Yamaha is delving into the world of autonomous vehicles in a way befitting the unique company that it is: by building a robot that is capable of learning to pilot a motorcycle better than a human can, but not just any human.
The Yamaha Motobot aims to outperform an elite world champion—nine-time MotoGP winner Valentino Rossi, who rode to victory on a Yamaha YZR-M1 this year and who some consider practically superhuman.
The Yamaha Motobot is a humanoid robot with the capacity to learn so it can improve its motorcycle-riding skills. (Photo Credit: Matthew de Paula)
Or so the robot says in a video message addressed to Rossi. “I am Motobot,” declares the childlike electronic voice in the video. “I was created to surpass you.”
The Motobot is one of the most astonishing debuts at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, even if it somehow managed to be overshadowed by other announcements—including the Nissan IDS Concept.
Yamaha, a Japanese company best known for its motorcycles and musical instruments, billed the Motobot as an “autonomous motorcycle-riding humanoid robot.” The blue, human-shaped machine has a head and stationary appendages that look like arms and legs. It is mounted atop Yamaha’s flagship YZF-R1 motorcycle, looking very much like a professional MotoGP racer crouching low toward the handlebars to accelerate down a racetrack.
Yamaha has three decades of expertise in creating assembly robots for industrial applications. Its goal with the Motobot project is to apply this know-how in a thinking machine of another sort.
Most robots in use today perform a single task with precision beyond what a human can do. They can be used on an assembly line to join together two heavy metal parts with a series of precise welds in a matter of seconds or torque down 20 bolts at varying levels of tightness with complete accuracy.
Motobot, however, is far more complicated. It must be capable of performing innumerable fine adjustments to control the complex motions of a motorcycle—something that in general humans can do far more easily than robots can.
The project is not an end unto itself, though. Yamaha plans to apply what it learns in building Motobot to improve the products that it makes, which include motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATVs, industrial robots, and more. Yamaha specifies the development of “advanced rider safety systems” as one area that the Motobot might be able to help with.
The company says it also could use the knowledge it gains to pioneer new lines of business. Though it did not offer any examples of what those might be, the possibilities that the Motobot represents are partly what make it so interesting.
While other automakers are focusing their attention on creating vehicles capable of autonomous driving—the IDS being just one example—Yamaha is looking instead at creating an autonomous robot capable of piloting a regular vehicle that has no modifications. The potential for robotic chauffeurs comes to mind.
It will take time for Motobot to get there.
Right now it has six actuators for the steering, throttle, front brake, rear brake, clutch and gearshift pedal. Eventually, the goal is to employ high-precision GPS, various sensors and artificial intelligence—what Yamaha calls “machine learning”—to “enable Motobot to make its own decisions regarding the best lines to take around a racetrack and the limits of the motorcycle’s performance, so that it can improve its lap times with successive laps of the track,” the company says.
By the end of this year, Yamaha aims to have Motobot capable of cornering, running a slalom course, and riding in a straight line up to 62 miles per hour. By 2017, it wants Motobot to be able to lap a racetrack at 124 miles per hour or higher and start to develop capabilities that exceed those of a human rider.
Yamaha anticipates that Motobot will be adaptable to other vehicles like snowmobiles and personal watercraft. By 2020, the company hopes to start incorporating technology and learnings from the Motobot project into consumer products.
“By using Motobot technologies to optimize control of vehicle dynamics, we will develop higher performing and safer forms of mobility,” Yamaha says.
In total, Yamaha unveiled seven world debuts at the Tokyo auto show, including the Motobot. The others are: a sports car design study called the Sports Ride Concept, a three-wheeled motorcycle called the MWT-9, two electric motorcycles—including one called the PES2, with innovative two-wheel drive—an electric mountain bike, and a retro-styled motorcycle called the Resonator125.
Though the spotlight at many auto shows is on production cars, Tokyo is best known for its concepts. It’s worth noting that a futuristic motorcycle of sorts happened to be one of the most attention-getting concepts from the previous Tokyo auto show. Called the FV2, it was designed to show how a driver could still have fun even in an era of autonomous driving.
The Yamaha Motobot will eventually be able to apply “machine learning” to improve its lap times on a racetrack. (Photo Credit: Yamaha c/o Getty Images)