A deeper dive into BMW's riderless demo at CES

BMW Motorrad got a big publicity boost when it conducted (a first?) public demonstration of an autonomous R1200GS motorcycle earlier this month at CES.

The demo consisted of mostly figure-8 and circle maneuvers in a parking lot — the motorcycle blithely ignored a set of white lines on the asphalt, that I thought might have confused a lot of AV stacks. That made me wonder whether it was truly a demonstration of autonomous capability, or whether it should more accurately have been described as ‘self-balancing’ motorcycle, which was being operated remotely.

When I sent this question to Motorrad, Dominik Schaidnagel (who is responsible for Motorrad’s Corporate, Product and Innovations Communications) explained that while it was not being operated remotely, it was not really autonomous, either.

Our test vehicle operates the same controls as a normal rider would, such as the accelerator, clutch, gears, brakes and steering. If the vehicle is to run on a known route, it can be programmed in advance to do so automatically. And it does not do this by following a virtually defined line. If the navigable area is known (route layout, road surface width, obstacles), the motorcycle is capable of automatically calculating the optimum manoeuvres to cope with the current situation (e.g. cutting corners or avoiding objects).

On our testing grounds (e.g. in Munich) we work with DGPS. This means that we can determine our position using GPS (as in every modern mobile phone). Since this position accuracy is insufficient for automated riding, additional correction data is used (compensation of atmospheric interference etc.) in order to improve positioning.

Such correction data was not available for the area we were using during our showcase in Las Vegas, so the motorcycle was given manual manoeuvre specifications by us before each bend. The important thing here is that we didn’t give the motorcycle any direct steering commands: we issue it with instructions as to which bend radius or banking position is required. The motorcycle decides of its own accord which steering impulse is required in order to initiate cornering or which steering manoeuvres are needed for stabilisation purposes.

Motorrad R&D staff told me about their self-riding test mule last year. At that time, they said that it was not aimed at some future product, but rather that it was a way for the company to gather precise and replicable data about the way motorcycles respond to rider inputs.

BMW is one of the few motorcycle company that has openly speculated about fully autonomous, virtually ‘un-crashable’ motorcycles. Most motorcyclists remain skeptical of bikes that can steer themselves — even in an emergency — and many if not most riders feel that human control is a defining characteristic of the riding experience. That noted, it was not so long ago that BMW was the first motorcycle company to market ABS systems, which were also derided as unnecessary.

In the future, a degree of autonomous latitudinal control will be required for anticipated ARAS features. BMW Motorrad is doing the entire PTW industry a favor by sparking conversations about increasing degrees of autonomy by demonstrating this so-called ‘Riding Assistant’ tech.