A few years ago, a group of engineers from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States) created a new concept of a bike-sharing service based on electric and autonomous bicycles. The vehicle created could transform the way in which this service is currently carried out, since it would be the bicycle that would go looking for the customer, instead of being the one to locate it through a mobile application. This way would reduce the problems of balance and overquantification that usually suffers from bike sharing.
According to a United Nations report, in 2018 cities accumulated a 55% of the world population. This number will increase until it reaches a 68% in 2050. Cities will have to face new challenges to enable the mobility inside with innovative solutions. The development of this concept of electric and autonomous bicycle responds, according to MIT, to the need to reduce dependence on the car in large cities, offering a service based on respect for the environment and practicality.
Electric bicycles are an efficient, ecological and economical means of getting around cities, which would form part of the solution to their major mobility problems. The MIT Media Lab City Science visualize the cities of the future as “human-centered”, divided into multi-service sectors, where people can walk or cycle from home to school, work or even shopping.
The service that MIT suggests is basically a time-based rental system for autonomous electric bicycles. Customers can request the service through an application installed on their mobile. The electric and autonomous bicycle will go to the place where it is located, so that from that point on it will work like a normal electric bicycle, managed by the user. When it ends its journey, the bicycle returns to autonomous mode to perform another service or go to the designated station to recharge.
Therefore, in the urban scenario described by MIT, this shared mobility service with electric and autonomous bicycles would work as an option for short-distance commuting.
In order to offer a service with autonomous bicycles, one of the key aspects is that these can be kept in balance without the need for a cyclist to handle them. To solve this problem, MIT designed a mechanism that allows the bicycle to move in autonomous mode and in manual mode.
In the Manual mode, the handling is identical to that of any electric bicycle, that is, it is the cyclist who is in charge of pedaling and steering. In the autonomous driving mode the bicycle transforms into a tricycle achieving its stability thanks to a third wheel. Actually, the peculiarity of the design is the double rear wheel that closes in manual mode to eliminate friction with the ground as much as possible and in autonomous mode it unfolds, making the bicycle stand upright.
Transition from one mode to the other is achieved by two linear actuators that dynamically move the two rear wheels apart and together as needed. The prototype that MIT has built includes all the mechanisms for it to be functional. That is to say, it incorporates the electric motors that allow the change of operating mode, the one that allows the handlebar to turn and, of course, the one that is responsible for propelling the bicycle.
The current prototype handles via a remote. The next step is to create an integrated environment between hardware and software to make the vehicle capable of moving in an exact direction through sensors and geolocation systems.
The service devised by MIT solves some of the problems inherent in current bike sharing services, in addition to improving the user experience, who does not have to travel to find an electric bicycle near where he is. With this system it is easier to rebalance the position of the bicycles within the service area, which usually tends to concentrate most of the units in certain areas, leaving the service unattended in others, which forces an overquantification of the fleets.
The problem of imbalance of the fleets It is common to all bike sharing systems. This is due to similarities in user travel patterns, such as a large number of people needing to go to city centers at rush hour. The orography of the city also tends to be the reason that a greater part of the bicycles are concentrated in the low-lying areas, while the low-lying areas remain unattended.
In these circumstances, finding an available bicycle requires longer trips, which increases the effective travel time and causes user frustration at loss of system reliability. To mitigate this inconvenience, the operators are in charge of redistributing the bicycles by means of trucks or vans, which entails a high economic and sometimes ecological cost (if it is not carried out with electric vehicles), in addition to complicating the general logistics of the system.
In addition, bike-sharing systems that are not based on charging stations often suffer from a problem of overquantification. The size of the fleets is greater than the capacity of the city’s infrastructure, so that, given the flexibility when it comes to leaving the vehicles, they appear piled up on streets and sidewalks, causing inconveniences for pedestrian mobility. These problems have forced some cities to limit the size of non-platform fleets.
The MIT bike reduces the rebalancing problem as the bikes steer themselves to the next user or to the charging station. Therefore, the system would need fewer bicycles to perform the same service.
On the other hand, users would have a door-to-door service that would not force them to look for the nearest bicycle or the nearest recharging dock. With this system, travel times would be reduced since they would be much more efficient. The greater comfort and reliability would encourage the use of the system to make trips as common as going to work, thus supporting a transition towards more livable and sustainable cities.