The motorcycle has always been, for better or for worse, the car’s little brother - lurking in the shadows, well away from the automotive mainstream. Today, in most of the western world, motorcycling is an enthusiast’s game - more a sport than a means of transportation. However, in large swathes of the developing world, most motorised locomotion still takes place on humble two wheelers. It wasn’t so long ago that this used to be the case in the United States and Europe as well. In a post-war economy that was still finding its feet, motorcycling was the cheapest way to get around.
Far from just being a cheap and practical way to commute, motorcycles have, since their inception, been an evocative and powerful symbol of freedom, anti-authoritarianism and the spirit of adventure. You’d be hard pressed to find a community that so universally and passionately buys into it’s own legend and appeal. Bikers have always been a passionate bunch and are rather tight knit across otherwise significant and often unsurmountable societal divides - brought together by an inexplicably addictive love of two wheels.
There’s a pretty obvious reason for this - motorcycles are not what you’d call safe. Much progress has been made to make motorcycles safer and more reliable over recent years - but they conjure associations of reckless daredevilry and an inescapable element of danger. No motorcyclist, no matter how skilled or how experienced, will deny this. The heavyweights of the motorcycle industry have always been keenly aware of this and have jumped at any technology that enables them to deliver better rider safety and minimise the risk of crashes. Danger is very sexy and all, but it’s not very good for business.
Be it the advent of the disc brake or ABS, there have been quite a few landmark innovations that have gone a long way towards making motorcycles safer. But, with the internet of things announcing its arrival in an emphatic way, things are changing quite dramatically for the motorcycling world. IoT technology promises to disrupt the world of two wheels like never before.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts, it might be worth noting just how much expectation connected automotive technology is stirring up - recent estimates suggest that a staggering 40 million cars will be part of a connected IoT system within the next five years - and that’s just cars! Meanwhile, here are some more jaw-dropping figures to wrap your heads around - a market analysis report released last year put a whopping $ 500 Million estimation on the size of the global connected motorcycle market by 2026!
So, one thing’s pretty clear - much like most other things, the future of the motorcycle is also going to be connected.
It’s not much of a surprise either - in the latter half of the last decade, IoT-enabled technologies have announced themselves across all industries and sectors. The automotive industry is no exception.
Poor visibility is a problem that motorcyclists have always had to contend with. SMIDSY or “sorry mate, I didn’t see you”, is famous in biking circles as the cliched apology that motorcyclists get from drivers, when they’re lying spread eagled in front of a car that just hit them.
In all fairness though, there are a number of factors working against motorcyclists in this regard - because most vehicles on the road are cars, with two headlights, and bikes have only one, the visual cues that drivers employ to detect oncoming traffic don’t register just as quickly. Moreover, bikes are smaller than cars and can easily be obscured by passing vehicles or large objects.
This is probably the number one challenge that manufacturers have been trying to address through the use of IoT technology - The biggest innovation in this regard has got to be Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) technology.
DSRC is a short-range communication protocol that allows vehicles to communicate with other vehicles as well as stationary objects on the road.
Many manufacturers, most prominently, Honda, have embraced this technology as the best bet for improving road safety using IoT - Honda has teamed up with qualcomm to equip its vehicles with DSRC technology which uses smartphones to alert pedestrians and motorists of each others’ presence and give an early warning to drivers when a SMIDSY situation is around the corner.
Technical complexities aside, this is basically how it works - a car equipped with a DSRC device flashes a “bike approaching” signal to the driver and sets off a series of warning beeps when the car pulls out in front of an oncoming DSRC equipped motorcycle. Another version of this type of a system is being developed for pedestirans, using DSRC-enabled smartphones to warn them of oncoming traffic.
Brilliant innovations don’t always make the cut when they’re implemented in real life - we’ve got to wait and see how practical and implementable DSRCtechnology is going to be. But that obvious caveat notwithstanding, it sure does promise to make riding bikes a safer affair.
Historically, bikes were never as reliable as cars. Frequent oil leaks and mechanical hissfyfits were realities that every motorcycle enthusiast had to put up with. In recent times however, two wheeler manufacturers have made massive strides in making their offerings reliable - often on par with their four wheeled counterparts.
Reliable though modern motorcycles may be, they’re just a different beast than cars. Motorcycles are exposed to the elements and perform their duties with their key mechanical parts exposed to the brutal and unpredictable rigours of the external world.
This is another area where IoT promises to be a gamechanger. Zero motorcycles, based out of California, have shot to global motorcycling fame with their premium electric two-wheeled offerings. Being a new entrant to a notoriously cut throat business, Zero had to come up with an innovative way to counter their lack of service reach. You guessed it, IoT to the rescue!
Zero has looked towards big data for the answers - All the way back in 2013, they started delivering their motorcycles with inbuilt support for an integrated mobile application which would help owners get quick assistance in case of mechanical failures. What’s even cooler is that the integrated application enabled the company to remotely access key data that would make for an instant diagnosis and a speedy fix.
So far, the results speak for themselves - Zero boasts of a 50% faster response time in emergency breakdown situations and a 25% drop in overall support requests.
Aaron Cheatham, a top exec at Zero says “previously it could take days for a customer to get a motorcycle to a dealer for diagnosis, and now that happens in a matter of seconds. Another advantage is that it can be done from anywhere in the world, wherever the rider is connected to a network.”
IoT isn’t just transforming the motorcycling experience for riders - it’s also changing the way bikes are manufactured. In earlier posts, we’ve talked at length about how the internet of things, along with allied technologies such as AI, ML etc, is ushering in a new era of “smart manufacturing”.
It wasn’t all that long ago that motorcycles had to be assembled by hand - in fact, it is a popular notion that the death of the hallowed British motorcycle industry was precipitated by this very phenomenon - Back in the fifties and sixties, Britain was the undisuputed global leader when it came to all things motorcycles. But soon after, they were ruthlessly eviscerated by a burgeoning Japanese presence in the industry. Why? Well, Japanese motorcycles were shipped pre-assembled - fill her up and you’re good to go! British motorcycles on the other hand were shipped as parts that needed to be assembled on shore. This meant that your bike’s longevity was down to the skill of whoever was assembling your bike. And not uncommonly, it would be a high school dropout with a penchant for screws and bolts.
Shifting our perspective to more recent times, major western manufacturers have been struggling to keep up with skyrocketing costs. This has been an all-too-familiar problem with manufacturing in all areas of the economy. No motorcycle manufacturer has been harder hit by this crisis than Harley Davidson.
Once a much vaunted brand, widely recongised and well loved, Harley has sunk into a seemingly endless pit of ingnominies and managerial missteps. Cutting back to our point of focus, Harley have also started looking towards IoT to help them save their brand’s slice of the pie.
Today,Harley Davidson has fully integrated smart manufacturing practices into their plants. Their IoT enabled factories enable them to assemble a new motorcycle every 86 seconds, saving them invaluable resources in the process. They achieve this with the help of IoT sensors that constantly scour every step of the manufacturing process and set off automatic feedback loops that implement ever increasing levels of optimisation to the assembly line. More than just economy however, this enables them to control the mind boggling number of variables that go into manufacturing a bike down to a granular level.
It allows us to be more consistent. In the past, operators had a bit of leeway on paint jobs, and each could do the work in a slightly different way." opines John Dansby II, a senior executive from Harley Davidson.
Safety gear is an indispensable part of a rider’s life. Helmets save lives and are regarded as a motorcycling staple for very obvious reasons. But what if the good old crash helmet can do more than just insulate your precious noggin from a nasty crash?
Skully, founded in 2013, raised big money using this premise. Their crowdfunding endeavour ended sourly for their backers, who were utterly and gloriously ripped off. Boasting of futuristic features such as an integrated rear view camera, an HUD screen and built-in navigation, Skully’s smart helmet was supposed to be the best thing that happened to the crash helmet, since, well it’s inception.
However, times have changed and today, most of these tall claims are not so far fetched - Much of what was promised by the now defunct startup is quite possible to implement using modern IoT capabilities.
Integrating more smart functions into riding gear makes sense in every way - augmenting a rider’s real-time information supply and integrating it into the most essential riding accessory there is - now, that’s not a bad idea at all.
It remains to be seen who’s going to pick up the baton and make smart helmets a commercially viable, market friendly reality. However, there need be no doubt that the future of motorcycling is going to be smarter and safer, thanks to the internet of things.