#1: When the bone comes to the dog
Going shopping without a car or bicycle requires a lot of discipline. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for more to end up in the shopping basket than the arms can carry. Conjuring up a vehicle for these moments - that would be it! Jun. Prof. Stephan Schmidt and his team can't do magic - but they are researching autonomous vehicles. For example, they are developing a cargo bike that can be summoned to your location via an app and then sent back to a depot. In the first episode, Jun. Prof. Stephan Schmidt talked about how this will work, when it will be ready and what challenges still need to be overcome.
The first guest in front of our microphone in the glass studio of Uniradio GuerickeFM is Jun.-Prof. Stephan Schmidt. At the Institute for Mobile Systems of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, he researches electric cars, electric bicycles and autonomous driving. In the courses of mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, integrated design engineering, mechatronics and electromobility, Jun. Prof. Schmidt and his colleagues educate students across disciplines.
*the audio file is only available in German
The Podcast to Read
Intro voice: "Wissen, wann du wilst." The podcast about research at the University of Magdeburg.
Ina Götze: After all, the saying goes "Do good and talk about it!". And that's exactly what we want to achieve with our new podcast series. At the university, research is being done in many different areas - artificial intelligence, electromobility, medical technology, just to name a few. These are all areas that are incredibly important for our future, and we already write a lot about them. But we'd like to talk about it now, too. So welcome to the first episode of "Know when you want". My name is Ina Götze. I work as a web editor in the media, communications and marketing department here at the university, and I'd like to welcome our first guest today: Junior Professor Schmidt from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. A warm welcome to you all!
Jun.-Prof. Stephan Schmidt: Thank you very much! I am happy to be here!
Götze: Together with your team, you are developing an autonomous e-bike that can be summoned to wherever you are via an app. It then arrives by itself, as it were, by magic. In principle, it's a bicycle with three wheels. It has a large basket where the luggage rack would normally be - we'll find out what that's for in a moment. The project is called "AuRa" - meaning "autonomous bike. It all sounds very futuristic at first, but it's supposed to be ready by 2021. My first question is: Why do we need an autonomous cargo bike in Magdeburg?
Schmidt: What you have described is ultimately bike sharing, yes, such automated provision of vehicles. Whenever I have a need for mobility, I want a bike to come to me. And bike sharing - as you can see quite clearly - works very well in very, very large cities; in Berlin, in Hamburg, in Munich. Whenever I can throw a lot of bikes into the city and have a whole series of users who then use them and distribute them automatically or autonomously, so to speak, in the process. Then it works. In medium-sized cities, in small towns - let's take Magdeburg as an example - it doesn't work as well. Perhaps, I don't have the mass of users here, and I can't ultimately bring the mass of bicycles into the system. That means I have stations here. And stations are always clearly associated with time and effort. I have to reserve an area for them, and I always have to make sure that my users bring their bikes back to the station. Nevertheless, we ultimately believe that bike sharing can also be an alternative for such medium-sized cities. And we want to break down the restrictions that station-based bike sharing entails - that I always have to go to a station to borrow one and always have to go back to return one. In other words, it's not the person who comes to the station, but the bike that comes from the station to the person.
Götze: For me personally, of course, that would be very, very nice - I know that for me, when I go shopping, that I always buy more than what is on my list. So, small treats always get in somehow. And then you stand there - especially when you're on foot - and your hands are full and you think to yourself "Damn! Now I have to get this home somehow." That's where it would come in handy, of course, if I could call a cargo bike like that. But how does the cargo bike know where I am and how does it get there? How does it navigate through the traffic?
Schmidt: Exactly what you described is one of our example use cases. I'm standing at the shopping mall, carrying a whole bunch of heavy, unwieldy groceries. And now, I want to find the connection to public transportation, for example to the streetcar. Yes, but the streetcar is quite far away, walking is not an alternative, I don't have my own car - because I don't want to use it, because I can't afford it, at least it's not there. And that is why we want to provide this service. The idea now is that you use your smartphone app to tell us where you are and communicate your mobility needs, so you say "I've now bought two crates of beer and lots of sweets, and I've got two small children with me, I'd like to take them too." And the bike has to be configured accordingly.
And then, we check in our system "Do we have a bike like that ready for you?" and then we would check "Yes, we have one and we can be at your location in five to ten minutes. Would you like to book us?". And then you would say "Yes", you would like to book us and then the vehicle would eventually make its own way to you. In other words, it would use the public bike lanes, as far as they are available; it would have its own sensor technology on board, which it could then use to locate itself, i.e. "Where am I now on the bike lane. Where are other pedestrians. Where are other cyclists?"; has a certain intelligence on board, which then also ensures that it can avoid these other objects and then arrive safely at your location. Then at some point, the vehicle will arrive, then you log on - maybe there's a little QR code on the bike that you have to scan, then you have to activate something via the smartphone app - that's still in flux, we're not quite sure yet what that might look like in concrete terms.
But in any case, you log on to the bike and then put it into manual mode. Manual operation now means that you steer it yourself, you drive it independently and ride it to your destination, i.e. to the streetcar stop. At the streetcar stop, you don't have to worry about the bike somehow getting back to the depot; you simply release the vehicle, it drives itself back to the depot, and you get on the streetcar and ride it to the final stop. And if you take this whole idea even further, there will be a second cargo bike waiting for you at the final stop, which you can then take over again and ride from there to your front door, and then we have basically completed the last mile, both on the way to the public transport system and from the public transport system to your front door.
Götze: Crazy. I'm imagining it right now. So, I can actually configure the cargo bike so that I can take my dog, cat, mouse, and child with me in addition to my sweets?
Schmidt: Yes, the transport of small goods is certainly something that could be interesting. But I think the transport of children in particular is also interesting. We have now developed a platform that is based on a standard load wheel and is so modular that it ultimately allows these different configurations.
Götze: And is there a lack of bike paths for this in Magdeburg from your point of view?
Schmidt: In the inner city area, I would almost say that we can do relatively well and perhaps achieve relatively good coverage in the end. As far as the outskirts are concerned; things don’t look so good. According to the cycle path ordinance - and now I have partial knowledge here - cycle paths must be at least 80 centimeters wide. That should be sufficient to move such a cargo bike. If then the two should meet, then we have a problem. Let me tell you what we want to do in our project: We want to show, as a prototype that something like this is possible in principle, that these bicycles can be sent from A to B, and we also want to explore what is needed for this. Developing a business model from this is then, a question for the future. And then, also to say that this is what we actually want to do in our project, to say: How will the infrastructure have to be adapted in the future to make something like this possible? Yes. Because in the future, it might not just be automated cargo bikes that are out and about somewhere, but small parcel robots, all kinds of micromobiles that you can imagine for specialized applications.
Götze: Very, very interesting in any case. Did you come up with the idea yourself when you came out of the supermarket with the shopping bags? Or how did the project come about?
Schmidt: There is a story behind that. We've been doing this for - yes - almost three years now, together with IT. At that time, we started with our colleague Mr. Zug. And actually, we both had a bit of a background in mobility research, in the area of passenger cars. And whenever you want to work on autonomous cars, there's always a huge amount of time and effort involved, in terms of the vehicle, the infrastructure in the vehicle, and you have to spend a lot of resources to keep a test vehicle ready to drive. So, we sat down together and said: The ideas that we have developed must also be possible to implement on a reduced platform. And then, we came up with the idea of simply taking a bicycle and perhaps not having to worry about the complicated aspects of a passenger car, but of course being able to reflect the knowledge gained there back into the passenger car sector. And that's how the idea came about: okay, we're going to build a bicycle, an autonomous bicycle. But the longer you think about it, and the more you think about it, and also talk to logistics experts, the more you realize that there is a need for mobility, for small vehicles, and that at the same time, there are also a whole series of access barriers for these small vehicles in inner cities - the question of provision in concrete terms. And then you realize that it's a very good idea to send autonomous bicycles through the city as an end in itself.
Götze: You mentioned that there are two different modes, i.e. the bike drives itself or I pedal. I'll ask for the the ones who want to be more comfortable among us: If I sit on the bike, can I also let myself be driven?
Schmidt: Of course, this is always a desired application scenario in the preliminary discussions that we have held and where we have said that we will include external opinions from students, for example. Yes.
Götze: I can understand that.
Schmidt: So I come out of Hasselbachplatz somewhere at two o'clock in the morning, I can no longer drive myself, and now I want to be driven home somehow by an autonomous bicycle. Unfortunately, we have to say that there are legal reasons against doing that. Yes. Another thing is actually more for feasibility reasons. If we say that we separate the two modes, in which the bicycle drives completely autonomously, from the mode in which the human being has the responsibility, then we can - theoretically - drive as slowly as we like in this stand-by mode; we can therefore be very, very safety-conscious and take account of pedestrians and cyclists. The only thing we have to guarantee is that, we will be at your location in five to ten minutes. So what we promised, we have to keep. But whether we have stopped three times in between to make room for the pedestrian, that may not be of interest, yes. But, if you have a person with you and you want to transport them, then they will get restless if you drive very, very slowly and with extreme precaution, yes. And I believe that this very, very safety-conscious driving will be necessary at the beginning in order to first achieve a certain safety level and then also to have a chance to somehow maybe get into the approvability of such a system, I think.
Götze: So after the Hasselabend, then rather take a cab?
Götze: Yes. You have already said the word "liability" and explained the sensor technology itself; how it navigates. But, what happens if a child jumps in front of the bike and no one is sitting on it and can avoid it, but the bike is moving on its own? Who then, assumes the liability?
Schmidt: So first of all, of course, we hope that this doesn't happen, yes. From our point of view, everything must be done to ensure that such cases are somehow intercepted with redundant sensor technology. We don't just use one camera, we use several cameras. We also use a laser scanner, we also have a redundant safety system that is completely independent of this and can then make an emergency stop on its own. And you also have to say that the collision potential or the kinetic energy that a bicycle carries is significantly lower than that of a car. So, I see the risk of injury as being significantly lower, yes. Nevertheless, it could happen. We don't want that to happen! But it could happen, of course. So. What happens then? You might have to take a look at the passenger car sector: In Germany, there is a kind of liability insurance, i.e., owner's liability. The person who brings a dangerous object into circulation must take out liability insurance, yes. And, this liability insurance is then liable for all damages that happen with it. And it will be the same with the bicycle. We are in contact with the ÖSA insurance here in Saxony-Anhalt and they are interested in insuring our vehicle. So there will be an insurance for the vehicle.
Götze: Ah ok.
Schmidt: But still, I hope, we don't run anyone over.
Götze: Yes, we hope not! Something we don't want to read in the headlines! (laughs) Now that you have basically explained how the bicycle reacts to its environment, to traffic. How does the environment react to the bicycle? So are there studies on how passers-by perceive the bicycle and how they find it?
Schmidt: Uh-huh. That's a very intriguing question. We already have a test vehicle that is not yet autonomous, but on which we are trying out all these sensors, including the drive, the steering, and the brakes; which can be controlled remotely. So, you can at least use it to simulate autonomous operation. You can then expose people to the vehicle and ask them, "How did you feel just now?" We have already done this on many different occasions, we are also on the road a bit for student recruitment, and the reaction of people are - yes - very, very positive to the vehicle. But, we also have to say that they overestimate by far the capabilities of this vehicle. So, there are a lot of people who simply jump in front of the device and hope that it will avoid them or ultimately perform an emergency stop, regardless of whether any sensors are installed in the vehicle. So there is a very, very high degree of basic trust, I would say. On the other hand, there will certainly be many, many people who are skeptical about the system. And both are bad. The euphoric ones who jump in front of the vehicles are endangering themselves. And those who are fearful, we actually want to take them along somehow. And that's why, a major focus of our project is to create an appeal so that they are open to such vehicles: How must it move; how must it be designed; how must it interact with other people in order to meet with the greatest possible acceptance? And, that's what our colleagues in environmental psychology are doing.
These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves: What information is the vehicle actually communicating now? Imagine that the vehicle is now standing somewhere at a crosswalk, for example, and you are now a car driver - seen from this perspective - how do I actually know that the vehicle wants to drive off right now, that it wants to cross the crosswalk right away? How do I even know that it is, in principle, an autonomous bicycle that can move in some way? These are very, very exciting questions. How do I actually communicate that? From person to person, I make eye contact and look him in the eye, and then we come to some kind of agreement; you swerve to the right, I swerve to the left. But, we're kind of missing that here. But, maybe that's also a chance to say that you can implement this communication somehow in a different way, maybe with less conflict. Because this human-to-human communication on bike paths is sometimes not so easy, especially in Magdeburg, I sometimes have the feeling.
Götze: Yes, I know the feeling, when someone comes towards me and drives on the wrong side, High-Noon-style. You drive towards each other and you ask yourself: Who is swerving now? And with people, that still leads to laughter from time to time, the bike won't do that.
Schmidt: But not only. I regularly ride to Biederitz on the north bridges, where there is a bike path that is open for both directions and I am bumped into at least three times a year because I am supposedly riding on the wrong side.
Götze: Oha! Maybe that would be an option, too, maybe you can make the bike which can also bump against the other bikes.
Schmidt: Maybe, yes.
Götze: Are there any other technical hurdles you need to overcome before then?
Schmidt: So there are many, many of them. People think that autonomous driving is actually finished. Tesla has been doing it for quite a while. Then, there's Google and Uber, all of which have these large test vehicles, and we're actually just waiting for the last initial ignition and then we'll all be driving autonomously. I don't think that's the case yet. There is a great deal to be done in many, many areas. It starts with sensor technology, it starts with situation interpretation, it starts with planning which route I'm going to take exactly. Then there are the interactions, man to man and man to machine, where there are questions. Then there is the whole logistical concept behind it, so to speak, the individual bicycle, which is all well and good, but that will not save mobility in Magdeburg. A fleet of bicycles, a coordinated fleet of bicycles, then maybe it will. You can at least make a contribution. So I think there are many, many questions on many, many levels that we may not be able to answer conclusively, but where I hope we can take a very, very big step.
Götze: I can also imagine that if all cars were autonomous at once, it would probably be easier because they could talk and communicate with each other. Are there any ideas - assuming that the time has now come and the project can get underway - about where the bicycle should travel in Magdeburg? How much should it cost to rent such a bicycle? And are there perhaps other usage scenarios?
Schmidt: So first of all, in our project we want to be able to realize a prototypical operation on the campus of the university. The great hope is that, at some point, the rector will be able to call one of these bicycles to the rector's office so that he can ride it to the cafeteria and then return it to our depot. That is a perspective until 2022, perhaps. Beyond that, you have to ask yourself, where does it make sense? What are the application scenarios that make sense? The inner city area would immediately come to mind. We talked about a preliminary project with partners from the local public transport companies, and to NASA and they say: "Yes, that's a good idea! But in inner cities, we have very good coverage with public transport. There are buses and streetcars every ten minutes, so it may not be necessary to have such an additional means of transport. But, especially in suburban areas, where the final stop of the streetcar is, where the final stop of the bus is. That's where you can establish a business model."
Then there is the question of transporting goods, which we addressed at the very beginning. So, if I say I have an autonomous bicycle that autonomously delivers pizzas to me, maybe something like that--the question of how the pizza gets from the front door downstairs to the fifth floor has to be asked again. How do I make sure that the pizza arrives in one piece and isn't eaten on the way by someone who jumps onto the bike? These are all very, very challenging questions that are necessary in order to really develop a business model. And, I believe there is a great deal of potential. The question of where exactly and how exactly, that's where we're trying to take the first step now. First of all, it is technically feasible. The boundary conditions have to be set for the infrastructure, and then ultimately comes the next step.
And the question of how much it costs, I can not answer. A bike like this is very, very expensive. All the sensor technology that we have to install - there are several individual pieces at the moment - there's a lot going on in the automotive sector, too. But the bike itself will somehow be in the five-figure range. But it's not intended that I buy an autonomous bicycle privately - that would be nonsense. It's a rental system and I pay rent for it, and NASA once suggested that it could be included in the transportation system and that it would ultimately be linked to a one-way ticket. If I now have a monthly ticket from the MVB, I could use the bicycle without additional costs, for example. That might be feasible.
Götze: As soon as you test on campus: We have determined the day as a team, we would need team bikes, because we have found that we often have appointments in the G40 - on foot it is actually relatively far, with the car again not useful, especially since the university square is rather a test of patience. Our photographer and our video team always have to transport something. We are happy to make ourselves available. But, we would also like to see the rector. (laughs)
Götze: That is what you have addressed: Now the University of Magdeburg is not a factory site, but the problem of employee mobility on large factory sites is exactly what you mentioned. At Volkswagen, for example, on the company grounds in Wolfsburg, there are rental bikes that you can borrow. They have more or less the same problems as the bikesharing concepts in the city center. The bikes are never where they are needed, and there are two employees who spend the whole day driving around in a van collecting the bikes and then distributing them to the rental stations. And especially on such factory sites, you could also say that you are now installing such a system with autonomous cargo bikes, which are then provided to facilitate employee mobility. And then we are, I would say, not completely exempt from the rules of the road, the Road Traffic Act, but at least much freer to ultimately bring something like this into operation without the legislator having to ultimately allow it by adapting the Road Traffic Act. This would allow us to gain experience in such areas. And that's what we want to do, because we also have a parallel project dedicated to these issues.
Götze: And VW could be faster than Tesla for once.
Schmidt: (laughs) Yes.
Götze: We are already at the last question and are now even more futuristic than before: We are in the year 2030 - how do you think the autonomous cargo bike will look then?
Schmidt: I hope that there will be many, many autonomous cargo bikes in Magdeburg, in Saxony-Anhalt, and throughout Germany. I hope our ideas help our transport system, to make breakthroughs where they are needed. And I hope that we will see much, much more of this; that we will not only see bicycles, but that we will see a lot of these very small, specialized micromobiles that are tailored to an application, that are light, that are efficient. I hope that the combustion engine SUV will eventually become virtually extinct, yes. That we will no longer need this all-rounder, because we have many, many specialists who can do it much better, who can do it more cheaply, who can do it in a more environmentally friendly way, and where it is accessible for everyone.
Götze: These are good prospects! Thank you very much, Mr. Schmidt! We've reached the end of the first episode. Perhaps we'll see you again in 2030.
Schmidt: I hope so and that I can deliver on some of the promises I made.
Götze: Yes, we'll see, we'll see. Thank you all very much for listening too! If you have feedback, wishes, and ideas for our future Podcasts, suggestions are welcomed at . I’ll say goodbye for now and until next time!
Schmidt: Thank you!
Intro voice: "Wissen, wann du wilst." The podcast about research at the University of Magdeburg.