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Automated vehicle technology is starting to show up wherever there’s wheels — including motorcycles

The market is attracting startups and traditional automotive suppliers alike.

A black man in jeans and a minimalist motorcycle helmet rides a large black motorcycle during Black Bikers Week. Sean Rayford / Getty

It’s not only cars and trucks: Some companies are starting to focus on making motorcycles safer with automated-driving technology.

Exposed to the elements and operating on two wheels instead of four, motorcyclists are particularly defenseless in the event of a crash. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motorcycle fatalities in 2016 happened 28 times more frequently per mile traveled than car fatalities.

Yet there’s been little innovation in the motorcycle safety industry until recently.

Earlier this year, major auto parts supplier Bosch announced it was working on driver-assistance systems for motorcycles, like adaptive cruise control, which accelerates and decelerates to avoid potential collisions.

Before that, a Canadian startup called Damon X Labs also launched with the intention of creating a similar system for motorcycles.

Now, Israel-based startup Ride Vision is also working on rider safety features for motorcycles and recently raised its first round of financing, $2.5 million, led by YL Ventures.

For now, Ride Vision is focused on creating an alert system that uses relatively inexpensive front- and rearview cameras to give a 360-degree view of the motorcycle’s immediate surroundings. The system uses lights attached to the motorcycle’s rearview mirrors to alert the motorcyclist when there is a chance of collision — whether there’s a car passing or if the rider is leaning too hard.

The idea would be to build these systems into future bikes from traditional motorcycle makers — Ride Vision isn’t trying to become a manufacturer like Harley or Honda.

While some of the self-driving sensors and systems are the same between cars and motorcycles, it’s a notably different product.

For one, because most motorcycle usage — and some 97 percent of motorcycle accidents — occurs in good weather conditions, it’s less important to design systems for rain or snow. That means cameras may be sufficient for their vision systems — and expensive radar or lidar sensors may not be necessary, according to Ride Vision co-founder Uri Lavi.

That has the potential to cut the cost and time to integrate these systems into production vehicles.

Another difference relates to the driving mechanics of a motorcycle. While driver-assistance systems for cars typically incorporate automatic emergency braking, it’s actually less safe to force a motorcycle to stop abruptly, according to Lavi. Depending on the situation, it may make more sense to speed up or slow the motorcycle to avoid collision.

“It can’t brake like a car,” Lavi told Recode. “You’ll kill the driver.”

While the mechanics are different, the automated motorcycle industry will likely move in a similar direction as the autonomous car industry. Startups and suppliers alike will rush to partner with major motorcycle manufacturers to begin testing and then eventually producing vehicles with this technology.

Ride Vision, for example, says it’s currently in discussions with a number of suppliers and motorcycle manufacturers, but wouldn’t disclose which. Considering the systems’ relatively low demands for hardware costs and capabilities, there may also be an opportunity to sell direct to consumers.

It’s unlikely Ride Vision, Bosch and the few others in the space will be alone for much longer. The death rate alone is reason enough for new and existing players to look at making motorcycles safer. And while the motorcycle market is a fraction of the size of the passenger car market, U.S. motorcycle sales still average about 500,000 units a year — which still pales in comparison to motorcycle sales in places like China which saw 1.35 million units sold just in April 2018.

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