The LA Times recently reported on a study prepared by a focus group of motorcycle industry long-timers named Give A Shift – Motorcycle Sales in the Slow Lane. The Times piece is a well-written review of what we already know: motorcycling is not growing in the US. The study documentation was well-prepared and the reports available from the group were clear. What wasn’t clear from either the Times piece or the study documentation is why the group of experts remain so firmly trapped in the 1970s.
Motorcycling in the United States is a victim of itself in several ways. First, the rebel culture crafted by US manufacturer(s) following WWII transformed motorcycling into a means of acting out for gang-like outside-the-law bad boys. This is not limited to black-vest cruiser clubs, it also rears its ugly head (and front wheel) in the modern stunter culture that shuts down freeways and results in ugly confrontations with Land Rover owners. Dirtbike and ATV gangs in Baltimore and other large cities are a further offshoot that also trace their heritage to the outlaw MC culture of the Vietnam era. None of this is good for motorcycling as a whole and it continues to repercuss through the US.
The outlaw trope is bad, but the toy trope (“transportainment”) is worse. The US is very unique in the fact that most motorcycles are not used for general transportation, rather for pleasure. Motorcycles and other powered two-wheelers are considered basic transportation in nearly every other country in the world. Riders in the ROW start with 50cc scooters and work up to 500cc-class motorcycles. Cars may never be an option for most people in less affluent and warmer areas – they take up too much space, money, and time. Litre-class bikes are rare in most of the world for similar reasons. The EU is a unique market where both size classes coexist – the countries of the EU espouse both the basic transportation concept of smaller machines and the luxury (toy) concept of larger machines. The EU perspective is nuanced in that motorcycles are purchased with distinct purposes in mind and the owner of a larger touring machine (toy concept) is likely to also own a smaller, more city-focused bike for local riding (basic transportation concept). The authors of the study come immediately to the question of desirability in the US (bigger is better), but remain mired in the idea that fun has to be a part of the equation. The very concept of “transportainment” needs to die a fiery death.
The authors do not address the failure of rider training in the US. The efforts of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and organizations like Total Control are admirable, but do little to grow the market. They reinforce the toy concept by setting the barrier to entry very low – no significant investment in rider training is required, so motorcycles are not taken seriously. The state DMVs are complicit in this with low level licensing requirements. A tiered licensing structure with additional training at increasing power levels would reinforce the idea that motorcycling is more than simply a hobby. This is one area in which the dealership experience could improve significantly and have a very measurable impact on the acceptability of motorcycling in the current cotton-ball culture. Addition of private instruction hours with the purchase of bikes would build confidence and acceptability in today’s risk-averse environment. The 20-hour individual training minimum of the EU is unlikely to be realized in the US due to sheer cost, however it is a good goal.
The future of autonomy is described as a risk instead of an opportunity. This is and outdated and uninformed attitude. ABS system data – speed, direction, yaw, lean – forms the backbone of the information stream that is used for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and ABS is now required on new motorcycles in many markets. RADAR cruise control on bikes has been realized in the lab. Motorcycles move at traffic speeds, unlike bicyclists and pedestrians, which cannot share any data and are wildly unpredictable. This presence of so-called dumb vehicles (those that do not broadcast data, including bicycles, older motos, and older cars) cannot be avoided at this time, which forces autonomy discussions to include them. Motorcycles are fortunately large enough to register as other traffic participants, “dumb” or otherwise.
The authors have correctly identified the need to participate in the autonomy discussion, but incorrectly assess the threat. The real threat is not that autonomous cars will squeeze motorcycles out of the traffic equation, it is that autonomy will squeeze all forms of self-directed transportation off the road. This is because vehicular autonomy is purely focused on the basic transportation concept. The industry’s refusal (aside from BMW) to engage in the autonomy discussion is a deep shame and shows profound lack of foresight. I look for future efforts from Ducati to explore this through their association with Audi and VolkswagenAG, and from Honda, who share BMW’s one-house integration. Sadly, in the US, the Harley-Davidson/Ford arrangement seems to be a simple branding affair, with no technical exchange.
The authors rightly call to the carpet the entire “shrink&pink” attitude of all motorcycle industry manufacturers. The difference between any motorcycle shop in the EU and one in the US is the amount of floor space given to technical riding apparel for women. Kids’ apparel is non-existent in the US and women’s gear tends toward fashion. Women generally approach motorcycling in a more pragmatic manner than men, and not only from a safety perspective. Firstly, rebel culture and tribe-seeking are less of a draw – women are not seeking rebellion against society, they are seeking freedom within it. Secondly, basic transportation is a greater factor – women are far more likely to see their motorcycle as a means to explore the world and their place in it rather than as a simple weekend toy. Dealerships are a huge part of the problem – until the generation of sales reps that see women as part of the toy equation rather than as disbursers of money is retired, women will continue to be turned off.
The authors return many times to the need for potential buyers to want a motorcycle, but never make it past the desire to have fun. We need to change the reasons for wanting a motorcycle from the “transportainment” culture of previous generations to the basic transportation concept of today’s future owners and drive the manufacturers to participate in the technical growth of the general transportation industry. Only then will the industry be able to connect with today’s potential riders.