“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

—David Foster Wallace, 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College

I just had an awakening of sorts in my basement while taking stock of old crashed helmets. I was sorting through some shim tools and shims that I had neglected to put away and glanced up at my old lids, most battered in places like Pocono, Rockingham, Summit Point, and elsewhere, their tech stickers and scars attesting to past efforts, some successful, some not. I’ve wanted to make a floor lamp out of them, stack them one atop another and run a pole through them with a lamp on top with an old FZR wheel for a base. Every winter I have intended to do so, and every spring arrives with my old helmets still lining the shelves in the basement, dust covered and unmolested.

There are few distractions for me down in the basement, and my mind can wander without domestic interruptions. The Daytona 200 had just run, untelevised again though it was live streamed, and as it has in recent years, it always gets me geezing about all manner of lamentable things most all of which boil down to the future of motorcycling, where we are going, and what that future might hold. I don’t really enjoy my company when I get like that, so I go down to the basement and do things like sort shims until it passes.

Except this time it didn’t pass. This time I realized that in asking the same old questions and reverting back to my same old answers, maybe I had been missing something. This is not a new feeling. It hadn’t been too long since I had read the interview our E-i-C Kevin Duke had conducted with BMW’s Group’s Peter Schwarzenbauer and what he had to say stirred that unease.

The Future of Motorcycling According to BMW

“If we would be able to offer a bike that is so safe that you don’t need a helmet, you don’t need the gear stuff you have to wear, you can ride it and there is no way you are going to have an accident with this bike, then I think we are going to address a lot more people on a motorcycle than we are doing now. That’s the ultimate goal: riding without any fear of having an accident on a bike,” said Schwarzenbauer.

Shim tools

My wife stares at a mandala from her yoga mat, I’m not sure but I think it focuses her thought; To aid my focus, I stare at shim tools and shims.

Schwarzenbauer had a vision of the future that I have summarily dismissed in a fashion that has become routine for me whenever I encounter the suggestion that the future of motorcycling lies in technology, in advances that will open the activity to a broader audience. I have always been concerned that such advances may fundamentally alter what motorcycling is, and not for the better.

But each year the Boomer generation that spurred the industry forward in the late ’60s and ’70s gets older. I first took notice of this back in the ’90s in the Motorcycle Industry Council’s Statistical Annuals that we received every year. Despite the increasing number of women riders who slowed the climb somewhat, the inevitable trend was clear; motorcyclists were getting older. If demographics were destiny, the nicest people you used to meet on a Honda you will increasingly meet in a nursing home. This was not my epiphany; this is old news.

I have also long voiced concerns over the extent to which growing ride-by-wire technology might supplant what had been traditional rider roles in motorcycling. Wondering where the line is between a motorcycle and a motorcycle simulator. The satisfaction that comes with mastering a complex task that has some inherent risks might be displaced by the dumbing down of those tasks, albeit with a broader safety margin that would accompany those sorts of changes.

Sliding a bike is fun, sliding a bike is also a good way to lowside and perhaps highside. Somewhere between a TZ750 and a fully autonomous motorcycle that line lurks, and it spooks me. But simultaneously I have always felt a little guilty that much of my reluctance to embrace all things new may be nothing but the knee-jerk “get off my grass” reaction of a guy too shortsighted and set in his ways to see the future. I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something. Maybe the answer to everything was not a direct-injected two-stroke.

My cavalier floor lamp idea and Schwarzenbauer’s simple truths woke me to the fact of something I’ve just come to accept as reality over the years, that motorcycling has – to by definition – entail risk. Standing there staring at a lifetime of wadded helmets, it was plain as day. I was in David Foster Wallace’s fish bowl, Peter Schwarzenbauer just swam by wishing me a good day and asked me how the water was, and my response for all these years has been, “What the hell is water?”

It’s plain as the rashed helmets on my shelf. It’s fear, it’s risk. How many times have I heard “I’d love to ride but” out of a prospective rider… Fill in the blank: my parents, my wife, my husband, my work, the kids, responsibilities – all excuses not to buy a bike, not to ride, and all motivated by fear, all generated by perceived and actual risk. And for years I have discounted that risk because I’ve grown so accustomed to it. Hell, I want to make a floor lamp out of it.

The simple fact of the matter is I have been too quick to dismiss the growing belief, spurred on by technological advances, that the future of motorcycling may just lie in doing what I have been so averse to, namely altering the nature of motorcycling and changing the relationship between the rider and the ride. Schwarzenbauer spelled it out in the interview linked above, but that vision is in there. And rather than recoil from it, maybe I – we – ought to embrace it.

This is not the mind of a motorcycle visionary; this is the mind of a Snell test-dummy interior decorator

This is not the mind of a motorcycle visionary; this is the mind of a Snell test-dummy interior decorator

“On the contrary, I think the riding experience will be even more exciting because all of sudden, even if you are not a professional rider, you are going to experience a really exciting riding sensation because the bike is so capable. I think it will add a lot of people who currently don’t think about being on a motorbike because they think it’s too dangerous. If you can show that there is no danger whatsoever, you can just have fun with it, you’ll see a lot more people doing it.”

I visited the Galapagos a few years back. Every island I stepped foot on was populated by creatures that were unafraid; they had no natural predators and they acted like it. It was how I would imagine the Garden of Eden, a largely benevolent world free from most risk. Schwarzenbauer is suggesting their engineers can create such a place for road-going humans, riding through our asphalt Eden bareheaded in our birthday suits if we want, absent malevolent cars and trucks, and with bikes that will stay upright of their own accord.

“Due to the lack of natural predators, the wildlife in the Galápagos is known for being extremely tame without instinctual fear,” says that source of all things mostly factual, Wikipedia.

“Just imagine a fully autonomous world and we all ride around in rubber cars,” says BMW’s visionary, Schwarzenbauer. “I mean, what do you want to do on the weekend? You go out on a bike and have fun! So motorcycling will be an important part on the leisure side.”

And it is probably high time the guy who collects floor lamp building materials from places longtime Rider Files chronicler Larry Lawrence describes as, “…tracks like Rockingham means that the riders of that era were some of the bravest (or craziest) ever. Today’s riders would never even consider racing on a track like this and rightly so.” I accept the fact that my crazy may have blinded me to the wisdom of what folks like Schwarzenbauer have been saying.

Larry is looking back at the tracks that produced my helmet collection – and my mind set – and speaking of today’s riders. Schwarzenbauer is addressing the risks presented to the riders of today, and speaking of tomorrow. And if Schwarzenbauer is right, and the engineers can pull it off, the future could look very bright indeed.

Until then, ride hard, look where you want to go, and when in doubt, gas it.

 

  • kenneth_moore

    So now I have to ask myself:

    1. Would I still like motorcycling if literally everyone could do it at an expert level?
    2. Are risk and danger among the reasons I like to ride?

    At the moment I think that answers are no and yes. I like the idea that I do something that most people can’t do because of their lack of skills, or won’t do because of the risk. The bike Schwarzenbauer describes would be about as fun as Space Mountain. It’s simulated danger, which is great fun once or twice, but ultimately a bore.

  • Old MOron

    When I first saw BMW’s vision of the future, I didn’t like it. http://disq.us/p/1cpgget
    And I think I still don’t like it. But as usual, you’ve toed my brain out of neutral, and initiated some welcome cogitation.

    “On the contrary, I think the riding experience will be even more exciting because all of sudden, even if you are not a professional rider, you are going to experience a really exciting riding sensation because the bike is so capable. I think it will add a lot of people who currently don’t think about being on a motorbike because they think it’s too dangerous. If you can show that there is no danger whatsoever, you can just have fun with it, you’ll see a lot more people doing it.”

    Let’s consider playing violin and telling a joke. At this time riding a bike is kind of like playing a violin. It’s kind of an esoteric thing that few people can do. It requires dedicated practice in order to be done well. And if you do practice and endure the learning process, the rewards are infinitely gratifying.

    But Schwarzenbauer’s vision of the moto future is more like telling a joke. It’s a fairly rare person who can make up jokes, especially good ones. But just about anyone can TELL a joke. And we still love jokes. It’s also interesting to note that some jokes don’t seem to get old.

    So if the moto of the future is like telling a joke, having a laugh without any risk or skill, will that be a bad thing? My initial response is, “No, bring it on.” But I wonder. I play a little guitar. Sometimes I would rather make music than just listen to it. Will we be unable to make moto music in the future?

    • Ulysses Araujo

      Basically, motorcycling as a two-wheeled Guitar Hero.

      • Tinwoods

        Not at all. If you’re actually moving down a road, you can end up dead. How’s Guitar Hero like that?

        • Ulysses Araujo

          I was referring to the concept view of motorcycling without risks. As such, riding a bike (in the predicted future) is as riskless as a videogame. Not that I like it!

  • John B.

    To ride a motorcycle safely requires, among other things, awareness and the ability to perform relatively complicated tasks. This is the perfect combination to produce present moment awareness. I contend, present moment awareness is what makes motorcycling, rollercoasters, travel, sports, boxing, (all hobbies really), rewarding.

    Although risky situations (e.g., brake failure, armed robbery, a shark attack) force a person into the present moment, there’s no reason a person cannot live in the present absent these risks. If you require risk to live in the present moment, then you need practice. Water drunk by a cow becomes milk, and drunk by a snake becomes poison.

    • Old MOron

      ” contend, present moment awareness is what makes motorcycling, rollercoasters, travel, sports, boxing, (all hobbies really), rewarding.”

      We all like present moment awareness, but we don’t all like rollercoasters, etc. This is natural, right? “Different strokes for different folks.”

      Today’s motorcycles catalyze present moment awareness in a certain way. But the motorcycles of BMW’s future seem like they will bring about present moment awareness in a different way. I guess some of us expect it will be a less enjoyable way.

    • Gruf Rude

      The BMW of the future sounds like a front seat in a roller coaster – or a Greyhound bus. Not interested.

      • John B.

        Provided below is one of many articles that suggest it’s possible we are living in a simulation a superior race designed. If we do live in a simulated reality, then it makes no difference if we superimpose on our existence another layer of virtual reality. That is to say, if we are living in a simulation, an additional simulation would make life no less real. https://themerkle.com/do-we-live-in-a-simulation/

  • Walkeride

    Who cares, we’ll be dead! Rest assured that everything will progress until it is sucks. There will always be a way to get that rush. Pushing the envelope, being an outlaw will never go away but will evolve along with the new totally safe Motorcycles.

  • Mad4TheCrest

    I would appreciate a reality where cars and other bikes can never cross the double-yellow in a curve, and automated cars would never turn left in front of us; but I am not sure I’d appreciate a bike on which I can let go of the grips and close my eyes and the thing will motor on without my attention. I would want to feel an integral part of the experience and not just a spectator, even if that means the accceotance of some risk. It’s like being in the ocean in a fragile cage with White Sharks circling versus watching them in an aquarium.

  • JMDGT

    Two years ago I bought my first bike with traction control and abs. I am also able to remap the engine and adjust the suspension on the fly among other things. After owning only standard bikes in my early thirties I bought my first sport bike. I had never rode anything like it. It turned and stopped on a dime was quick as hell and was what I thought at the time the pinnacle of motorcycle technology for the masses. It was. That was 26 years ago. Times have changed for the better. We live in the best of times for motorcycling. I’m all in for good brakes a broad power band traction control modern alloys and tires. Anything more and I wouldn’t be riding the bike. It would take away from the overall experience. I can’t afford to make any mistakes at my age. I ride my age. New electronic goodies help make riding more enjoyable for me. But that’s me. Keep riding you bastards. Enjoy the best of motorcycle times.

  • john phyyt

    You mentioned that it is mostly older Guys who are into motorcycling. .. The market will sort it all out. I have seen the success of Yamaha FZ range and Ducati scrambler as a sign that Manufacturers simply need to address the aspirations of potential riders.

  • C.R. Mudgeon

    Yeah, we’ll all be better off when we are living safely as eternal fetuses in a Matrix-like world served by the machines we have created and entertained by perfect simulations.

    Risk is what got the human race to where we are now. Without it there could not be evolution.

    PS: Very nice piece of writing. (no sarcasm)

  • Anthony Ruffolo

    A very well rounded article, addressing thoughts from both sides.

    In a future with no risk, I imagine losing some of the romanticism. Whenever I pick up my helmet in front of my grandmother, without fail, the aggressive italian side comes out in her and we get into this cute little argument about motorcycles being ridiculous. Its a feeling akin to the little argument over who pays for dinner when you’re a date.

    What about the near superhero status you have when you pull up to pick up a girl who’s never been on a bike before, and against all odds, you’re still whole and the bike is still intact?

    What about knowing that your passenger is having a rush of adrenaline, mind split between fear of the pavement zooming by like a belt driven cheese grater, and confidence in the rider they’re arms are wrapped around?

    My romantic side whole heartedly despises the idea. But there’s that other side, too.

    I recently decided to give back in some way, and given that most of my improvement lately has been center around racing and riding, I’m on queue to becoming a MSF instructor to teach newbies how to zoom around on two wheels. Hopefully imparting some wisdom from the many interesting experiences I’ve had on track.

    Motorcycling brings out the romantic side in me, but the thought of being the role model for a bunch of first time riders begs for a different methodology. So I run a little thought experiment. Even when the thoughts are safety and responsibility, could I ever recommend such a machine that takes G.I.Joes sharp and swallow-able sub-pieces, making them safe, cuddly, and whole? I learned so much from all the things that are now deemed dangerous.

    We are humans and we have the ability to learn not only from experiences, but from artificial ones put in our head through text and conversation. Tell me this though, would you rather learn about motorcycle safety from someone who has never wrecked, or from a retired racer who vividly recants his misfortunate tales? Perhaps motorcycle safety schooling will be a thing of the past. No need to learn how to be safe when the app will do it for you.

  • Bananapants Ficklefart

    Who’s to say the Safety Nazis don’t just outlaw motorcycles altogether?

    “IF IT SAVES JUST ONE LIFE!!”

    • Krylov

      Well, I think that is the driving force behind the BMW vision: With cars soon about to become autonomous and – as car makers, politicians and insurance people hope – mostly accident free, the current fatality ratio between motorcycles and cars will become that much worse that the whole concept of two wheeled person transportation might be up for discussion. To prevent motorcycles as we know them from being outlawed, something has to give.

      ABS, Traction Control Systems, electronic suspensions and extensions to make these systems become lean angle sensitive – are already available.
      More computing power and better connectivity of these systems – as seen already in the new CBR 1000 RR – might even increase roadholding and braking capabilities.
      While these rider aid systems should help sort some problems that are cause to many accidents and nightmares of insurance people, they will still allow you to ride like an idiot and kill yourself if you point your bike into the wrong direction at the wrong speeds.

      Maybe the next level of electronics might be more intrusive to counteract this kind of (let’s be honest: often ill-advised) use of your ride: Automatic speed limiting (which eventually will require some additional gyroscopic stabilization) might help you keep out of some trouble. On top, in order to avoid you pointing your bike into the wrong direction, some improved GPS accuracy and road maps, better/more sensor input plus more computing power plus some actuator assisted steering input might even help keep you bike on the road despite any of your hellbent attemps to kill yourself by pointing it into some off-track course.
      My best guess is that the (almost) “uncrashable” bike is a technological possibilty just as is the autonomous car. The advent of the latter will force the motorcycle manufacturers and their tech suppliers like Bosch, Nippon Denso, Continental, etc. to go into this direction if want to keep selling their two wheeled vehicles.