Smart cruise control: a new threat to motorcycle riders?

Motorcyclists need to watch their rear view mirrors for a new car-borne threat called smart cruise control. The feature goes by other names like “adaptive cruise control,” “radar cruise control,” and so on. Whatever the name, in some cars, smart cruise control may not recognize a so-called “narrow object” like a motorcycle.

Just as for the old familiar dumb cruise control, the driver has to set a cruise speed for smart cruise control. Neither the dumb nor the smart cruise control will exceed the cruise speed set by the driver, except on steep downslopes. But a car on smart cruise does more: it will slow as the car in front of it slows, and then speed up as that car does. It will stay a set distance behind the car in front. And it will stop if the car in front stops.

The danger to motorcycles can be found in the car’s manual: the smart cruise control system may not detect a “narrow object like a motorcycle.” Suppose the car’s smart cruise has been working fine following cars and trucks in traffic. Will every driver on smart cruise react quickly enough when a slower-traveling motorcycle appears in front of the car, and smart cruise fails to slow?

What’s a rider to do? Decorate the rear end of the motorcycle with sheets of metal foil to reflect radar? That may not help if the smart cruise system relies on cameras instead of radar. Perhaps riders should be extra careful just after changing lanes, because the car behind the rider in the new lane may be on smart cruise.

I expect that aggrieved riders soon will present courts with challenges to today’s (2017’s) smart cruise controls, perhaps grounded in the theory of “implied warranty.” A car that is capable of smart cruise likely has computers that store reams of data on recent driver inputs and other system parameters. Such data could be useful in an accident investigation, if not erased or overwritten when the car is driven away from the scene.

Worry also that the automatic emergency braking feature available in some cars likely uses all or some of the same sensors or computer logic as smart cruise control.  If the car’s smart cruise control cannot recognize a motorcycle, can its automatic emergency braking?

The motorcycle as a “narrow object.”