What is the MIT Autonomous Bicycle Project?

Jimmy Day | MIT Media Lab 

By the City Science group

Biking is an essential experience in many cities. Globally, cities are increasing bike infrastructure and in addition to more bike paths, protected lanes and bicycle advocacy, we are also seeing a rise in the number of bike sharing systems and other lightweight mobility solutions. Current bike sharing systems offer users the ease of mobility, without ownership. The MIT Media Lab City Science group proposes a solution to take this sharing system even further, with an on-demand autonomous bicycle that can not only operate as part of the shared economy, but also provide a convenience that has not been achieved with other existing solutions.

Introducing an autonomous bicycle to the market raises many questions — first and foremost, how does the bike balance itself? Naroa Coretti, a master’s candidate on the team, and Kent Larson, the group’s director, propose an interesting solution. The MIT Autonomous Bicycle has a mechanical attachment that allows it to shift easily from bicycle mode (when in use) to tricycle mode (when the user dismounts, and the bicycle rides to its next destination). The bike transitions from one configuration to the other using two linear actuators that separate and rejoin the wheels as needed. The prototype also includes electric motors to propel the bike when it is in autonomous mode: a hub motor to drive the front wheel and a second motor for steering.

To use the bicycle, the user will call for the bike in an app and the bike will drive autonomously to the user. The user then rides the bike to their destination. Once the trip is complete, the bike will ride to its next user or stop for a charge at a charging station.

The MIT Autonomous Bicycle Project proposes that autonomous bicycles could serve as an alternative to current bike sharing models. Docked bike systems frequently have problems rebalancing their fleets. There is often an imbalance in commuting patterns: for example everyone rides inbound at one time of day, and everyone rides outbound at another time of day. In addition, geographical landmarks like hills have also created problems in fleet rebalancing. Users often find that there is an abundance of bikes in one location, to the point of no available docks, while other docking stations in other parts of the city remain bikeless. As a consequence, travel time is increased, and users become frustrated and can lose trust in the system, shifting their preference to other mobility options. To further complicate things, these companies need to invest in moving the bikes around the city for rebalancing in specially designed vans, which adds environmental costs, as well as time and maintenance costs.

On the other hand, dockless systems often suffer from over-quantification. In many countries, we have seen dockless systems with much larger fleets, allowing users to have better access to the bikes. However, this approach often exceeds the infrastructure capacities of the cities, creating additional problems like bikes being parked illegally, tossed into piles, and cluttering sidewalks. As a result, some cities have started to limit the sizes of dockless systems, while others have forced operators to cease their programs.

Furthermore, many experts anticipate a return to biking as our communities recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and strive to move back to work while still maintaining some semblance of social distancing. Bicycles will provide an alternative to overcrowded and potentially hazardous public transportation modes. Electric assist can create further convenience for users, while minimizing challenging parts of their commute.

The MIT Autonomous Bicycle Project aims to offer users an easy way of obtaining a bike, while also alleviating stresses like the imbalancing and over-quantification found in current systems. Improved user experience and wait time will allow more people an opportunity to ride the bikes, experience their city in a new way, and make more frequent short trips in an environmentally friendly and enjoyable way. The current MIT Autonomous Bicycle has been ridden and tested on the MIT campus with promising results. In the coming semester, Coretti plans to further integrate the autonomy hardware and software and explore and validate new designs and business cases. The MIT City Science group strives to create more livable, equitable and innovative cities and communities. With the addition of a new bicycle solution, we believe that we can also enable more fun, livelihood, and enjoyment in our communities and cities.

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