Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

An Internet Of Bicycles - Intel's Open Bike Initiative

Posted by Tom Foremski - May 19, 2014

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Members of the Intel Open Bike Initiative at a recent event at the Portland Art Museum.

By Intel Free Press

A volunteer team consisting of members of the Oregon Transportation and Education Consortium, the Westside Transportation Alliance, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Community Cycling Center, Intel employees and other volunteers is collectively spinning their cognitive wheels in hopes of developing the next generation of bike sharing.

The group is working to improve on previous bike sharing arrangements by reducing infrastructure costs, connecting riders via IoT devices, and removing traditional bicycle check-out “hub” requirements.

As it turns out, it’s also a little more complex and not yet ready for prime time, but that hasn’t dimmed the goal of advancing the bike sharing system functionality and ease of use.

Intel has an avid bicycling community at many of its campuses in Oregon, California and Arizona with an active online user group of over 450 members. Anything from bike part swaps to group rides, commuting recommendations, and rides supporting various non-profit organizations are discussed regularly within the groups.

Using funds from an Intel Sustainability in Action’s grant, the Open Bicycle Initiative (OBI) was formed in 2013 by a small group of Intel employees to evaluate ways to meld technology and bike sharing. The grant program started in 2009 and is designed to support employee initiatives such as this. Since its start, Intel has funded approximately 10 projects with an average of $13,000 awarded. Now, the initiative is expanding, with technology at the heart of a new generation of bike sharing.

A Primer on Bike Sharing

Community bike sharing has undergone a transformation over the years. With each iteration, efficiencies have grown.

  • Generation 1 – Using a traditional “grab and go” model, Google has over 1,100 bicycles that employees simply take and peddle of down the road. This first-generation model is fairly successful but bikes are frequently stolen or returned in a damaged state.
  • Generation 2 – The second generation of bike sharing models the airport luggage rack model where bicycles are “checked out” from a rack using some sort of payment or currency and then returned to a rack.
  • Generation 3 – Third-generation sharing involves a check-out kiosk that can be expensive, with averages of $25,000 for ten bicycles.
  • Generation 4 – Fourth-generation bike sharing represents a much more technologically advanced model. It is frequently kiosk-less, has either a smart lock or a smart dock, GPS integration and each bicycle can be tracked. This is the model that the Open Bicycle Initiative group targeted with their development work on OBI versions 1 and 2.

Engineering a New Bike Sharing Code

The first version of the Open Bicycle Initiative (OBI 1.0) was an SMS-based system consisting of 30 bicycles and 334 distinct employee riders who completed over 1100 rides, all located in Intel’s Hillsboro, Oregon, campuses not far from Portland, Oregon, which is known as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States. The company employs some 17,000 spread out at multiple campuses in Oregon so bike alternatives make sense. Under the initial program, riders registered for the program, then went to a rack that had a bike-sharing bicycle, and checked out the bicycle by texting the number of the bike to a central communication hub. Within 30 seconds, the rider received a text back with the combination to the bike lock.

During the initial pilot, 40 percent of riders said they used the bikes for exercise, 60 percent for lunch travel, 50 percent to visit another campus, 24 percent to visit off-campus appointments, and 29 percent to use for their “last mile” commute from various public transportation options, including bus and rail, to an Intel campus.

“Though designed to be a last mile option to get from the transit location to the office, the majority of the trips were intra-campus trips and trips off campus for lunch,” said Joel Morrissette, a staff technologist and one of the several co-founders of the Open Bike Initiative at Intel. “People are unpredictable and they kind of do what they do.”

Despite Washington County and the Intel campuses being bike-friendly, the only negative feedback from the OBI 1.0 riders turned out to be complaints about lack of bike infrastructure in the form of roads and bike trails around the Intel campus itself. Some employees also said Intel is still car-centric and could do more to support biking infrastructure.

The OBI group has also produced a detailed internal document outlining areas of improvement for bicycling around Intel’s Hillsboro campuses.

Bike Sharing Has Growing Worldwide Popularity but Not without Challenges

“The United States has seen nearly exponential growth of its systems over the last four years, and many cities in South America and Southeast Asia are poised to adopt bike sharing programs in the coming years,” says Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) and adjunct professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

An interactive Google Map created and managed by Russell Meddin depicting worldwide bike sharing programs representing 686 cities and 717,000 bicycles in 55 countries.

According to Russell Meddin who manages the popular Bike-sharing Blog, as of February 2014, there were bike sharing programs in 686 cities representing 717,000 bicycles in 55 countries with over 33,000 bike sharing stations. These numbers continue to grow and can be viewed on an interactive Google Map noting all of the worldwide implementations of third-generation bike sharing programs.

“The development of sustainable business models and creative funding mechanisms will be an important component of bike sharing’s next growth phase,” Shaheen says. “Corporate sponsorships will need to continue to help fund systems; non-profit organizations will need to provide operational services and advocacy, education, and outreach; and local governments will be needed for funding, outreach, and planning.”

Next Generation, Open Source, IoT Bike Sharing

OBI 2.0 is currently under development based on learning from the 1.0 initiative. The desire is to design and build a prototype “smart lock” device as the foundation for a generation 4 bike sharing system, and as an alternative to more costly generation 3 type of bike sharing systems.

Generation 3 bike sharing systems rely on expensive racks and kiosks as well as modified, customized bicycles.

The approximate cost per bike of the Intel-led, OBI 2.0 model (a generation 4 system) is targeted to be much lower than generation 3 programs according to Morrissette. The system is rack- and kiosk-less and uses commodity bicycles versus highly customized bicycles common to generation 3 systems. The flexibility of the system helps keep the costs low, and the technology deploys off-the-shelf electronics.

According to Morrissette, the OBI 2.0 system will employ an Internet of Things (IoT) stack:

  • Box – contains accelerometer, GPS and temperature sensors, and communicates with the main server and back to the bike.
  • Backend service – has an API, is a hosted service, and connects to any mobile device.
  • Frontend service – is a mobile application that allows users to reserve or check out a bicycle.

The volunteers working on OBI 2.0 are building over 30 hardware devices that include a GPS, cables that go around the bike frame – complete with an alarm that triggers if the bike cable is cut – and communications circuits to connect with the software that manages the bike sharing. The box that goes on the back of the bicycle uses inexpensive parts including a car door actuator, and the circuit boards are made in China.

OBI 2.0 is not a fully functioning system yet as the team has encountered challenges with the communications devices within the circuitry and is working on software and hardware modifications to correct, but the goal is to pilot the OBI 2.0 system with 10 bicycles at Intel and 20 other equipped bicycles at two other locations in Oregon.

“Our hope would be that the maker community would pick up on the design and improve upon it,” said Brad Biddle, an Intel lawyer who helped found the OBI group.

“Ultimately we would like to change the world in our own small way,” said Biddle. “Our hope is that an open source generation 4 bike sharing system will mean that there is a cheaper, better way to do bike sharing, which means there will be more bike sharing in the world and ultimately that will mean environmental and social benefits, while giving people better transportation options.”

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