• Climate, Environment & Health
  • Mobility


How U-Shift plans to avoid traffic collapse.

Autonomous furniture transport to the door, self-driving group cabs, parcel delivery despite a lack of parking within the last mile? A Utopia of the future?

Dr. Hannes Stoll and Marc Schindewolf are working in the project on the further development of the electrical-electronic architecture of the U-Shift.
Dr. Hannes Stoll and Marc Schindewolf are working in the project on the further development of the electrical-electronic architecture of the U-Shift.

Researchers from the Institute of Vehicle Systems Technology (FAST) and the Institute for Information Processing Technologies (ITIV) at KIT are working on the concept of a modular, driverless, and electric vehicle. The project, which could be the solution to urban traffic problems, is being researched in a network led by the German Aerospace Center together with the University of Ulm and the Research Institute of Automotive Engineering and Vehicle Engines Stuttgart. After all, one thing is clear to all those involved: congested roads, particulate pollution for residents, excessive CO2 emissions and a lack of parking spaces becoming more normal, especially in medium-sized and large cities, and will sooner or later lead to environmental, health and traffic collapse.

Urban mobility of tomorrow

U-Shift is an electrically powered vehicle concept whose central feature is the separation of the drive unit, called the driveboard, and the transport capsule. The split concept allows different capsules to be picked up at different locations, thus enabling the flexible transport of people and goods with just one drive unit. From a barrier-free on-demand shuttle, to a high-tech call bus, or a flexible distribution center for goods and parcels: U-Shift adapts to a wide variety of requirements and circumstances.

“A good key word for the vast applications of U-Shift is ‘Shared Mobility’: driving the kids to school with a transport capsule in the morning, unloading the market traders with their sales capsule in the marketplace afterwards, and supporting public transport during rush hour in the afternoon.” (Marc Schindewolf, research associate at ITIV)

“...And at night, replace the full paper containers with empty ones.” (Dr. Michael Frey, deputy director of the institute at FAST)

U-Shift is an all-rounder, usable 24/7 and extremely flexible. Previously separated lines of business can be combined and the expensive drive module can thus be used more efficiently. But why should different vehicle uses from different industries be combined?

Ranging from park-vehicles to synergetic vehicles

“What is the advantage of separation?" counters Prof. Dr. Eric Sax, institute director at ITIV. "Today, we have vehicles that don't deserve that term. They are rather ‘parking vehicles': they are only used five percent of the day.” Looking at the current efforts of politicians and the automotive industry, it is clear that e-cars can contribute to the traffic turnaround, but as individual vehicles, they still contribute to traffic collapse. “Mobile symbioses that would be created by merging individual locomotion and public transport can utilize vehicles more efficiently and relieve the traffic network, especially if good transfer is also included,” explains Dr. Frey.

Dr. Michael Frey and Fabian Weitz are working on the further development of the chassis and steering in the project.
Dr. Michael Frey and Fabian Weitz are working on the further development of the chassis and steering in the project.

Citizen participation in the development process

Following a detailed feasibility study, a rolling prototype was created in 2020 in order to simulate the basic principle of U-Shift at an early stage. This was to make the vehicle tangible and thus obtain external insights and opinions. “Intensive discussions in the context of a citizen dialogue allow needs and wishes from society to flow into further development. Taking this input into account, as well as detailed consideration of the technology, a demonstrator is currently being created,” says Dr. Frey, describing the current status of the project. In addition to the further development of the technical components, the demonstrator is also focusing a critically questioned issue:


“In a driverless, fully automated car, we need certainty that everything works. On the one hand, it needs to be safe for occupants and the environment, but on the other hand, it must also be fully protected against attacks by hackers, for example. Complete failures can have fatal consequences, so we have to provide mechanisms such as firewalls, cryptology or authentification with the highest intelligence to take precautions for fail-safety,” says Dr. Hannes Stoll, research associate at ITIV. Since vehicle control is based on software, software crashes or hacker attacks are scary but realistic scenarios in addition to artificial intelligence errors. Technical shortcomings and malfunctions are legitimately the focus of habit-loving consumers, which is why the research team is intensively addressing the issue of safety at all levels. “Monitoring systems give a sense of security. U-Shift will also have one, for example a control center that can intervene and release driving-commands when necessary”, says Dr. Frey. In addition to feasibility, the inventors are thus focusing on one of the most important factors of mobile future scenarios: acceptance.

Is U-Shift suitable for everyday use?

“If we enter the market with a system like U-Shift without automated driving being established in a wide range, it will be very difficult to achieve widespread acceptance. One approach is to introduce such a concept in the freight sector or on closed routes first, for example”, says Schindewolf. However, initial feedback with test runs of autonomous minibuses in cities shows that the concept is not only useful for the freight sector. “The population has a very positive attitude, with older people in particular showing extreme interest in the technology. For them, U-Shift offers the opportunity to remain mobile without a driver's license in old age”, summarizes Dr. Frey. It will probably be a few years before the concept is seen on the roads. But we can already dream that U-Shift will support today's young generation in old age.

Images: Markus Breig / KIT


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