If you’re entertaining futuristic visions of cruising down the highway in your own self-driving, electric car, Tyler Folsom wants to expand that notion.
Picture yourself instead behind the handlebars of a three-wheeled, autonomous, battery-powered bike. Less sexy? Perhaps. Way more affordable and potentially safer? You bet.
Folsom, an affiliate professor in computing and software systems at the University of Washington Bothell, is leading a small team of undergraduates which is developing just that technology. They’re outfitting recumbent trikes with rechargeable batteries, an electric motor and the hardware and software needed for the bike to drive itself.
“The main thing I’m trying to do is make people aware that this is possible,” Folsom said. He’s aiming for a vehicle that costs about $8,000-9,000. “It’s an expensive bike,” he said, “but it’s a cheap car.”
One model has a clear, protective shell around the seat to protect the rider from the elements and to reduce drag.
While most of the world is focused on self-driving cars and motorcycles (in September BMW presented the first driverless motorcycle), Folsom and a few others are making the case for bikes outfitted with similar technology. They envision the vehicles as a climate-friendly option for urban settings in particular, where traffic moves slower and cars are a less efficient option.
Many people advocating for self-driving cars cite the potential for safety improvements: in the United States last year, 37,133 people died in motor vehicle crashes, according to federal data. The thinking goes that removing human error could make driving safer. But the news that a self-driving car by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March raised serious questions about the pursuit.
Folsom has an answer.
“If you’ve got this new technology,” he said, “you’re better off putting it on a less scary vehicle like a bicycle.”
Folsom has been passionate about autonomous vehicles for more than a decade. He was part of a team from a town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to enter the second DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005, an event hosted by the U.S. Department of Defense to encourage the development of self-driving vehicles. He competed again in 2007 with a team from the University of British Columbia.
In 2013, Folsom landed at the UW’s Bothell campus, launching the open-source Elcano Project, so named for a Spanish explorer who was the first person to sail around the world.
Miguel Huarta, a UW senior, is one of the students working with Folsom. He’s happy to tackle a project that integrates hardware and software, and enjoys bike riding. He’s also keen on the endeavor for a practical reason: it would be nice to get a beer (or perhaps more) at a pub and have a safe ride home via an autonomous vehicle.
“I like (the trike) because it is accessible and easier than a car,” Huarta said. “If you can take your mind off of pedaling, it is even more pleasurable.”
The team is working on a self-driving system that incorporates GPS, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, speed input from the speedometer, directional input from a compass, technology that detects a lane edge, a digital map of the area and other technology.
Folsom is aiming for a bike that could operate in controlled conditions — designated paths or lanes — as opposed to a vehicle that could safely navigate any situation. His team has successfully operated a prototype trike in open field, but not yet followed a road autonomously.
MIT has a larger program working on self-driving bikes. Their effort uses more expensive, sophisticated AI technology while the UW’s Elcano team is not using any machine learning or connected, Internet of Things (IoT) in their design. It makes a less smart vehicle, but also one that’s cheaper and can’t be remotely hacked.
The team likes bikes because they’re so lightweight. The average car weighs roughly 4,000 pounds while the average driver is closer to 175 pounds. That means most of the vehicle’s energy use is being used to move the frame of the car, not the person. Likewise, an electric car battery can weigh 1,000 pounds, while a bike or trike battery is about 25 pounds. Ideally, bikers could swap out their batteries at solar or wind-powered recharging stations, further reducing the vehicles’ carbon footprint.
“I see autonomous bikes and trikes as a really effective way to have autonomous vehicles,” said Ben Rockhold, another UW senior working on the project.
Folsom isn’t aiming to commercially launch a line of bikes or trikes, but to inspire others and share what he and his team have learned.
“This is open source. You can pick it up and run with it. I don’t have the resources to (commercialize) it myself,” he said. “I’m trying to get the concept out there that hey, this is an option that we need to seriously consider.”