Musings on the Motoring World

The fool’s gold of autonomous technology

Late last year a New York-based beverage producer managed to raise its stock price by an incredible 500%. How did it do it? Did they hatch an evil plan to control the world’s supply of sugar? Do they have Coke’s secret to peddle liquified cocaine? No, what they did was an even greater stroke of genius than that. They just change their name from Long Island Iced Tea Corp to Long Blockchain Corp.

The company backed this surprising turnabout with a paper-thin excuse that its parent company was shifting its focus towards “opportunities that leverage the benefits of blockchain technology”. Punters, however, didn’t even need convincing, all they needed to hear was blockchain, think “Bitcoin”, and started throwing money at them like it was the second coming of Steve Jobs.

Photo by Thought Catalog

It didn’t matter that blockchain isn’t even cryptocurrency but the complex system on which the currency operates from, people just picked up the keywords and ran with it with a similar fervour that winded Dogecoin – a cryptocurrency created as a joke to outline the absurdity of the whole cryptocurrency craze – with a $2 billion market cap.

This, of course, wasn’t the first time or the last time we have demonstrated the myopic optimism of the stock market, especially considering that Uber, for all its hype and money showered on it, is still yet to make a profit, or is certain of turning a buck in the near-term.

“Blockchain” is just the latest buzzword Gordon Gekko types toss around to strike up the market like “disruptor” did for Tesla, “internet” did for the dot-com bubble, and “tulips” did for the Dutch. At this point, aside from cryptocurrencies, nobody has been able to utilise blockchain as a platform for a profitable business venture, though that obscurity underlines the whole point of the manic rush of the stock market – get in before someone figures it out and gets it good.

Photo by Chris Liverani

This miasma of promising technology at the cusp of a revolution stirring up an overeager atmosphere that is primed to rush into the latest trend or technology is similarly being played out in the automotive field, and it is called autonomy.

Right now almost every major global car maker is already wading knee deep into autonomous technology, with several big players expected to roll out self-driving cars within the next two decades, even though the framework and laws to actually allow such vehicles to operate on the road are still being hammered out, much a viable business strategy to make the whole business of producing such cars actually profitable in the long-term once they have destroyed their own second-hand market is still yet to be formulated.

There is a sense that most of these car makers are either winging it as they go, or they aren’t telling anybody what they have in store. Either way, the race is on, and every manufacturer is pulling all the stops to keep investors from betting on the other horse, and the latest to show their hand is BMW, or to be more specific, BMW Motorrad.

At the recent BMW Motorrad Techday, BMW’s two-wheeled division debut their first autonomous motorcycle, which spookily accelerated, cornered, negotiated junctions, and slowed down to a stop on its own. Tech junkies and investors creamed themselves with excitement, though the one group that isn’t too pleased with all this are motorcyclists themselves who wondered just who an autonomous motorcycle is for?

We can understand the appeal of a car that drives itself, but a motorcycle that rides itself? That undermines the whole appeal of riding.

Although most of the world still buys motorcycles as the only form of motorised commuting they can afford, nobody buys a BMW Motorrad because cars are priced out of their ballpark. The motorcycles that Motorrad builds are largely aimed at enthusiasts who treasure the unfiltered connection between man and machine that only riding delivers, and the last thing they want is an electronic nanny holding onto the reins.

Honda’s self-balancing motorcycle might have some useful applications, particularly when crawling through a traffic deadlock at 6 in the morning in desperate search of an espresso shot to get your brain – and sense of balance – working again, but for a motorcycle to take care of all the riding on the road is answering a question nobody asked.

That being said, BMW Motorrad aren’t fools and claim that the self-riding bike is only a demonstrator with no intent for it to be used as a jumping point towards a fully independent motorcycle. Instead, the motorcycle will be used as a test bed to better understand rider dynamics and develop appropriate safety systems that will be able to detect hazards early on.

While they do have the rider’s best interest in mind, the autonomous technology is still going to crash headlong into that second problem of autonomous vehicles, just how do you make it profitable?

As the motorcycle market is continuously being pressured by the growing availability of cheap cars and rising insurance premiums, the last thing the market needs are costly over-complicated machines that remove riders from the three things that turned them to motorcycles in the first place, simplification, involvement, and affordability.

Much like how the rush towards autonomous technology is drawing carmakers inexorably towards the end of private car ownership – and subsequently becoming the architects of their own doom – bringing autonomous technology to the motorcycle market might excite investors while driving the market towards a dubious future. But as we have learnt from the stock market rushes of history, sometimes we are only looking to believe in the fool’s gold.

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