Autonomous Driving: The Ghost Wheel of Magdeburg

Researchers are developing an autonomous bicycle in Magdeburg. From 2020, it will primarily help people on the outskirts who want to do without their own car.

An e-bike comes along the bike path. Sitting in the saddle: no one. It speeds, brakes and steers itself. Its destination is the nearest subway station.

There, a mother ordered it by app, off the train, where she sits with her two children and three thick shopping bags. When they arrive at the bus stop, the three-wheeled bicycle is already waiting. The woman authenticates herself by QR code scan, the lock on the bike springs open, and off we go home. The mother pedals and enjoys electrical support in the face of the load.

Cargo wheel with variable attachments

This fictive application scenario might make you "crazy," says Stephan Schmidt. And yet, the junior professor for autonomous vehicles at the University of Magdeburg works in a team of mechanical engineers, computer scientists, logistics experts and environmental psychologists with all researcher severity on the self-driving bike. As a cargo wheel with variable attachments for the transport of goods or even children, it could revolutionize inner-city mobility.

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Innovation from Magdeburg: the autonomous bike up close

The experiment bike packed with technology already exists. "It looks very strange," said Schmidt. But the vehicle is probably the most technically complex bike that currently exists. So that it can determine the direction itself, the researchers have built a steering angle plate and mounted, for the advancement provides a wheel hub drive.

Trial rides in the city park

Sensors measure wheel speed and acceleration and use GPS to determine the position. The environment of the tricycle front monitor a stereo camera, a laser scanner and a radar, laterally two mono cameras and other lasers are used. In the next expansion stage, an automated brake is planned.

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E-bike news: The mass motorization

The research bike is on trial trips in the Magdeburg city park. "There we want to gain experience of how the bicycle sees its environment," says Schmidt. Quite a few questions are in the room: Does the e-bike have to call attention to itself, for example by voice over a loudspeaker? How should it communicate with motorists when the bike path crosses the road? Do you need oversized direction indicators?

Self-driving cars are also in traffic

The vision of the project is clear: Urban mobility should not only be more practical, more environmentally friendly, but also more efficient. It's all about city limits. While you can usually travel well in the city with buses and trains, the way from the final stop to your home is often the problem. If it is too long or awkward, you sit back in the car. With the autonomous e-bike as a link your own car may not even be necessary.

"We want to do a lot better than it would be possible with the automated car," says engineer Schmidt. While a two-wheeler gets through blocked streets faster, a car is stuck in a traffic jam - even if it is automated.

According to Schmidt, another advantage weighs even heavier: the interaction with public transport. "If you call an autonomous car, it replaces travel by public transport." In the car, it was just so comfortable that the entire way is covered in it. By contrast, the automated bicycle on call complements buses and trains.

Bike loads like a robotic lawnmower

"We want to interlock," says Schmidt. The result: while a nationwide use of autonomous electric cars as a substitute for driving in public transport could worsen the eco-balance, the opposite with the self-propelled e-bike is possible.

Fleet operators also find the approach attractive. "Super exciting," says Marco Walter, idea creator and founder of Tink. According to its own statements, since 2016 the company has been the first provider of a cargo bike bike sharing in Europe with stations in Norderstedt and Konstanz.

Especially the return of the vehicle after the customer journey is a big topic. "You can get the bike back to the station, I do not even have to have a station, that's the future." Walter also sees advantages in that even the labor-intensive battery replacement can be replaced by a fully automatic process. The automated load e-bike simply travels to the charging station, where it recharges by induction: "Just like the mowing or vacuuming robots do today."

In automation, the experts see great savings potential. However, the higher purchase cost of the wheels would have to be offset. For other applications were conceivable: "For example, that the wheel is used for an autonomous pizza service," says Schmidt.

Cobblestone, gravel and sand as challenges

But still, all that is not ready. One of the biggest challenges: A bicycle sees its environment differently than a car. So the subsoil often consists of cobblestone, gravel or sand. Pedestrians are much more likely to ride on a bike path than on the road.

"On the one hand, we have a harder time than with the car, because we have less space for the technology and the entire power needs from the e-bike battery must be fed" says Schmidt. "On the other hand, we have more time to react because the braking distance is shorter."

Similar to the self-driving car, the automated e-bike needs a detailed map of the bike infrastructure map that tells it exactly where to drive and when. And a roof would have to give the vehicle for bad weather trips as well as well thought-out theft protection.

Fleet between Unicampus and main station in Magdeburg planned

If everything goes according to plan, it could go from January 2019 on the construction of a first fleet, which initially moves between Unicampus and Hauptbahnhof in Magdeburg. "I think by the end of 2020 you will certainly be able to meet an autonomous series bike," says engineer Schmidt confidently, especially since the project is still funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

In any case, the entry scenario with mother and children could easily be continued. After the woman arrives at home with bag and bag and everything is unloaded, the e-bike turns away again. The goal is the hardware store in the neighboring district. There is already someone waiting with a new load.