How Smart Bikes can Improve Bike Sharing
Does your bicycle talk to you? No? Although it has so much to tell …
It is surprising that almost none of the bike sharing companies offers any kind of on-bike-communication during the ride despite the fact that it could solve some of their main problems and improve user experience at once.
Reduce Reallocation / Rebalancing / Redistribution and Parking Policy Violations
One of the main cost drivers for bike sharing companies is the constant need to reallocate their bikes, i.e. bring them from low-demand or no-parking areas or locations outside of their area of operations back to their bike rental stations or bike sharing hubs.
In case the users take their bikes outside the area of operations, the retrieval costs can be significant. These costs can either be covered by the service provider or charged to the customer, which may lead to high customer care costs and customer churn. With on-bike communication, this problem could be reduced as often the user does not even know about the area of operations or no-parking zones. It happened to me several times that I got informed about me violating a bike sharer’s parking policies hours or even days after I parked the bike – usually combined with a hefty penalty. A pretty stupid and solid way to lose a customer. If customers would know in real time when they leave the area of operation or park the bikes in a no-parking zone, they could avoid this problem to happen and safe costs on both sides. With geo-fencing this information is available at most bikes and could be shared with the user at any time.
Even re-allocation within the area of operations could be more efficient when “crowd-sourced” to the bike sharing community. In case the user would know where bikes should be moved to and they could be motivated to get them to these locations via incentives, such as free rides. The same concept can be applied for charging batteries of electric bikes and pedelecs. The electric scooter and bike sharing company Lime and the car sharing service DriveNow successfully uses a similar crowdsourcing approach to get their electric scooters, eBikes and electric cars charged by their driver community.
In chats some bike sharing operations managers shared with me that a large portion of their customer support contact volume comes from inquiries related to the customer’s invoices. A lack of cost transparency seems to be one of the root causes. To address this root cause bikes could “tell” their users about what costs to expect and the current fare. Especially in case the user parks the bike outside of an allowed area, the bike should give clear advise about the expected penalties and how to avoid them. This could lead to the intended behavior. Also information on pausing a ride (which only a few service providers offer) and confirming a proper return could reduce friction.
Improve Bike Rider’s User Experience
Even some of the bike sharing services provide at least some textual or audible communication when unlocking or locking a bike, none of the services I know offers any kind of information during the ride. For commuters and city dwellers who ride the same route every day, this might not be beneficial but for tourists or users who take a new route a simple navigation system guiding the user safely through the city would be a good value add. The navigation system could also recommend optimal parking areas close to the destination and so reduce allocation costs and increase bike utilization. Setting the destination would require a sophisticated user interface – or a connection to the user’s app. Location-based services (LBS) such as information on points of interest (POI) or sightseeing hints could also add value especially for tourists. Information on speed and distance traveled might also be of interest.
Bike Protection and Maintenance Support
Bike theft and vandalism already caused several bike sharing operators to retreat from certain areas or even go bankrupt. If bikes could sense defects or getting pushed over, they could set off an alert and so eventually reduce damages and increase bike safety at once.
On-Bike Communication User Interfaces
A lot of good reasons to let the bike talk to the rider. But how could this be done in a safe and easy to understand way? Here are some ideas currently being discussed:
Many smart locks on shared bikes already use beeps to indicate proper opening or locking of bikes. Some bikes even give a variety of signals, such as Mobikes, which use different audio signals when parking a bike. Their only problem: the more sophisticated signals are pretty useless as long as Mobike does not explain their meaning. Spoken language could give more detailed information across but would require the user to set their language.
Also noise might become a problem when audio signals of thousands of shared bikes are not just used for locking and unlocking these bikes but also to provide information during the ride. To be heard in traffic, audio signals need to be pretty loud. So loudspeakers on the bike might not be an option for communication during the ride – but a headphone might be. This could be either performed via the bike sharer’s app on the user’s smart phone in combination with a regular head set – or by directly connecting the bike to a Bluetooth headset. In case headphones are used, compliance with safety regulations will become a topic to be considered.
In car navigation systems the combination of audible and visual guidance is common practice. So why not using the same for bicycles? For audio interfaces this was discussed above. For screens the main reason might be the visual axis. When using the user’s smart phone or an on-board screen on a bike’s handle bar, you would need to look further down to a probably smaller screen on a shaky handle bar. This would likely distract from traffic and cause a safety issue. So screens might not be an option. Even augmented reality solutions in glasses or within bike helmet visors might be technical feasible, they might simply not work in rental schemes for cost, theft and vandalism reasons. This might limit the options during the ride to visual cues which can be spotted in peripheral vision, such as turn indicator lights at the end of the bike’s handle bars.
When the bike is parked, detailed text information can either be provided via on board displays, such as in use with Call-a-Bike or Nextbike, or via the bike sharing provider’s app.
Tactile or Haptic Touch Interface
Both visual and audible interfaces may distract the user from traffic or may get overseen or overheard. A less obtrusive and probably safer interface during the ride may be of tactile or haptic nature, such as the Ziklo wrist band interface or vibrating bike handle bars. The downside if these tactile user interfaces is their very limited depth of information and the need to explain their meaning.
APIs – Machine Interfaces
This kind of interface is needed when the bike should communicate with the user’s app or Bluetooth headset – or with the MaaS services to offer shared bikes as a part of a intermodal or multimodal mobility service offer – or to communicate to the fleet operator for bike protection or maintenance reasons.
What Data to Share?
The bike user may need different information depending on the use case:
Bike rental information
- Fares, rental plans
- Current amount due for the actual ride
- Start, pause, re-start and end of ride
- Over-night or extra charges for parking the bike outside of allowed parking zones
- Incentives for bringing back the bike into the area of operation if it is located outside of it
Navigation, location-based services (LBS)
- Set/select/modify/delete/store destination
- Start/pause/stop navigation
- Sync with smartphone or routes from external sources
- Points of Interest (PoI) – to be set as destinations or alerts when passing by
- Next available charging points or bike maintenance workshops
- Parking support – where to find the next bike station or allowed parking area
- Statistics, e.g. ride time, distance traveled, average and maximum speed, distance, calories burned, …
- Remaining power supply left for eBikes and Pedelects
- Bike theft, vandalism or tilting alerts
- Damage reports – also option to enter damage reports by the user
Bike user communication has the potential to significantly improve bike sharing services but is barely in use yet. And the bike sharing industry has not even started to explore this area yet and a lot of test and iterate loops will hopefully support a steep learning curve. A combination of a tactile interface for direction giving and spoken or written information when parking a bike might work best. But let’s see …
Marking this territory might give first movers a competitive advantage. So watch this space! There is a lot to come soon.