What Will Become Of Motorcycling?

Change is rushing toward us. What will it bring?

motorcyle riding into sunset
Transportation as we know it is speeding toward unknown change. Will cars and other four-wheel vehicles soon be operated exclusively by rideshare services? Where, if at all, do motorcycles fit in this futuristic picture?Illustration by Robert Martin

I went to Portland, Oregon, for the introduction of Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire premium electric motorcycle. I heard its hoped-for buyer described in terms that to me outlined a Clinton voter: urban, upscale, educated, concerned for the environment, valuing quality and style. Not a motorcyclist.

Yet when I see Harley’s established clientele—older men, many white-haired, conservative, saying, “I carry my own water”—I see dedicated, often lifetime motorcyclists, many of whom switch to three-wheelers as their strength diminishes in old age, and I am tempted to think, “These folks are probably not Clinton voters.”

Yes, a million exceptions poke holes in the two previous paragraphs but still the feeling persists: Harley-Davidson is facing the huge problem of replacing a proven and loyal group of buyers with people from an entirely different social group, one that hardly buys motorcycles at all, much less electric motorcycles.

My initial feeling is, it can’t be done. It is as though Lockheed Martin’s board of directors decided that because of popular interest in social-justice issues, especially among younger people, they must transform their business. They therefore plan to switch from production of military aerospace—F-16, F-22, Trident missile, etc.—to socially responsible construction of low-income housing, public transportation systems, and training centers for nonviolent social activists.

No responsible board of directors could accept such changes, which are equivalent to scrapping vast corporate know-how in favor of activities of which they know nothing. It means replacing one well-understood and loyal clientele with another—which may even be imaginary—of which they know nothing.

The auto industry is right now looking at unknowable change, rushing toward it at unknowable speed. Will cars quickly become four-wheel drones, most of them operated by Uber and Lyft, as some claim? Will the total number of cars produced each year be drastically slashed because, instead of sitting idle for hours each day in driveways and parking spaces, they will be efficiently shuttling from one transportation consumer to the next, directed by smartphone? Or will owner-driver operation continue for those who prefer and can afford it? Or will that be forbidden by insurance companies that discover drone cars actually, as optimists propose, eliminate accidents? Consult the usual authorities on the speed with which electric will replace combustion: Here’s one that says 37 percent electric by 2040. Don’t like it? No problem, Bob, just change the channel and find another expert predicting an outcome you like better. Who needs reality when opinion is so much cheaper?

Computer-controlled everything could bring us big Boeing 737 Max 8-like software glitches. It’s perfectly possible that hackers or foreign or domestic enemies could bring major cities to a standstill for weeks as software patches are written and uploaded, while NHTSA examiners strive to understand what happened. Say it ain’t so, Joe! It’s not real until it’s real.

Woman on motorcycle
Perhaps boulevards and freeways of the future will be a veritable paradise for motorcyclists, as this image suggests. Or, as the author asks, will bikes, like Harley-Davidson’s all-electric LiveWire, be strictly limited to “open-road” theme parks?Harley-Davidson

And what about motorcycles? Despite years of ambitious rider-training schemes and other safety initiatives (“Forget the thrill, go for the safety!”) motorcycle-accident stats remain unencouraging. Might a day come when NHTSA announces, “This agency has no power to tell American motorists what they may or may not drive, but effective January 1, powered two-wheeled vehicles, including electric-assist bicycles, will be required to meet the same user safety standards—vehicle crush, crash survivability, etc.—as do autos and light trucks.”

The expected replacement of internal-combustion engines by electric motors does not have the force of law; we are not told that after X date only electric vehicles will be available, though some cities plan to forbid their use. Drone cars are not mandated by any law; they are just expected as a by-product of technologies said to make them possible.

A common picture of future traffic streams is highly rational. Further highway construction has been made unnecessary by the ability of computer control to pack moving vehicles more tightly. Here we are in a traffic lane, each bumper (or wheel, in the case of motorcycles) no more than 18 inches from the one ahead of it, all moving uniformly at the speed permitted by that moment’s traffic conditions. The car is full because computer ride-sharing is enabled. Efficient. There is a faint smell of pizza, small children, and disinfectant. These vehicles may have no human-operable controls in them, not even a three-position mode switch offering:

  1. Normal
  2. Sport
  3. Asshole driver

Complete uniformity and rationality prevail. When our vehicle’s route requires reaching an exit, vehicle-to-vehicle hand-shaking routines operate like Rubik’s Cube moves to facilitate the necessary lane changes. At our destination, there will be no parking problem because this vehicle will drive directly to its next transportation consumer. There will be no chauffeurs, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, or truck drivers. Those people, I am assured by popular books on the coming “sharing society,” will spend their time exploring human relationships, trying to enhance each other’s lives, and mastering the art of French cooking (shh! We don’t use the word “unemployment”).

Does the auto industry shrink by 50 percent? Does the world economy shrink with it? Do former autoworkers open DQs, as supposedly did engineers displaced in the NASA stand-down of the early 1970s?

How much change can society accept and how quickly? Despite decades of argument, the issue of gun control in the US has proved impossible to crack.

Let’s make firm plans today for a future of which we know nothing save that big changes are coming. The more extreme the futurist, the more it sounds as though he/she is predicting the replacement of free-market capitalism by rational, centralized planning and global climate management. If it comes to that, which will win? Free-market capitalism KO’d its last opponent, the Soviet Union. Both sides had wisely developed solid-fueled ICBMs because they could be in flight within seconds of the order being given. We humans are rational planners.

How much change can society accept and how quickly? Despite decades of argument, the issue of gun control in the US has proved impossible to crack. Will Americans meekly give up their pickup trucks and large SUVs? Will they ride their motorcycles only within “open-road” theme parks, where rumbling Shelby Cobras share the road with classic Ducati 916s, their operators ignoring the shouting and sign-waving of anti-combustion activists at the perimeter fence?

Something is going to happen. There is no plan. No one can control or predict social change. Motorcycles are a big question mark. Good luck to us all.