Radar of the Future

Story by David Booth//
August 18 2020

There was once a time when motorcycles were more advanced than automobiles. Double overhead cams were more common on bikes long before cars. Ditto four-valve heads. Hell, even though bikes turned out to be a thermodynamically inefficient blind alley, various Yamahas costing less than $10,000 sprouted five valve heads while the only cars so adorned were Ferraris and one orphaned Audi. The same goes for desmodromic valves, which, if MotoGP and World Superbike top speeds are any indication, work wonders.

That technological advantage basically lasted until the modern era of electronics. Electronic fuel injection, forced upon automakers due to the onslaught of emissions requirements, was but the first of the digital thingamabobs that have turned the modern automobile into a computerized wonder. Motorcycles, not facing the same scrutiny – and, perhaps more important, not offering the economies of scale for technology that costs small fortunes to develop – lagged behind. EFI was relatively late coming to two-wheelers.

Also, anti-lock brakes and the stability controls we laud on superbikes have been around so long that automakers don’t even advertise them anymore. We are, let’s face it, the poor second cousin to cagers in R&D monies spent. That’s why we’re only now getting adaptive cruise control although Mercedes-Benz began offering it more than 20 years ago, and it was available on some Japanese home-market sedans almost a decade before that.

As for the traditionalists for whom any electrification of their righteously simplistic steeds is blasphemy, all I can say is that in monitoring my favourite Suzuki website, I see the No. 1 reason cited by “stromtroopers” for trading in their old DLs for the new 1050 is that it has cruise control. Bemoan the digitization of the modern motorcycle all you like, but there are electronically controlled conveniences – and cruise control is definitely one of them – the majority of motorcyclists want. That’s why BMW’s release of Bosch’s motorcycle “active” cruise control – different name, same acronym – is so important. In the high-profit game of big-buck touring motorcycles, ACC could well be a differentiator.

In many ways, BMW’s ACC is similar to the systems now so common in cars. Essentially, a radar sensor determines the distance to the vehicle in front – be it car, truck or another motorcycle – and maintains a set distance between the bike and the other vehicle. Again, like the auto systems, the bike rider sets the speed and the distance preferred relative to the vehicle in front, then the EFI and ABS systems work together to alter the bike’s speed to maintain the separation.

And, like the best car systems, the BMW/Bosch ACC system will even automatically begin accelerating when you want to pass someone; a flick of a turn signal – and the opening up of the road ahead as you switch lanes – allows you to speed up to pass without the need to massage the throttle.

There are some motorcycle-only features to the BMW/Bosch system, including two settings that set the aggressiveness of throttle and brake applications. More important, the bike’s onboard inertial measurement unit feeds the ACC system’s lean angle information so the cruise control system doesn’t get on the gas – or the brakes! – too heavily while the bike is heeled over.

That said, BMW/Bosch ACC system is markedly deficient compared with the latest car variants, most notably in that it can detect only moving cars. In other words, you can still crash into a parked vehicle without warning or brakes being automatically deployed. And unlike the best adaptive cruise control systems, BMW’s doesn’t work in stop-and-go traffic. That’s maybe because it can’t work with manual transmissions. Also, the rider still needs to balance the bike, so taking off automatically could be dangerous. Nonetheless, not being able to detect stopped vehicles is a deficiency.

Bosch and BMW could make up for that deficiency by working with some Princeton University researchers who are working on a radar system that can, they claim, “see around corners.” It was originally designed to allow semi-autonomous cars to spot unseen bicyclists, pedestrians and, yes, motorcyclists. Essentially, the system uses radar’s Doppler effect – the shifts in returning radio waves when an object is moving – to measure the speed of a two-wheeler ahead.

But BMW’s system already does that. What’s new, say the authors of the study, is the radar beam’s ability to spot vehicles around corners by bouncing its waves off buildings. Bouncing said beams eventually build up an image of the hidden person or vehicle and, using that Doppler thing I mentioned earlier, the Princeton-developed system can detect speed and direction.

“This will enable cars to see occluded objects that today’s lidar and camera sensors cannot record,” says Prof. Felix Heide, assistant professor of computer science at Princeton, “allowing a self-driving vehicle to see around a dangerous intersection.” Most important, at least for those of us riding motorcycles, the researchers say the system uses current radar technology, and the sensor units are small enough that they could be adapted to fit motorcycles.

So, BMW and Bosch, if you’re listening, how about you point your high-tech batons at motorcycle R&D first. We are, after all, more vulnerable than those commuters in their Audis and Toyotas. Give us a motorcycle cruise control system that can see around corners. Then we’ll be impressed.


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