Autonomous cars? Sure. But autonomous bikes and scooters? It sounds outlandish, but not outlandish enough for Uber.
The idea of dockless, electric bicycles and scooters that can ride themselves to a charging station or a more optimal pickup spot certainly sounds useful on the surface. But whether this is a technology that Uber is actually developing is still unclear. Over the weekend, a robotics expert outed the project before the ride-hailing company was ready to publicly discuss it.
Chris Anderson, chief executive of robotics firm 3D Robotics, tweeted that a representative from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, which oversees the company’s self-driving car fleet, announced the new “micromobility” project at a DIY Robocars event. Uber would hire engineers to fill out the division to develop self-riding scooters and bikes, Anderson added.
Exciting announcement from @UberATG at today's @DIYRobocars event. "Micromobility" = autononomous scooters & bikes that can drive themselves to charging or better locations. Hiring now pic.twitter.com/sOjroo8XZI— Chris Anderson (@chr1sa) January 20, 2019
Contacted over the weekend, a spokesperson for Uber ATG was skeptical that this was one of the group’s projects. Later, Anderson clarified that Jump Bikes, not ATG, would be overseeing the micromobility initiative. (Jump is a dockless e-bike company owned by Uber.) A spokesperson for Uber’s mobility division declined to comment, and Anderson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
All of which is to say, you should take this information with a grain of salt. In the near term, Uber is focused on rolling out its Jump bikes and scooters to new markets, with the goal of gaining enough of a foothold that it can begin to compete with Bird and Lime, the two startups that have the most bikes and scooters on the ground today. It recently introduced a new, more rugged and high-tech version of its Jump e-bike that is meant to fast-track that effort.
The new Jump bikes have field-swappable batteries, which is supposed to address the high costs associated with recharging a fleet of electric vehicles that is spread out over a large metropolitan area. With this new feature, Uber’s operations team can swap out depleted batteries for fully charged ones in just minutes, eliminating the need to remove the entire bike from the street each night for charging.
Whether an autonomous bike would improve this process is not entirely clear. What is clear is that creating a fleet of self-riding bikes and scooters would be an incredibly costly endeavor. Eric Paul Dennis, a Michigan-based transportation systems analyst for the Center of Automotive Research, posted a thread on Twitter calling it “the worst new #mobility idea yet.”
Thread:— E P D (@EricPaulDennis) January 21, 2019
Uber has announced an effort to deploy autonomous scooters and bicycles.
This is the worst new #mobility idea yet.
If I can't convince you that this is an insane waste of time by the end of this thread, I shouldn't have my job.https://t.co/9FVN6kelxa
Dennis said he wasn’t questioning whether the technology existed to enable a bike or scooter to ride itself — it does, he said — but rather, he was struggling to understand why anyone could see this as a viable business idea.
“[A]ssuming that Uber can get this to work, it will no longer be a utilitarian device,” Dennis tweeted. “It will be some frankenscooter with gyroscopic stabilizers, multiple vision sensors, remarkably high-end compute unit of some sort, and steering actuators that have yet to be invented.”
Indeed, there are a number of autonomous scooter and motorcycle prototypes out there today, including this three-wheel self-propelled scooter by Scootbe and a driverless BMW motorcycle. The German automaker brought its modified R1200 motorcycle to CES this year, prompting many tech journalists to ask one question: “Why?”