Industry Voices—Gold: How the IoT helps solve city transportation challenges

Mobike manages more than 7 million bikes in 160 cities. (Mobike)

Urban transportation needs are becoming increasingly complex. Cities around the world are becoming more and more congested. It’s not only an issue of pollution and lack of parking that are having negative effects. People stuck in traffic are essentially nonproductive contributors to the economy for the entire time they are there.

And it’s not just about commuting long distances to work. Many trips are only a couple of miles. Clearly more options than just cars for personal transportation are needed.

Many “smart city” efforts are focused on automotive unclogging as well as meeting stringent antipollution goals such as those implemented in California and other densely populated areas. But there is a benefit to working with other nonautomotive modes of transport as well, particularly in parts of the world where bicycles are a large component of the transportation infrastructure. And in those locations, bicycle sharing is becoming an increasingly popular and increasingly important method of transportation, not only for commuting to work, but also for occasional trips for shopping, leisure activities and appointments, and even tourism needs.

What’s been missing has been a convenient way to find, schedule and utilize bicycle transportation, similar to the ride-sharing model that Uber or Lyft use. Recently, Mobike entered the American market after having successfully launched their bike-sharing service in many cities, particularly in its home market of China. It currently manages more than 7 million bikes in 160 cities across the globe.

Connectivity and analytics are keys

With so many units deployed, with many short-duration uses, and with a relatively low rental cost per unit, it was imperative that Mobike create a method to economically manage its inventory. It had to develop a platform to lock, unlock and track the location of the bikes, wirelessly connect back to a central management facility, maintain a long duration battery capability between charges, and find a platform that could be used in different geographies.

Mobike did not want to have to create a unique connectivity platform for each market it enters, so it chose to use a global multimode connectivity platform that supports Cat M1 LTE IoT and Cat-NB1 LTE IoT for its “smart locks.” This enables universal access across the LTE network spectrum of most of the countries in which it operates.

Much like the smartphone model, this allows them to scale manufacturing far better than having to utilize different technologies and platforms for each region, and therefore makes their inventory interchangeable.

In the U.S. market, Mobike utilizes AT&T’s 4G LTE CAT-M1 IoT-centric network connectivity combined with Qualcomm Technologies’ LTE IoT modems with integrated GNSS position location capability that provides location information across many different systems worldwide, and an ability to offer deep coverage in hard-to-reach areas such parking garages. The modems also allow fallback to older generation technology to enable operation in regions where LTE IoT hasn’t yet been deployed.

This combination provides robust connectivity and keeps power requirements low and cost of connectivity reasonable. Mobike built a smartphone app that lets users easily locate, unlock, and securely pay for the nearest Mobike to their location. At the end of their ride, users are able to return the bike to a designated “Mobike Preferred Location” or any regular bike parking area. It also assists Mobike with real-time management and analytics information.

Maximizing inventory and convenience

Since the entire fleet is GPS-enabled, Mobike can get bikes to the locations where they are needed most, maximizing Mobike’s inventory and users’ convenience—both of which are critical components for success. But it’s not just about connectivity—it’s also about intelligence powered by analytics.

The wireless connection lets Mobike capture detailed continuous usage data from every bike, which is needed for this dynamic management. During high demand, Mobike can even offer app users incentives to move bikes from more remote locations to more populous areas of the city, much like we see in ride sharing and car/truck rental operations.

The operational analysis of the information provided by the continuous onboard monitoring has multiple benefits. Not only does it help Mobike operate more efficiently by providing bikes at locations where traffic is highest, but the data can be used by city planners to create better strategies for smart urban transportation infrastructure. This last point, together with similar data from other service providers, should be a requirement for any operations within a municipality. There is an opportunity for smart cities to develop and achieve longer-term goals once they’re ready and equipped to aggregate all the data to achieve the necessary business intelligence.

Here’s the bottom line: LTE IoT technologies can support massive IoT use cases and offer efficient solutions for connecting applications and services like smart bike sharing. Even though some have explored use of older technologies, like 2G/3G networks, I believe that LTE IoT has both superior connectivity quality and cost footprint advantage, and a long-term viability that is unable to be matched by older network technology.

Going forward, smart cities need to rely heavily on all of the IoT capabilities available to understand and implement a mixed-use transportation strategy that will be imperative to keeping people moving in increasingly congested metropolitan areas and keeping the air breathable for its citizens. To this end, any transportation options deployed must include the ability to monitor and control in real time, be cost- and power-efficient, and provide input to the needs for analysis and dynamic management of changing patterns and requirements.

Clearly, companies like Mobike are in business to make a profit, but with their automated systems and capabilities, they can provide our smart cities efforts with far more than just another transportation option.

Jack Gold is the founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, LLC., an analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass. With more than 45 years of experience in the computer and electronics industries, and 25 years as a tech industry analyst, he covers the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. Follow him on Twitter @jckgld or on LinkedIn.