It goes without saying that people are looking forward to autonomous cars. However, ever since seeing a class on autonomous bicycles at TUM, I have been thinking about how autonomous electric bicycles, not cars, could have a greater impact on the next few decades. Here are my reasons why:
- Small Freight and Bike Share: First, you may be wondering why anyone would ever want, need, or use an autonomous bicycle. There are two potential uses for automonous bicycles (maybe tricycles): small freight and bike share. Cars are usually inefficient for transportation. Take, for example, a pizza delivery. It doesn't take a 4000 pound vehicle to move a pizza a few miles. Because of this, many pizza restaurants deliver via bicycle instead of car. However, an autonomous bicycle can deliver without a driver. This model could be used for anything from über eats to Amazon Now to mail delivery to grocery delivery. Many people believe this is a job for drones, but drones have their own problems with safety, cost, and regulations. The other use case for autonomous bicycles is bike share. In this case, users could request an electric bike come "pick them up" and then "drop them off" when they arive at their destination. The bike then simply goes to pick someone else up. This is the taxi model with bikes instead of cars.
- Safety: Safety is the biggest concern for autonomous cars. Are they safer than human drivers? If not, when will they be safer? Who is responsible for a crash? These are all good questions and the biggest reasons bicycles will lead the way. Bicycles are inherently much safer because of their speed and size. Autonomous bicycles, like all electric bicycles will be limited to 25 miles/hour. Also, the unloaded weight of an autonomous bicycle will be around 50 pounds. A 50 pound object traveling 25 miles per hour is dangerous; however, it is much less dangerous than a 4000 pound car traveling at much faster speeds. Additionally, an autonomous freight bicycle does not have any passengers to endanger. Autonomous bicycles can figure out many autonomous driving problems much safer than a car can.
- Cost: No one knows how much a autonomous car is going to cost. Currently, you can buy a Tesla Model S or X (and 3 in a few years) with "self-driving hardware." However, Teslas are expensive: they are cars. Bicycles, on the other hand, are cheap. You can buy an electric bicycle for less than $1000. It would be unthinkable for a pizza restaurant to buy a fleet of Teslas for delivery. However, a fleet of autonomous bicycles could pay for themselves quickly. Also, because of the slower speed and smaller size of a bicycle, the sensors and computing power required for autonomy is greatly reduced when compared with a car.
- Speed: Although I mentioned above how the slow speed of autonomous bicycles is a safety feature, that doesn't mean they are slow. Any cyclist can tell you that bike traffic flows much smoother than car traffic. Bike paths and lanes (and sidewalks in some areas) offer bicycles a fast way to fly past stopped cars. Bike messengers have known this for years.
Just how bicycles paved the way for cars 100 years ago, I think the same might just happen with the autonomous transportation revolution. (I have yet to decide the correct term: autonomous bicycles, self-driving bike, self-riding bike, etc.)