Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are stalled. The breezy predictions of widespread rollouts by most major automobile manufacturers have been revised and readjusted. Some CEOs of those companies spoke optimistically about achieving full autonomy — Level 5, in the parlance — in 2020. Or maybe 2021. Or the early 2020s.

Now, it’s not quite clear when that might be achieved, though Tesla head Elon Musk continues to insist that his company will be producing fully autonomous vehicles by the end of 2020. Much depends, however, on how quickly 5G (i.e., the fifth generation of wireless technology) realizes wide dissemination, and that too remains up in the air. The best guess is that coverage will improve dramatically in 2020, and that 5G will be available in most areas of the U.S. by 2022. That breakthrough will reduce latency for all electronic devices, which is especially critical to the operation of an AV.

In the meantime we have seen technology proceed down a path that is at once parallel and literally slower with the advent of autonomous bicycles. Particularly notable is the development in 2019 of a Chinese bike featuring a neuromorphic computer chip (i.e., a chip that approximates the structure of the human brain, in that it is comprised of artificial neurons). That enabled the bike to proceed on its merry way — to navigate a track, avoid obstacles and even respond to voice commands.

Recent years have also seen the development at MIT of something called the Persuasive Electric Vehicle (PEV), an adult-sized tricycle that might one day be of use for ride-sharing services — not to mention package delivery services, as it features a secure box for parcels. A company called Scootbe also introduced a three-wheeled self-propelled scooter, while BMW came out with the prototype for a self-driving motorcycle.

The work of a company called Jump, which is owned by Uber, is also notable, as it developed a bike with a swappable battery — something that is of great importance to bike-sharing services, as it precludes the need to return the entire bike to a central location for charging; rather, the battery is simply replaced, and the rider goes on his or her way.

There were also unconfirmed reports in early 2019 that Uber was hoping to make further inroads in the micromobility space, compelling Eric Paul Dennis, a transportation systems analyst for the Center of Automotive Research, to tweet out his dismay. As noted in a post on The Verge, Dennis called autonomous bikes “the worst new mobility idea yet,” and enumerated the problems on an extensive Twitter thread:

  • A stabilization system would prove to be both costly and weighty:
  • Sensors would need to be more durable than those on cars:
  • Developing a suitable computer unit (a problem apparently addressed by the subsequent introduction of the neuromorphic chip); and
  • The swappable battery might be easy to change, but it is also easy to steal.

Dennis emphasized that while it might be possible to develop the necessary technology, he doesn’t believe autonomous bikes can be part of a sound business model.

While that might be true, there are also environmental considerations. As Jimmy O’Dea, senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told “Any technology that gets people out of cars is intriguing and worth exploring,” before adding that he favors “a zero-emissions bike over anything with a tailpipe.”

It seems safe to say, then, that developments will continue in this space — that not only ride-sharing services, but those people seeking alternate means to a car that burns fossil fuel, will see value in an autonomous bicycle.