LAS VEGAS — BMW engineer Stefan Hans steps off the R1200 motorcycle he’s been riding, gives it a gentle shove … and this specially outfitted BMW bike motors off on its own, looping the perimeter of the parking lot, and then making lazy circles with the bike leaning smartly into the turn. After several minutes driving itself, the R1200 coasts to a stop in front of its engineer, and human intervention takes over for one last action: setting the kickstand.
Is this the silliest stupid-pet-trick you’ve heard of? It isn’t when BMW explains the reason behind this R&D project. Motorcycles are less stable than cars. Imagine a motorcycle that could ease the learning curve for a newcomer if it applied gentle corrective actions. For skilled riders, it could save a bike from going down if it hit a patch of oil on the road, or nudge the handlebars toward a safer line through a curve. When slowing to a stop for a traffic signal, the system could ensure the bike remains stable.
So, why build a driverless motorcycle? BMW explains:
BMW Motorrad, as a driver for technical innovations in the field of motorcycling, is by no means aiming for a completely independent motorbike. Rather, the underlying technology should serve as a platform for development of future systems and functions to make motorcycling even safer, more comfortable and increase the riding pleasure. The aim of the prototype is to gather additional knowledge with regards driving dynamics in order to detect dangerous situations early on and thus support the driver with appropriate safety systems while turning at intersections or when braking suddenly, for example.
The first time you see a motorcycle without a rider, you assume this happens “as if by magic,” BMW says. That, or you’ve been vacationing too long in a cannabis-friendly state. (BMW didn’t say that.) When the bike took off on its own in front of the massive Las Vegas Convention Center parking lot, there is a collective gasp from the several hundred assembled, folks either waiting for an obstacle-course ride in BMW’s big new X7 SUV, or just taking in the afternoon sun that pushed temperatures close to shirtsleeve weather.
For BMW and a dozen other automakers at CES, this is a chance to showcase their technological advances. For BMW, that included virtual drives in BMW’s Vision iNEXT prototype EV, showcasing personal companions and digital services including the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, EV charging and services, and the test drives. BMW has the biggest automaker display at CES and has plastered the sides of adjacent hotels, billboards, and buildings with BMW signage.
Most every automaker is working on similar projects: self-driving, electrification, safety, urban mobility, and offering ways to connect the car to the outside world and services using the car’s own interface or — increasingly at CES — through Amazon Alexa and Hey Google.
BMW is moving to make motorcycles lighter, safer, and more efficient. Most notably, BMW has created a 3D-printed frame (image above) including swing-arm. It is a concept for production motorcycles. Other BMW technologies, such as carbon fiber elements, have found their way into the frame and wheels of BMW Motorrad (motorcycle) HP4 race bike. BMW also is using laser illumination for headlamps.