker with more sensitivity than any hydraulic pistons and pincers. In a contest between man and machine to read a situation and react to it, man wins every time. There is no contest. And if you aren’t paying attention enough that your bike needs to apply the brakes for you, chances are you’ll be taken completely by surprise when it does and still fall off anyway. Just because someone can develop an app for your phone that detects whether your shoelaces are about to come undone, that doesn’t mean we can trust them to develop software to replace the super-computing power of even this half-witted, former biochemist’s shrivelled brain.

I’d rather take my chances with the killer snails.