Tyler Folsom’s workspace on the third floor of Embedded Systems Lab at the University of Washington Bothell looks like a hybrid chop shop. Two brightly colored recumbent tricycles (one orange, one yellow) sit in the center of the room, stripped of pedals and gear cranksets, and instead outfitted with wires, rechargeable batteries, and LIDAR sensors. A whiteboard nearby is covered in hand-written notes and calculations.
It appears a cluttered scene at first, but it’s also one that quickly coheres when you meet Folsom, a professor at the school and director of the Elcano Project. Named after Juan Sebastián Elcano, the 16th-century Spanish explorer who was the first person to circumnavigate the Earth, the project was started in 2013 and aims to create hardware and software kits that can be used to convert recumbent tricycles into modes of autonomous transportation.
While much attention is paid to self-driving automobiles, Folsom believes self-driving bikes and trikes also should be part of the discussion, and for many reasons.
Autonomous bikes are cheaper, lighter, and smaller than autonomous cars, for one, and are feasible using very basic technology, according to Folsom, and lightweight batteries can power these bikes, and be recharged using wind, solar, or hydroelectric power (a self-driving bike needs only a 25-pound battery to travel 15 miles, according to Folsom). Folsom and a rotating cadre of 50 students have used basic open source C++ software code running on an Arduino microprocessor to put these bikes in motion.
If the idea of self-driving bikes seems far-fetched, Folsom likes to remind people that autonomous vehicles (in various forms) have been around for decades.
“One question I ask is, ‘When are the first autonomous vehicles going to be turned loose in the real world?’” Folsom said. “The answer is 1933 and the first driverless elevator. There was a time when people were scared to use elevators at all, and especially elevators without a driver. I expect that cars are going to go the same way.”
The next time you visit Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and take the 1.7-mile Satellite Transit System between terminals, remember that you are doing so thanks to one form of automated and self-driving technology. Personal Rapid Transit systems shuttle people by using self-driving vehicles on dedicated guideways at Heathrow Airport in London, and various locations in the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, and South Korea.
In May 2016, Folsom was awarded a $75,000 Amazon Catalyst grant from the online retailer. According to Amazon, the grant program is designed to spur university-based innovators to “think big, invent solutions to real-world problems, and make a positive impact on the world.” The grant allowed Folsom to hire student interns — and even a visiting scholar from the India Institute of Technology — to further develop the Elcano Project.
Three months after the grant was awarded, the team gathered on UW Bothell’s soccer field to help the Elcano Project inch closer to its stated goal of making self-driving bikes a reality. A student sent a simple message to the trike — complete a circle — and the orange trike suddenly, and somewhat eerily, sprang to life, completing the task without any interference from the team.
“The circle test is really a demonstration of more elaborate control than simply sending the radio signals to the vehicle,” Folsom said. “The reason why this is a really good step towards pure autonomy is because it can execute a method, which means that it can take in variables and it can respond to feedback.”
As for the future of the Elcano Project and self-driving bikes and trikes, Folsom is as optimistic as his mind is imaginative. How about a fleet of self-driving bikes that can carry you from one end of a city or college campus to another end? Or how about a self-driving taxi system? One effort under way by Folsom and his team is turning a 160-pound Organic Transit solar- and electric-powered bicycle into an autonomous vehicle (an Uber placard cheekily sits on the dashboard).
“The model I am operating under is that once this (self-driving automobile) technology takes off, then bikes can glom onto what is there,” Folsom said. “I think that as they do that, they become a more attractive platform than cars because they are a whole lot cheaper; they use less energy. We’ve got self-driving vehicles happening. We’ve got electric cars happening. I feel that we are on the verge of a transformation in transportation.”