When Robert Pirsig passed away in April, I had a realization that flies in the face of where the automotive market supposedly is headed—that is, toward self-driving vehicles.
In his 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig wrote this:
“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car, you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.”
As such, I am making the following bold prediction: There will never be a market for self-driving motorcycles.
Let’s all cross our fingers and hope, anyway.
Pirsig’s novel was a semi-autobiographical account of a father-son motorcycle road trip. More specifically, it was a philosophical exploration of modern life in the context of technological progress and Western culture.
Pirsig was 88 when he died, and what I’ve read about him since then suggests he much preferred the open sea to the open road.
Nevertheless, in his seminal book, he captured the sheer existential joy of driving a motorcycle.
It’s difficult to convey the sensation of it to non-bikers. On a motorcycle, information comes to the driver through all of the five senses. Seeing the open road and everything on either side unobstructed makes you feel at one with the machine.
The sense of smell is perhaps the most intense one that car owners rarely experience, aside from that “new-car smell.” If it’s in the vicinity of the road, bikers smell it—everything from steamy wet pavement after a fresh summer rain, to a roadside fruit stand, to the heady scent of hyacinth and loblolly pines. Sometimes these smells can also be tasted, along with the occasional gnat blowing into your mouth.
Then there is the sound and vibration. Grabbing a hand full of throttle, releasing the clutch, and hanging on for dear life provides a feeling of complete freedom. To feel the power of the engine beneath you feels like riding a wild animal. It’s fun as hell and, at times, scary as hell.
I’m an ad agency art director by day but have been a motorcycle enthusiast since 1986 when I purchased my first bike, a Kawasaki Ninja 600, one of the first Japanese crotch-rocket production bikes. I’ve owned over 15 motorcycles since then, and in 2012 began custom building them as a side business call Redeemed Cycles, where I take old forgotten bikes from the ’70s and breathe new life into them. I know the culture pretty well.
For many motorcycle owners, the relationship to their bikes is a total love affair. Believe me when I tell you that some riders feel emotionally closer to their bikes than to their spouses, which is funny because nearly two-thirds of the 9.2 million motorcycle owners in the U.S. are married, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC).
Instead of sitting in front of the TV after work, some guys sit around every night just polishing the chrome. Others never worry about that because the bike is meant to be ridden and get muddy and dusty.
The motorcycle industry is growing, including among women. In 2009, 10% of U.S. motorcycle owners were women, according to the MIC. By 2014, 14% of the 9 million-plus motorcycle owners were women.
Additionally, retail sales of motorcycles in the U.S. reached $7.2 billion by 2015 with an impact on the economy of another $24 billion when services, taxes, licensing fees, etc. were factored in.
The reason to own a motorcycle is to ride it. To be in control of your destiny. It’s a very proactive form of transportation in which you always have to be alert and focused.
A self-driving bike flies in the face of what motorcycling means to people. As Pirsig wrote:
“On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore… and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”
If people buy vehicles just to get them from point A to point B, then motorcycles are probably not on their radars. When I ride to work it’s not about getting from A to B but taking the most fun roads to get me there, even if it adds 10 minutes to a 16-minute commute.
But if you want a so-called self-driving vehicle to get you from place to place, while you watch the scenery go by, well, that type of travel already exists.
It’s called the bus.