Photo credit: Maggie Church

The hackable bike and the future of the MamaChari

Like all technology, global patterns of mobility vary greatly and are often influenced by legislation, market forces, and cultural expectations. The technology surrounding mobility is changing rapidly across the globe, such as the explosion of shared bike systems and dockless shared bikes being used throughout Asia now coming to the United States, at times even contributing to social concerns like “bike pollution.” In addition, Japan is known for dense public transportation with a complex subway network and the safe and punctual Shinkansen trains, which remarkably have had no injuries in the past 50 years, and operate with an average delay of only 50 seconds per 200,000 trips. This evolution of public transportation can be explained with social context: companies cover the commuting expense, thus reducing the incentive to live close to the city, thereby avoiding the congestion. Even with these varied trends, we still see patterns of technology adapting to the local context, and it’s valuable to learn from one another as we build a more sustainable future.

To explore future mobility modes, the City Science group is working with Media Lab member company Panasonic to explore the use and potential adaptations of the popular MamaChari bikes. Like other mobility modes, the MamaChari bikes have developed and adapted over the past decades. Bikes for women first became popular during Japan’s economic boom in the 1980’s when many households had one income, and women were encouraged to stay home and take care of their children. Women used bikes to quickly navigate their cities and make frequent trips to shops and schools, kids in tow. Even as women gradually entered the workforce in the 90’s and 00’s, the stereotype of the Japanese biking woman remained. By 2008 electric-assist bikes were introduced to the market, and again they targeted women with children as the primary users. Today MamaChari bikes are stable, secure, and ubiquitous in Japan, but they have yet to enter other global markets.

Previous work in the City Science group includes the PEV (Persuasive Electronic Vehicle), a lightweight autonomous tricycle which can operate in bike lanes, and works well in solution for dense urban areas. The PEV, like an electric assist bike, acknowledges a future where urban areas will continue to increase in density. This rapid urbanization causes a need for new mobility modes which may not be totally dependent on cars. We can observe this demand In Japan, where in the dense metropolitan areas, 20% of the households with more than two people now own an e-assist bike, much higher than the country average of 3%.

Credit: Yasushi, Ariel with a MamaChari bike

Yasushi Sakai, a PhD candidate and the lead researcher for the Panasonic collaboration, hopes that he can not only understand the way the bikes work but also how they can be adapted and improved. Furthermore, he strives to see a future where people and technology coexist and influence and respond to one another. In this system, we will better understand the way our mobility modes are used which will also allow us to see what opportunities are missing. The team will study not only the bikes use and incorporation into a western context but also the cultural response to the technology. With these insights combined, we can look to a future solution that might not have been anticipated, but that can seamlessly fit into a culture and fill a need for users, families and city dwellers.

The MIT team planned two workshops with collaborators from Panasonic to test, hack, and adapt the current MamaChari. The first workshop was hosted on February 28, 2018 at the MIT Media Lab.

In this session, the MIT scientists were introduced to the MamaChari, many for the first time. The users remarked as follows:

  • The speed limitation is perceivable, which did decrease interest among single men.
  • The initial torque, the assist force that kicks in right after your start pedaling, had mixed impressions.
  • Some said it felt new and needed to get used to the assist. On the other hand, some reported that it was actually felt safer since the initial pedaling is the most unstable when riding bikes.
  • Related to this, compared to normal bikes people found it was easier to ride on unpaved road conditions since the counterforce from the assist mechanism takes account of not only slopes but friction.
  • We had comments that the user interface panel was outdated and could be renewed, since it is the most evident interaction point.

Participants were asked the following questions:

  • What would you change about this bike? Will it still be called a bike?
  • What is the environment that we use this “bike” in? How do we perceive or simulate it?
  • What kind of mutation will impact the environment?
  • What kind of mutation will be beneficial for the environment?
Panasonic and City Science team members brainstorm the future of the bike. Credit: City Science

The participants had the following ideas and interventions:

  • Mounting the phone on the back to sense and communicate with the rear traffic.
  • Ideas for add-ins on the seat, a personification of the seat.
  • Use the bike as your pet.
  • A convertible bike. For adjusting ages and purposes.
  • Bike to ped communication showing which direction the bike should go.
  • Smart battery with sensors and potential to provide power to different devices.
  • Thinking as a fleet of bikes, communication between bikes, aligning paths and directions
  • Voice chat among riders
  • Incentive mechanism for riding close together

Bikes have a characteristic it is not only a transportation utility but for leisure, which the purpose of the trip is to ride the bike. This is a difference compared to other modes of transportations like cars and trains. We see that there are the same amount of ideas that aims for leisure and safety which show the potential of bikes being both fun and safe.

A recap of the next workshop which was hosted at the end of May will be posted shortly. In the second workshop the researchers had access to a “hackable bike.”

Participants in the Panasonic Workshop
Yan (Ryan) Zhang tries a mamachari bike at the Panasonic Workshop. Credit: Yasushi Sakai

This post was originally published on the Media Lab website.