China’s Google plots bikes with no riders. What could possibly go wrong?

Bikes for New Year celebrations in Beijing. These ones require riders. Image: Getty.

You thought Google’s self-driving cars sounded dangerous? Well, imagine the same thing, but with bikes. Bikes that drive themselves around. Bikes that drive themselves around with no one riding them.  

Now imagine them cruising along the traffic-choked streets of Shanghai and Beijing, and ask: what could possibly go wrong?

All this is the vision of Baidu, China’s largest web services company and search engine, which last Thursday confirmed rumours that it’s been developing a riderless “smartbike” for China. Like Google, the firm is sitting on huge amounts of geo location and map data, which it’ll use to create navigation systems. A spokesperson told the Chinese news website Sina that the bikes would also “use intelligent sensors and big data analysis to know the owner’s requirements and health index”. They’ll also, one hopes, be able to spot obstacles and avoid them.

Baidu’s take on the unmanned transport trend seems canny, as bikes are a huge market in China – the Earth Policy institute reported in 2010 that there were 430 million cyclists in the country. Electronic bikes (or “e-bikes”), which travel up to 30 miles per hour, have also seen a surge in popularity in the past 10 years, with 200 million sold in the country by 2013. That’s good news for Baidu: people are keen to travel on two wheels, but not so keen to actually pedal.

The bikes could also make life easier for China’s plethora of cycle courier services, by allowing them to carry packages to destinations without a rider – essentially like a grounded version of Amazon’s delivery drones.

When all this will come to fruition is not exactly clear: the spokesperson said the plans were “long-term” and wouldn’t confirm when the bikes would be on sale.  

It’s not the first time Baidu has followed in Google’s footsteps when it comes new technology. Since mid-2013, they’re been working on prototypes for the Baidu Eye, a headset with a screen with face recognition and image search which responds to voice commands, and which bears no resemblance whatsoever to Google Glass:

 

Oh.

Image: Baidu.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.