MIT Is Pioneering an ‘Autonomous Bicycle’ and It’s Not Just For Lazy Cyclists

MIT’s PEV is an autonomous electric-powered tricycle designed to transport people and packages. Photo via MIT/Jimmy Day

In a future world imagined by MIT researchers, you can summon a tricked-out driverless tricycle much like you would an Uber or Lyft car now. The lightweight shared-use bike would arrive wherever you are and off you go, as it takes you to your destination while you sit in its lone passenger seat.

Or, if you have a package that needs to be delivered, you could request the same bike and place the goods in an enclosed area on the vehicle and, without you at the wheel, it pedals away to the package’s destination.

The innovation created by MIT is dubbed PEV (Persuasive Electric Vehicle), and sports a 250W electric motor and 10Ah battery pack. It can run on 25 miles per charge with a top speed of 20 miles per hour. MIT’s site states: “We believe that the PEV will constitute a new and indispensable category of vehicles in the emerging constellation of mobility systems.”

The PEV is currently being tested in Andorra, a tiny country tucked between Spain and France, where MIT’s Media Lab is experimenting with several projects.

This latest entry in the already-crowded autonomous-vehicle space sounds promising, but can insiders envision the PEV holding its packages securely and safely dealing with hazardous weather conditions? Also, can it avoid pedestrian collisions in order to make it a safer alternative to driving?

The trend towards self-driving cars is ramping up—Waymo, part of the Google family, brought its self-driving taxi experiment to Phoenix in 2017 (the project is expected to go live at some point in 2018). Uber and Lyft are pouring their attention into AV tech, with the latter showing off its fully-automated service this week at CES in Las Vegas. This week we also learned that Ontario’s Liberal government has also proposed to alter the rules of its automated vehicle pilot project to allow for driverless testing.

“Any technology that gets people out of cars is intriguing and worth exploring,” said Jimmy O’Dea, a senior vehicles analyst at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. Additionally, since the PEV can also work as a delivery vehicle, O’Dea welcomed “a zero-emissions bike over anything with a tailpipe.”

But O’Dea said he would like to see some number-crunching on the economics behind charging a single-package delivery vehicle like the PEV versus a truck carrying dozens of packages. After all, as he points out, MIT is adding an energy demand to a mode of transportation—the bike—that doesn’t require one.

Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California who’s studied autonomous vehicles since 1989, is critical of where AV systems like PEV can traverse. “They can only really work well in fair weather and can’t handle things like ice or snow,” he said.

He also expressed doubt that a truly driverless future, seen as door-to-door delivery without any human intervention, would happen in this lifetime. “There are too many unsolved problems that still have to be worked out,” he said, such as complex software and hazards in a driver’s environment.

Still, some market analysts can see consumer confidence along with the driverless-vehicle hype. According to data from market research firm IHS Markit, more than 33 million autonomous vehicles will be sold globally in 2040, an impressive increase from the 51,000 units forecast for the first year of significant volume in 2021.

In an interview, IHS Markit’s director of automotive technology research Egil Juliussen said the rise in AV interest is fuelled by the need to “solve many problems hurting drivers,” often literally: In the US more than 37,000 people die in road crashes each year, and an additional 2.35 million are injured or disabled, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel.

He said that if a project like PEV can get drivers off the road, and if the kinks can be worked out so this multi-purpose bike isn’t itself involved in accidents, “MIT should keep working on it to see where it’ll go.”

What could hurt the AV industry, or even specific initiatives like PEV, are “horror stories of someone being killed or seriously hurt in an autonomous vehicle,” Juliussen said. “If something bad happens, the industry will be seriously slowed down.”

Negative press aside, the quickening momentum in the AV space could lift the prospects of a hybrid vehicle like MIT’s PEV, which is showing promising signs of bringing autonomy to biking. Thing is, this tech, like many before and after it, will have to ensure it can work safely in conditions like the Canadian winter. Otherwise, the PEV could be RIP.

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