Nov 5, 2018

What Will You Do Then?

All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day

The ultimate consumer electronics trade show, coincidentally called the Consumer Electronics Show, held early this past January is the place where all of the folks making cool toys show what they're up to with this year's products and products they hope to be bringing to market in the not-so-distant future. Ford, VW, GM, and Toyota all had a lot to talk about and what they talked about was how much smarter cars are going to be in coming years. Our favorite "unprecedented connectivity" will be coupled with driver-assist safety measures with an end goal of fully autonomous vehicles. They all talked about the "death of the internal combustion engine" with recent significant improvements in solar cells, fuel cells and electric vehicle charge loads, drive time, and improved charging cycles. Considering the fact that these speakers were corporate industry leaders, the number of times they used the words ""disruption" and "revolution" was a little unsettling. There is a lot of money available for investment in this technology, since 2015 was the most profitable year in American car manufacturing history. On top of that, new competitor brands in transportation like Tesla, Google, and Apple are driving changes outside of the usual culprits and their vested interests. Along with working towards the end of urban traffic problems, these new technologies could are expected to dramatically reduce private vehicle ownership. Motorcycle manufacturers have to be worried about one of the less marketed effects of smarter vehicles: an anticipated 90% reduction in automotive accidents and casualties.  
 
Let's face it, given motorcycling's conservative tendencies there isn't much chance that any of this good stuff will find its way into motorcycles. We can't even agree to wear minimal protective gear and fight every effort to improve motorcycling's dismal safety record as if we were a bunch of 2-year-olds being asked to drain a big spoonful of nasty tasting medicine. Simple mathematics should illustrate what's going to happen if the car guys pull off their revolution. Motorcyclists are around 15% of traffic fatalities in a typical year. About half of those deaths are the result of single-vehicle crashes. If that's true, it's pretty obvious that a significant number of the multiple vehicle crashes are the fault of motorcyclists to a large enough extent that nothing the car manufacturers can do will save us from ourselves. Let's say, for the sake of being hopeful, that really smart cars drops motorcycle deaths by 25% (Personally, I suspect this is ridiculously optimistic.). That means that the percentage of motorcycle contributions to traffic deaths will be more along the 50-60% territory. 
 
You would have to be seriously delusional to imagine that it is reasonable for a vehicle (and riders and passengers) that contributes less than 0.01% to the total miles travelled (and most of those miles are purely recreational and unnecessary) but causes 50% of total highway deaths. Somewhere between our currently insanely high injury and fatality rates and that future 50% mark, society is going to take a serious look at motorcycles. When that happens all of the big bad biker stares, gangbanger threats, and whimpering about "freedom" and "tradition" are going to have no effect whatsoever. Roads and doors are going to start closing on motorcycles and our favorite means of transportation will become just another not-legal-on-public-roads recreational vehicle.  
 
Humans, and Americans in particular, are not known for foresight or preventative action. We tend to react to events as they happen, even when they were predicted and could have been prevented with just a little work. In this case, there are actually some financially significant vested interests involved. Between Polaris and Harley Davidson and a few smaller manufacturers, there are a few billion dollars in revenue at stake. Add the Japanese Big Four and the rest of the importers and you'd think the Motorcycle Industry Council might have its let's-pretend-we're-safety-training organization, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and the industry's official mouthpiece, the AMA, begin to move motorcyclists toward anything that will reduce our crash contributions. Modern executives are so grossly overpaid that they have no real motivation to preserve the health of the company's they mismanage or the industries they "serve," but stockholders might be a little concerned. I, for example, wouldn't put a nickel of my investment portfolio into any aspect of the motorcycle industry. Since it's TARP-assisted post-Great Recession recovery, Harley Davidson's stock has taken a clobbering, as of this writing: from a $72.68 high in May of 2014 to today's (Feb 2016) $40 price. More than a few financial authors suspect that HD's future is shaky, at best. Polaris is in much better shape, but their bottom line isn't particularly dependent on motorcycle sales. The same goes for Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki. If motorcycles disappear from the industrialized world's highways, none of those companies will be seriously inconvenienced.  
 
Commuting by motorcycle, on the other hand, will be history. I think that's a bad thing, but if I'm the only one who thinks that, I suspect that means it doesn't matter. What do you think?



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