Motorcycle Touchscreens Raise Distraction Concerns

By Kyle Stock | August 3, 2016

Riding a motorcycle is about to become a little less zen. Pretty soon, it will be rare for someone astride a big cruiser to scan the unfurling ribbon of road and stoically wonder how many new Snapchat messages he has. The age of the infotainment system is imminent.

This week, Polaris Industries, the company behind Indian and Victory motorcycles, unveiled a new 7-inch touchscreen system dubbed Ride Command that will give turn-by-turn directions, sync to smartphones, and flag the nearest gas station when the tank is low. The handlebar computer will come standard on Indian’s new Chieftain and Roadmaster bikes, which account for about half the brand’s sales.

“We’re really pumped up about this,” said Steve Menneto, president of motorcycles at Polaris. “We’re opening up a huge part of the market for ourselves.”

In truth, Polaris is a bit late to the flatscreen rally. BMW, in concert with Garmin, released its Navigator V device on its bikes in 2013. Harley-Davidson followed a year later with its Boom! Box system, which comes standard on about half the bikes the company sells in the U.S., according to Harley’s chief executive officer, Matt Levatich.

Naturally, these companies are bickering about which unit is best, but to anyone who has ever bumped into a stranger while texting, they all seem like spectacularly bad ideas. Motorcycle riders need more potential distraction on the road about as much as they need more gigantic potholes.

Someone on a motorcycle is already 26 times more likely to die in a crash than someone in a car, according to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2013, some 4,700 motorcyclists were killed, and another 88,000 were injured .

Accident data, however, have veered intriguingly in recent years. Crash rates have fallen, albeit slightly. Some of that can be attributed to better brakes and improved rider education, but the decline dovetails remarkably with the introduction of touchscreens.

There’s an argument to be made that if used correctly, these computers help a driver stay focused. For one, there’s no paper map to fold and flutter, and GPS units can route a rider around traffic, bad roads, and inclement weather. They also give important mechanical alerts. BloombergTV reporter Matt Miller said BMW’s infotainment unit may have saved his life when it alerted him to a fast-deflating tire while flying down an interstate.

Harley’s Matt Levatich said his team went great lengths when developing Boom! Box to design intuitive handlebar controls and fast-loading software. The goal: to make sure riders never have to look down or touch the screen. “It’s not about technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “When I’m riding, I do everything I need to do with my thumbs, or when I have my helmet on, with my voice.”

Infotainment systems can also literally make one a better rider. In addition to making phone calls and blasting Steppenwolf, most also record data on acceleration, braking, and lean angles, allowing riders to work on their technique. Indian’s new system offers eight screens of such mechanical metrics.

The most persuasive argument for adding an infotainment system is simple: They’re safer than the alternative. Riders have long cobbled together their own motley systems for music and navigation, be it an old Sony Discman and a dog-eared map or an iPhone mount on the gas tank.

“When you have these discussions, you always think of rider safety,” Mennetto said. “But it’s in such demand from customers. And once you get your new toy home, and you’re settled in with how it works, it just gives you a lot more confidence.”

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