Autonomous tricycles could form the basis of urban taxi systems

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UWB engineers have developed a self-driving trike, that they hope will eventually lead to more affordable autonomous vehicles(Credit: Marc Studer)

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Self-driving cars, trucks and buses might get the bulk of the headlines, but a team at the University of Washington Bothell (UWB) is developing a smaller kind of autonomous vehicle. With the aim of providing a relatively inexpensive alternative to owning an autonomous car, the team is creating a self-driving trike that may even open up the possibility of an automated ride-sharing network, like a bike version of Uber's or NuTonomy's proposed services.

The team, headed up by Tyler Folsom, has been experimenting with fitting autonomous systems into tricycle frames and this work culminated in August with a test that saw a bright orange recumbent trike drive itself in a circle. That modest command, entered via remote control, demonstrated the vehicle's ability to stop, start and turn itself to reach a destination, but Folsom says it's just a "baby step" on the way to deeper autonomy.

"I'm trying to shift the talk about self-driving cars to self-driving bicycles and making sure bicycles are part of the automation equation," says Folsom.

The outcome of that equation, the team hopes, is to eventually produce autonomous vehicles that are much lighter and more environmentally friendly than self-driving cars. With a targeted price tag of around US$10,000, ideally they'd be cheap enough to replace the family car or current public transport options. To keep that price down, the team is trying to maximize the efficiency of the electronics driving the trikes.

"We're using things much less powerful than a smartphone," says Folsom. "Part of the concept is that you don't have to spend as much money as the big car companies are spending. My contention is you don't need all that much processing power to make autonomy happen."

Reducing the required computational power may be easier to achieve if human error is removed from the picture by setting up a better autonomous infrastructure, which is a goal Folsom has been vocal about for years with his Elcano Project. Along with dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles, he puts forward the idea of renewable energy-powered self-driving taxi systems, possibly with a fleet of velomobiles like Organic Transit's ELF, which could ferry people around cities without impacting too heavily on the environment.

"The big thing for me is the effect this could have on global warming," says Folsom. "If we can push transportation in this direction – very light vehicles – it's a major win for the environment. I want to have the technology that lets people make that choice if we decide, yes, by the way, survival would be a nice thing."

The project, which involves over 20 people, has received a $75,000 grant form Amazon Catalyst.

The team describes their work in the video below.

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