Bike-sharing, something akin to a bike rental automat, is growing rapidly. The combination of low-maintenance bikes, smartphones, and the Internet has provided the catalyst for bike-sharing systems that transform transportation into an invitation to save time, improve health, and clean up the air. In the U.S., for example, bike-sharing riders took over 28 million trips in 2016, a 25 percent increase over the previous year, eliminating the hassle of buying, storing, and maintaining a bike.
Traditional bike-sharing systems feature long rows of bikes parked in a fixed docking station that’s both bike lock and registration system. One disadvantage of this arrangement is the inconvenience of locating the fixed docking station at both the start and end of journeys; if the docks are far from the desired destination, the novelty of pedaling can wear thin for a rider who knows the last kilometer will have to be completed on foot.
Sometimes the docking station closest to the destination is full and users are forced to find another even further from where they want to be. Worse yet, with many docking systems, it can be difficult to tell if the returned bike has been accepted, as the lock, mounted inside the
docking station, is not always visible.
Smart bikes go dockless
A new type of system is disrupting bike-sharing by overcoming the drawbacks of the fixed dock: the ‘dockless’ smart bike. It’s a system pioneered by companies such as Mobike, one of the world’s largest bike-sharing companies which operates shared bike systems in over 100 cities throughout China, Singapore, Japan, and the U.K. Dockless bikes are smart bikes. Mobike has combined a smartphone app with GPS, QR code scanning, and Bluetooth Low Energy to eliminate the fixed docking station, allowing users to (hopefully) locate a bike near them and deposit it at their destination (with a few restrictions such as ensuring the bike is outside and is not an obstruction to others).
The key to Mobike’s dockless system is a smart lock, permanently fixed to the bike and incorporating Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF51822 Bluetooth Low Energy System-on-Chip (SoC). The SoC powers a wireless link between smartphone and lock, which when combined with GPS and QR code scanning enables people to locate, pay for, and unlock a Mobike machine with unprecedented convenience. At the end of a ride, users park the bike in any suitable location close to their destination. To secure the bike, the user slides a mechanical switch which causes the lock to engage around the rear wheel. This also triggers the Mobike smartphone app to log the ride as complete and publicize the bike’s location to the next user. Users know how long they have had the bike out, distance travelled, and the fee charged.
Consumers who prefer their own bike can still make it smart with wireless locks. For example, with Noke’s Bluetooth padlock — which is also powered by an nRF51822 SoC—users can open the lock without even removing their smartphone from a pocket or bag. Similarly, Lattis’ Ellipse Nordic-powered smart bike lock offers keyless entry, theft alert, and even
a solar panel that charges the lock’s battery. The Ellipse smartphone app can also send a secure code and the location of the lock to friends, so they can use the bike too.
Communities are encouraging bike-sharing to make the activity a growing part of their city’s culture. Initiatives include promoting bike-sharing services for low-income users by subsidizing passes - easing access to far-flung grocery stores (with healthier food) and encouraging exercise. These activities, and others, are expected to expand the growth of the bike-sharing sector by as much as 30 percent in the U.S. alone in 2017.
New technologies have spawned unexpected shifts in how people live and work. And it doesn’t have to be expensive and complicated technology. By making it easy to access something as simple and elegant as a bike, Mobike, Noke, Lattis, and others are improving others’ lives in a meaningful way.