The challenge of moving people and things around the world’s dense, growing major cities is bad and getting worse. Ninety percent of the world’s population growth in this century will be in “megacities,” and cities will soon account for 80 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Much of that will come from idling cars stuck in miles-long traffic jams.
Ryan Chin, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, specializes in dreaming up solutions to urban transportation problems. His latest invention, unveiled at the EmTech conference earlier this week in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tries to marry the three dominant trends in urban automobiles: autonomy, vehicle sharing, and electrification.
But it’s not a car; it’s a three-wheeled EV that Chin has dubbed the “persuasive electric vehicle,” or PEV.
With a carbon fiber exterior shield, a foldable canopy, and a 250-watt assist motor, the autonomous tricycle is “persuasive” in that it’s designed to “encourage positive modal shifts in mobility behavior in cities.” It has a top speed of 12 miles per hour and operates in bicycle lanes. It can be adapted for a human rider or for package transport, and it has the sensors and intelligence to operate autonomously. As opposed to most shared bike systems, the PEV would “redistribute itself,” as Chin puts it—traveling autonomously from the drop-off point of one passenger to its next user’s location, thus solving the problem of shortages and oversupply of bikes at different times in different locations. And it could become a pervasive mode for urban package delivery, moving easily through crowded streets and reducing congestion and carbon emissions from gas-powered delivery vehicles.
That sounds good, but Chin concedes that major thoroughfares in many big cities, particularly in Asia, lack bike lanes in which the PEV could travel. Pedaling a tricycle, even a motor-assisted one, is not likely to be the next trend in a hilly, humid city like Hong Kong—or in a windy, chilly one like Beijing in winter. And who would answer for an e-trike totaled by a heedless New York cabbie? Low-powered autonomous vehicles will likely be a part of the urban fabric of the future—but it will take a while.