Dr. Tyler Folsom with students in 2016. Photo by Marc Studer//UW Bothell

Dr. Tyler Folsom with students in 2016. Photo by Marc Studer//UW Bothell

UW Bothell students work toward creating autonomous bicycles

Professor, students make self-driving bikes part of autonomy equation.

There’s talk of self-driving cars coming to the roads — and now self-driving bicycles. Well, almost, at least.

It all goes back to 2004.

Dr. Tyler Folsom was a professor at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond at the time. He was invited to participate in the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge. It was a prize competition for American autonomous vehicles. The winner would create a self-driving vehicle that could navigate a 142-mile course that ran across the desert from Barstow, California to Primm, Nevada. None of the teams made it past eight miles.

Since then, Folsom has been working to expand self-driving technology to bicycles by equipping recumbent tricycles with computer systems and electronics.

And he’s not doing it alone.

Now a professor at the University of Washington Bothell, Folsom has worked with upwards of 50 students over the past few years to develop an autonomous bicycle. Each class expands and improves on what the previous team developed in their capstone project.

Their goal is to not only develop the next self-driving vehicle but to make it light weight, safe and affordable.

Folsom said full automation will be the future but believes it will be a few years until it can be truly implemented.

“We already have the technology for self-driving vehicles, the real question is, ‘when is the right time to deploy it?’” Folsom said.

While the technology exists, self-driving cars will take time to hit the road but self-driving bicycles may be implemented sooner.

“I want to shift the focus from self-driving cars to self-driving bicycles and make sure bicycles are part of the automation equation,” Folsom said.

Folsom said self-driving bikes could have multiple global effects. For one, producing bicycle models would cost far less than a self-driving car. He foresees autonomous bikes costing no more than $500-$1,000. A car battery alone can cost well over $100 and adds incredible weight to the vehicle.

“Having lighter and lighter vehicles can only be a major win for the environment,” he said. “Any fossil fuel reduction could benefit the environment.”

Autonomous vehicles, car or bicycle, will prove to be far safer than non-autonomous vehicles. Folsom said when humans are removed from having full control over a vehicle, “a bicycle can be just as safe as a SUV.” When everything is under full automation, vehicles will be able to communicate to one another. Not only will traffic cease to exist, but accident rates will be a fraction of what they are now.

Folsom said seeing students work to develop an autonomous bicycle brings him joy. He likes being able to see the creativity and imagination of his students culminate to create something that can benefit the world. He hopes students will continue to work toward creating autonomous bicycles.

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