Bike-sharing systems have come a long way since the first — and free — system launched in Amsterdam in 1967. Well intentioned, that system was destined to fail, as a city ordinance prohibited leaving unlocked bikes in public places. Today, technology is transforming bike sharing and contributing to an explosion of IT-based systems that are making bike shares part of Smart Cities. Nowhere is this more evident than in China, which today has as many as 30 different bike-share providers. Led by market leaders Mobike and Ofo, which together claim about 90% of the market, these providers offer more than 3 million bikes for use by 18.9 million users—for as little as 1 yuan ($0.15).
Conceptually, the systems make enormous sense; they provide easy and efficient “last mile” transportation in cities where traffic density — or availability of alternate services — limits options. In providing this service, bike sharing reduces traffic, noise, and air pollution and offers users exercise and convenience. Big wins all around.
Early systems offered free bikes and — if the bikes could avoid confiscation by the authorities, as in Amsterdam — often fell victim to urban “magicians,” who could make the bikes disappear without a trace. One solution, docking systems, work reasonably well. And, networked to IT systems, the docking systems enable subscription-based service. These systems require that users get — and return — their bikes at defined locations.
This inconvenience, which can be big or small, depending on how far from your start and end points the docking stations are, is driving extraordinary innovation. Like most everything else joining the Internet of Things (IoT), the latest systems are jumping on in the smartest cities to replace the docking stations with smartphone apps that can locate available bikes left where the last user finished their ride.
To do this, the bikes utilize GPS positioning receivers to send positioning coordinates to the network. Today, this information is used only to identify and locate locked bikes. Soon, the bike-share companies will start using it to collect data from rides for user profiles. They’ll also be able to offer additional services, such as en-route business promotions or pick-up and delivery.
The bikes also include a range of technologies to thwart urban magicians. While there are several approaches to preventing bike theft, they all incorporate a range of ICs. These include 32-bit MCUs to coordinate and manage processing, Bluetooth SoCs (Systems on Chips) and NFC (Near Field Communication) Tags for identification and communication, and MEMS (MicroElectro-Mechanical Systems) to detect tampering. Together these components allow a user to lock and leave the bike at the end of their ride for the next user. Solar panels and associated electronics to optimize the energy produced, thin-film batteries to store it, and motor drivers for automated bike locks could easily be added.
As the bike share systems continue to evolve — can autonomous e-bike sharing be far away? — users in Smart Cities and all the people in those cities who breathe the air, listen to the birds, and travel the streets, will all benefit.