A self-balancing, AI-equipped motorcycle coming next.

It was the sort of crowd-wowing scene technology lore is made of. Yamaha Motor President Hiroyuki Yanagi took to the stage of this year’s Tokyo Motor Show and revealed an electric motorcycle that balances itself and responds to hand gestures.

Yamaha is calling the concept bike the Motoroid, and the engineering team is determined to commercialize the technology.

During his demonstration, Yanagi beckoned the Motoroid to approach him. The bike released its kickstand, straightened up and slowly made its way over. When the president waved for it to stop, it smoothly rolled to a halt without losing its balance. It rolled backward, too.

Yanagi said the company developed the artificially intelligent bike based on the concept of “unity between humans and machines.”

Getting to the big reveal was a journey.

Yamaha considered developing a self-standing motorcycle about a decade ago but called it off after the global financial crisis of 2008. Once it decided to give it another go, it turned to members of the original team and former employees. It also asked Murata Manufacturing, a Japanese producer of electronic components and robots, for help.

The Motoroid project began in January 2016, led by a group of about 10 engineers. By that September, they had prepared a desktop model. But getting the vehicle to stay upright by itself took ages. The model was so complex, with so many parts, that the engineers were not sure what data to focus on.

Finally, just before the year-end holidays, they managed to get the bike to stand on its own, albeit unsteadily. They cheered.

The celebration was short-lived. On the first working day of 2017, Honda Motor introduced its own self-balancing motorcycle at the Consumer Electronics Show in the U.S.

Kinji Asamura, the project leader at Yamaha Motor’s Innovation Center in central Japan, groaned when he saw the Honda bike stand without any support.

Honda had drawn on technology used in its Asimo humanoid robot. The bike keeps its balance by adjusting the front fork, which connects the handlebar and the tire. The front tire moves slightly forward, and small steering adjustments keep the bike upright.

This design makes Honda’s balancing mechanism relatively easy to scale down, compared with Yamaha’s system, which rotates a part in the chassis to maintain balance.

But could Yamaha still win the race to commercialization?

Pendulum approach

Asamura described the Motoroid as a partner that takes orders and can move independently, “like a living creature.” The balancing mechanism, he said, is one of the “core technologies.”

He explained that the Active Mass Center Control System, or AMCES, as the company calls it, uses sensors to detect the vehicle’s tilt and adjusts the balance by moving the battery in the opposite direction as a counterweight.

To be more precise, information from a gyro sensor, which detects the tilt, and an accelerometer is fed into a central processing unit in as little as a 2,000th of a second. The system then calculates the adjustment needed to keep the vehicle standing and issues commands.

Following these orders, an actuator-driven axis in the motorcycle rotates, moving the battery as well as a swinging arm that connects the chassis with the rear tire. Think of it as a swinging pendulum.

Unlike with Honda’s bike, Yamaha’s balancing act is performed only at the rear. The camera-equipped face, handlebar and front tire do not rotate.

Yamaha’s bike has other tricks in its repertoire, too.

The AI system can recognize the owner’s face and, as Yanagi demonstrated, respond to hand signals. Some of the details are still secret, as the technology was developed with an outside party, but Yamaha says the system works properly even in less-than-ideal conditions.

There is little doubt that sensors, image processing and AI are taking the auto industry in new directions. The big question is, when will the bikes of the future be ready?

Honda has not said when it plans to release a self-standing bike, but the competition to start mass production is sure to heat up. Asamura said Yamaha hopes to introduce the new tech in commercial models in five years. The company intends to move into the next development phase — preparing for mass production.

Manufacturers like Yamaha hope the latest innovations will help reverse the decline of the motorcycle market. In Japan last year, only 109,377 motorbikes with 125cc engines or larger were sold — a third of the peak in 1988.

Comments from Tokyo Motor Show attendees seem to bode well. “If the motorcycle can roll itself into the garage, it would save a lot of trouble,” one visitor said.

“Large motorcycles are hard to push, so [the self-moving feature] would be helpful,” another said.

Making motorcycles easier to handle might just prompt more consumers to consider zipping around on two wheels.

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