BMW's innovative riderless R1200GS R&D project made headlines this past week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the world's largest technology gathering welcoming some 200,000 visitors to gawk at the latest from Amazon, Google, Samsung, Sony, and other industry giants not to mention every imaginable start-up.

BMW set up camp in a large lot across the street from three of the biggest halls, where everything from air taxis to artificial intelligence, from drones to home theater, from robotics to virtual reality was on display. Between riderless GS demos, I spoke with BMW Motorrad USA VP Michael Peyton, who addressed not only the future but the here and now.

Sportbikes are not setting sales records yet BMW is investing in the segment with a new S1000RR and a factory World Superbike effort with 2013 series champion Tom Sykes. Where is this category headed in North America and also overseas?

If you look at segments that are growing in the US and those that aren’t, while we’ve seen some drop in sportbike sales, a lot of that has been part of the life cycle. We had the first S1000RR out in 2010, and it has been in need of an update. In the sportbike industry, it is who has the latest, greatest, newest technology.

With BMW being focused on innovation and technology, the RR is certainly the epitome of all that; we almost feel an obligation to update that product. We’ve had the number-one-selling sportbike globally, so we want to make sure we are upping the game. I think we have made great strides on the new product.

BMW’s riderless R1200GS
BMW’s riderless R1200GS drew crowds this past week at the always jam-packed Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The R&D project is a doctoral thesis for 31-year-old Stefan Hans (pictured), who began his career at BMW in 2012 as an intern.Courtesy of BMW

Since we made the announcement that the new S1000RR is coming, we’ve had really positive reaction. We showed the bike at EICMA [this past November], and we had lot of great feedback on the weight reduction, the horsepower increase, and the customization of the technology. We still think there is a lot of opportunity in that segment.

We were talking about what people look for in this segment, and it is less about fuel economy and things like that. It is more about weight reduction, power, and superior handling. The S1000RR is a great halo bike for us, and the US is the largest RR market in the world. It will be a couple thousand units for us, and we see opportunity globally for growth as well.

There is credibility to racing with the product. We need to be visible, especially with that segment of the industry, so we felt we needed to get back into competition. We have a contingency program; we want to recognize and reward those people who are racing and winning on our bike. Getting back into World Superbike keeps us at the forefront.

R1200GS xDrive Hybrid
Next-generation cruiser? Custom Works Zon created an homage to Ernst Henne’s land-speed racers, centerpiece of which was a prototype of a new pushrod boxer engine. The bike debuted at the Mooneyes show this past December in Japan.Courtesy of BMW

You have been quoted saying, “One of our overarching objectives right now is to inspire a new era of riders. While we’ve got the products and financing programs for them, it’s equally important that we’re speaking their language.” How are you inspiring new riders?

One of our initiatives this past year has been to be more accessible, and I think a lot of other motorcycle manufacturers are in a similar place. When you look at the growth of the industry, much of it is in the low-end part of the market. A lot of people want more accessible price points. They want product that is easier to handle and ride.

They also want products that are not huge investments in a lifestyle, almost as if they are buying an accessory for their lifestyle. At the end of the day, we very much want to make sure we are helping people learn to ride on BMW motorcycles. Our new G310R, for example, was developed with Motorcycle Safety Foundation specifications in mind.

We are looking in 2019 to donate some of those bikes to [rider training] schools. We have had a lot of requests, but we had to wait for production to ramp up to satisfy the initial consumer demand. Now we have enough production that we can start supplying some of these bikes to schools.

We are a premium brand, and people have this $30,000 number in their heads. What many of them do not realize is that we start at $4,750 on a G310R. Same thing with the new C400X scooter, which starts at $6,795. So there are more people who can get into a motorcycle—a BMW motorcycle—and they can grow into the brand in whatever direction they want to go.

We have to be relevant to how people want to use the motorcycle. We also need to be accessible enough. Not everyone wants an S1000RR. Not everyone wants an R1250GS. They do not want certain price points. We have been premium priced, and we need to listen to what is going on in the market to broaden our appeal.

This industry is 78 percent preowned. Why is that? A lot of people—both new and experienced riders—are increasingly price sensitive. So we are trying to make sure we are giving them what they want, delivering that premium packaging with the product as well. But at the end of the day, it has to be accessible.

There may also be some type of opportunity in the off-road space. We have roughly 29 products in our portfolio now, and that will continue to expand in some new segments. We need to be careful to not get distracted by diluting our focus. Yes, there is opportunity, but there is also risk when you try to be everything to everybody.

The custom BMW that debuted this past December at the Mooneyes show in Japan hinted at a next-generation boxer-powered cruiser. Will BMW show such a machine in the next 12 months, and, if so, would it fall under the heritage line?

If you look at the US market, cruiser and touring are still the biggest segments in the industry. We have a lot of elements in our heritage: the designs of our frames, the shaft drive, the iconic boxer engine, and that bike had a big boxer engine. How that engine is packaged in the bike, the center of gravity, the overall weight of the bike…all of those things are factors.

Is there opportunity for more power and a different riding experience out of a boxer? I think there is potential, for sure. As we get more into 2019, we will start to add to that story a bit, talk about what we think the opportunities are in that space, but that is about all I can share at the moment. Later this year, more things will be apparent.

Urban mobility suggests different forms of need-based transportation. Where do electric and electric-assist fit in the future? How should they be marketed and to whom? What is the greatest shortcoming for electric motorcycles?

People talk about electric bikes and how they must always be urban, but I think—and a few manufacturers have tried this on for size—there are some interesting off-road opportunities. “Hey, I’m going out for a half-hour or an hour ride,” or “I want something with swappable battery packs in an off-road product.”

I keep making connections with the bicycling industry. I’m a mountain biker, and not so long ago if someone was talking about riding a battery-assisted bike, the reaction was, “You’re weak!” The perception has changed completely. I can ride a lot farther. I can have fun. I don’t need to worry about dying in the outback. Electric has enhanced people’s experiences.

When you talk about urban mobility and motorcycles and scooters, there are a few things that are appealing to people. One is not shifting. More automatic products get more people interested. Scooter is already there. As long as we can make it affordable, I think there is a section of the industry where people are looking for something in that space.

R1200GS xDrive Hybrid
BMW’s R1200GS xDrive Hybrid—with wheel hub purportedly functioning as both an electric motor and a generator—may have been an elaborate April Fool’s hoax but consumer interest was quite high, BMW Motorrad USA VP Michael Peyton said.Courtesy of BMW

When you start talking about touring bikes or someone who wants to put on a lot of miles, however, you have to ask the question, “Is that the right application?” We had an April Fool’s joke that we put out a hybrid R1200GS. You would not believe how many people called and asked, “Are you really going to build that? I want to buy one.”

Could smaller-engined, electric-motor-assisted technology address range anxiety? That is something I think is also out there in the future that has not really been addressed by anyone. So far, it has been either gas or electric. We’re still early because the cost is high for packaging battery technology.

Until we break the price and range barriers, the market will be more limited, maybe even a novelty for some. There are probably two other factors: Where do I charge it and what does that look like? And of course the dealer network that supports the vehicle. Any dealer that sells electric vehicles has to have certain certifications. That’s costly at the moment.

BMW unveiled its riderless R1200GS R&D project at CES. What is BMW’s position on autonomous vehicles, and do you believe motorcyclists will be able to coexist with driverless cars and trucks in the future?

We are actively involved in a lot of discussions. From a governmental standpoint, there is the Congressional Motorcycle Safety Caucus and the Saferider Consortium, and, also in Europe, the Connected Motorcycle Consortium. We are involved in all of these things because this is going to be increasingly important, so we want to be part of the dialogue.

Anytime you get into autonomous vehicles, you start applying more technology and get increased connectivity. At some point, that will lead to regulation. We are working to make sure motorcycles are part of that future because you very well could say, “It would certainly make it a lot easier on these roadways if we didn’t have motorcycles.”

We want to leverage our learnings and technology to say, “Let’s help the industry work on what this integration looks like.” For instance, if you take all the BMW cars in Germany that are already talking, logically you could say, “If I have a bunch of BMW cars that are connected, why can’t I connect BMW motorcycles?” To me, that is the next step.

Then there is the complicating factor when you get other vehicles in the mix that are not connected. This is why I think it is going to be a longer window for autonomous vehicles to be driving all over the place. There are applications for it, but a lot needs to happen for that to work effectively. There is a lot we still need to learn.

BMW currently offers three to six models across six segments—adventure, heritage, roadster, sport, tour, and urban mobility. Is there a segment in which you believe product planners should pay even greater attention?

I think everyone is searching for a sufficiently powered, cool-looking, well-riding, under-$10,000 motorcycle—a midrange cruiser that has all the right technology and is a legitimate motorcycle. There are some offerings out there, but if you look at the preowned industry, most of the products that are being sold are between $8,000 and $10,000.

Again, people want to invest in something they do on a periodic basis. It’s not like this is the only thing I’m into and I’m investing everything I’ve got, which is where some people used to be. We need more attention to the low end, but it still has to be a credible product with the latest, greatest technology and realistically priced.

There is a lot of great product out there—touring, off-road, adventure, scooters. I think this next step is going to be where do we go in electrification? How do we dial in some of the technologies that we are talking about here to help people become better, safer, more connected riders. That is probably the next step.