Harley-Davidson has been grabbing headlines worldwide ever since it revealed its bold plans for the next four years concerning the world market. On the sidelines away from the spotlight, interesting developments are taking place in Wisconsin. The American motorcycle maker is developing the world’s first two-wheeler emergency autonomous braking system.

Autonomous braking technology lends itself well to cars, having brought down the number of casualties and injuries worldwide through its sophisticated, continually updated web of sensors and algorithms. However, motorcycles are fundamentally different. A car’s natural balance is independent of human support, whereas motorcycles are just chunks of metal and plastic without us. While the worst you could do inside a car is spill your coffee in the event of an emergency braking situation, the scene would hardly be pleasant if a bike decides to apply its brakes without the rider noticing.

This is the puzzle Harley-Davidson is committed to solving. The principle of autonomous braking is simple. A RADAR or LIDAR system scans the road ahead of a car for potential hazards. The on-board master computer analyses the data in real-time and assesses the threat level of upcoming pings in traffic. If it senses an imminent collision, it automatically applies the car’s brakes, thus saving the day. Also, the entire process from hazard ping to stopping the car happens seamlessly without the driver noticing the chain of internal systems working together.

Motorcycles by dint of being unstable on their own are hardly the best machines to apply autonomous braking. Thankfully, Harley-Davidson has a way around this. The company has identified key contact points that determine whether the rider is focusing or not before emergency brakes are applied. There is a sensor in the seat to check if the rider is sitting or standing on the pegs. The handlebar grips have sensors to ensure the rider is holding on to them before braking. Lastly, a cognition sensor in the instrument cluster or even in the rider’s helmet tracks his/her focus. Only if all sensors are returning positive readouts will the motorcycle apply brakes in an emergency situation. If the sensors determine the rider is not prepared, telltale lights will start flashing on the gauge cluster, or audio cues and haptic feedback can also be programmed as a warning system.

On a lighter note, it would be interesting to see Harley-Davidson try to overcome its bikes’ own haptic response for the indicator to work correctly. The system could also tap the brakes just enough for the rider to feel the shift in weight. If the rider is still unaware of an impending crash, the system will wait a predetermined time before grabbing the discs. The time interval is between 200 ms and 500 ms.

As a final thoughtful measure, Harley-Davidson is also calibrating the emergency autonomous braking system to record whether the rider has the situation under control, and then gently assist him/her on the brakes. Braking is not always the answer when it comes to motorcycles, and it is great that Harley-Davidson is trying to cover every angle. There’s no telling when it might develop past the patent stage and enter production, but lately, Harley has been promising enough. So we’ll wait and watch with cautious optimism for what could very well be a cornerstone in motorcycle safety systems.