Yamaha’s Motobot…as you’ll soon see, it’s a lot more than a toy
for Yamaha to show off how cool they are.
When I first heard about Yamaha’s new motorcycle riding robot, my immediate reaction was “but…why?”
I mean, I do understand that developing self-driving vehicles is probably the single biggest push being made in the automotive sector right now; autonomous vehicles really are the next big thing, and they’re a lot closer to becoming reality than you think. With massive investments are being made by both auto manufacturers and tech sector giants, vehicles that drive themselves are already highly advanced in testing, with several companies claiming they will have fully autonomous vehicles ready for public consumption within only three years. By 2020, your commute home in your Ford or Audi (powered by Google or Apple, of course) might be as stress-free as a ride on the train.
One of the companies leading the charge into self-driving technology
is Audi, whose self driving race car shown here runs hot laps as fast as professional
drivers with perfect precision and consistency.
As a self-described gearhead, I’m not totally crazy about the advent of the self-driving car. But I do “get” it; in our society, convenience wins every time, and the process of driving itself is more of a necessary chore people are forced to endure, than a visceral experience people look forward to having (you know, like motorcycle riding is.)
But what could possibly be the point of a self-driving motorcycle? It doesn’t carry cargo, ferry around passengers, or provide anyone with a thrilling experience…so why build it?
It turns out that this is a lot more than just a fun project to show off Yamaha’s engineering prowess – in fact, it may be a leading indicator into what the future holds for Big Blue.
The Motobot, as this adrenaline-junkie android is officially called, is a robot powered by artificial intelligence that is designed to ride a motorcycle. Even though it was mounted aboard a Yamaha R1 in it’s promo video, it is not somehow wired into the motorcycle itself (as I originally assumed it was.) In fact, besides some crash protection bars, the motorcycles Motobot rides are actually unmodified. It really does have to “ride” the motorcycle, much like you or I would (it even has to twist the throttle on it’s own) and Yamaha is developing it to be able to ride any motorcycle, not just a Yamaha.
Motobot is certainly an impressive demonstration of Yamaha’s engineering ability, but it’s purpose isn’t just to show off – it’s actually to test. Yamaha’s stated purpose for developing the Motobot is as a testing platform for various rider safety and support systems, to prove them under more grueling conditions and with a higher degree of precision than a human rider would be capable of. You might think of Motobot as the most advanced test rider (and possibly, crash test dummy) ever created in the motorcycle industry.
The Motobot is not only a testing platform for motorcycle rider
safety and support, but for Yamaha’s future self-driving vehicle technology
But taken from a wider perspective, Motobot also represents Yamaha’s ability – and intent – to spread into other areas of innovation. You may know them for making motorcycles and pianos, but in fact Yamaha is a sprawling, multi-national conglomerate with 20,000 employees and annual revenues of over $16 billion, and their diverse portfolio of products – ranging from musical instruments to industrial robots – all have one thing in common: electronics. And that is where Yamaha really wants to be.
Motobot is cool, unique, and steals the headlines because of it’s novelty, but it’s only one small sign of Yamaha’s intent to establish themselves as more of a tech company than a toy company. The real story there is Yamaha’s little-publicized establishment in 2015 of a Silicon Valley-based, wholly-owned subsidiary – dubbed Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory, Silicon Valley – a company that, in their own words, “exists to accelerate the efforts of teams driving disruptive change.”
With the financial backing of a multi-national conglomerate, but the speed and flexibility of a start-up, YMVSV’s stated purpose is to strategically invest in companies driving forward futuristic technologies like autonomous and connected vehicles, the Internet of Things, and robotics and industrial automation. Their first investment, just announced last week, put $2 million behind Silicon Valley startup Veniam, which is innovating in “mesh networking,” a technology that will allow constantly moving vehicles to communicate with each other in an ever-changing “mesh” of vehicles.
In other words, when self-driving cars become “a thing,” mesh networking will keep them all from crashing into each other – and Yamaha is getting in on that technology at the ground floor.
The Future…Yamaha Style
I rolled my eyes when the Motobot was announced at the Tokyo Show last year; it seemed to be such a silly, not to mention purposeless, exhibition of Yamaha’s technological know-how. But I simply didn’t understand the backstory of what Yamaha is up to (and there is always a back story.) Motobot isn’t just an exhibit, and it’s not even a testing platform – it ‘s really a manifestation of the first phases of Yamaha’s foray into the coming boom of self-driving vehicle technology, and what will ultimately someday be the interconnectedness of all electronic devices, from your car to your phone to your home, in a constantly-running network we will not control, but instead, observe. It’s actually a thought that is as scary as it is cool.
But if you’ve ever ridden a Yamaha, you know they build vehicles with a competition mindset, often engineering with performance first, and comfort second. So while other tech companies are testing autonomous driving technology with ridiculous-looking computerized egg cars like the Google car, Yamaha is doing it in it’s signature style – on the back of its flagship liter bike, the championship winning R1M, with a bright blue robot engineered in perms-race-tuck position. (I applaud Yamaha for that!)
And race Motobot will. It may ultimately be a testing platform for all the techno-geek stuff, but it apparently wants to have some fun too; Yamaha says Motobot will be ready to take on the Doctor himself, MotoGP factory Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi, around a race track by 2017 (even the last line of the promo video, spoken in Motobot’s child-like android voice directly to Rossi himself, is “I was created to surpass you,” ending the otherwise inspiring video on an unusually creepy note.)
Will it happen? Well…I’ll leave that question to you!
Next thing you know…