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  • 11.30.15

Would You Let This Creepy Robot Drive You Around?

Yamaha’s motorcycle-riding robot can pilot a vehicle–but not as well as other computers.

“I am Motobot. I was created to surpass you.” So says the distinctly creepy voice in a recent video showing Yahama’s new motorcycle-riding robot, which can use a gearshift, throttle, and brakes to race down a test road on its own. Eventually, with GPS and sensors, the robot should be able to use machine learning to ride better than a human.

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The prototype raised a question: Will robots eventually drive us around, instead of self-driving cars?

Probably not. “Having a robot driving a car is simply not practical,” says Raj Rajkumar, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies autonomous cars. “Humanoid robots will have even bigger constraints than humans.”

Sensors and processors–which are already beginning to show up in cars to help them park or stay in a lane on the highway–would have to be built directly into the robot, something that isn’t feasible within the physical framework of a humanoid robot, he says.

The robot would also have to be able to look in a rear view or side view mirror to navigate as it drives. “This is an extremely difficult problem, and is easily addressed by mounting cameras and sensors around the body of the car,” Rajkumar says. “It’s a complex ‘solution’ to a simple problem.”

Robots are also still a long way from being smart enough to know when they need to turn around to check the road. “Humans can do this because of the much superior intelligence and cognitive capabilities we have–robots will not have this kind of intelligence for a very long time,” he says. “The robot also needs to be able to twist its head, making the robot design that much harder.”

Since cars already have some self-driving features, from automatic braking to warnings when you start to drift out of a lane–and fully self-driving cars may be on the road in five years (Teslas and Google cars are already basically there)–it’s unlikely that robot chauffeurs will catch up before the auto industry is already autonomous.

“Today’s technology is very far from being able to emulate anywhere close to a human being in the driver’s seat,” says Rajkumar. “The one thing that can be said for the robot is that it won’t be distracted but that’s about it.”

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So what’s the point of Motobot? Yahama plans to use the robot to stand in for human riders in testing, helping the company learn how it can improve future bike design. And it’s a way to show off a little. By 2017, they say the robot will be able to lap a racetrack better than the best human rider in the world.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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