According to The Telegraph and other sources, Uber’s Micromobility group has begun hiring its own AV specialists, with the goal of creating Jump electric-assist bicycles that can ride themselves to charging points.
As it stands now, dockless micromobility scooters are collected, charged, and redeployed by people. Jump bicycles weigh about 70 pounds so they’re not suited to pickup and drop-off. People travel to each bike, deliver a new battery pack and bring the old one back for charging. Either solution adds cost and pickup/dropoff increases wear-and-tear.
I have to say, giving Jump bicycles autonomous capability and programming them to report for charging on their own struck me as audacious.
But as I was having that “Wow! Cool!!” thought, and imagining silent riderless bicycles wheeling through darkened and empty streets in the wee hours, on the way to a charging bay, a Twitter thread from @EricPaulDennis popped up in my feed.
Dennis, who in day-to-day life is a Senior Analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, immediately listed a dozen or more engineering challenges that Uber would have to solve before such a project could possibly be brought to fruition.
Later Dennis and I had an entertaining Twitter exchange where we traded additional challenges. I contributed the observation that BMW recently displayed an autonomous motorcycle at CES, but that the electronics package filled two large panniers and a top box. And, there’s no reason to think that the computational demands for an autonomous Jump bicycle would be much lower than the demands for an AV auto. Right now AV cars’ trunksful of electronics strain automobile charging systems and batteries – if a Jump bicycle had a low battery, it might be completely drained after just a few moments of autonomous operation.
Uber may just be reacting to a shift in investor interest from AVs to Micromobility.
The company may just be planting another flag in this sector, in advance of an IPO. Maybe all it wants to do is tell investors, “Look at this other cool thing we’re doing, leveraging our investment in AVs, by transferring tech to Micromobility.”
But a day or so later, Dennis softened his skepticism with a second Twitter thread that sketched out possible work-arounds for some of the bigger problems.
I think that the most elegant solution is to design a system that would allow the bikes to ride themselves back to a charging base without encumbering each bicycle with a costly (in $ and watts) AV capability.
Note from the Dept. of Modest Proposals: Pied Piper™ Charging.
In the version of the system that I imagine, each bike needs little more than self-balancing and self-steering capability. (To be sure, that’s not a small ask, but those engineering challenges have all been solved elsewhere.)
My strategy is to have a ‘Pied Piper’ lead the Jump bicycles to a charging station. All the complex navigation and accident-avoidance capability would be in that vehicle. In fact, at the beginning, the Pied Piper might even be a vehicle with a human driver.
The Pied Piper would drive around and basically tell Jump bikes, “Tag, you’re it. Follow me.” If the lead vehicle was the size of a pickup truck, bikes could follow behind it several abreast. Each bicycle would only need to ‘know’ its unique position in the phalanx, and the path of the Pied Piper.
Each Jump bicycle already has a drive motor on the front wheel. A steering actuator, which as Dennis noted could possibly be located right inside the steering stem, would then provide the hardware needed for static balance (if the motor can run in both directions, it could balance the same way a bicycle courier balances on a ‘fixie’.)
Again, all the sophisticated AV sensor suite and computational power resides in the Piper. Jump bikes or scooters can only follow it. After charging, the phalanx would reform and then drive around, dropping bikes or scooters off. In the ‘Sandhill Road’ version of this system, the Pied Piper would be a drone.
You’re welcome, Uber.