When A Bike Sharing Startup Goes Away, What Do You Do With The Bikes?

Part of the detritus of many cities over the last few years has been the ubiquitous bicycles and scooters of the various companies that offer them for hourly hire via a smartphone app. They’re annoying when left randomly on pavements by their users, and they sometimes appear to outnumber riders many times over. In 2018 for many cities outside China they became a little less numerous, as the Chinese bike sharing service Ofo contracted its operations and pulled its distinctive yellow machines from the streets. A couple of years later those Ofo bikes that were sold off or simply abandoned by the company and never recovered are still with us. They can be used if their lock is dismantled, but to do that is to ignore the potential of the lock. [Aladds] has written a firmware for Ofo locks that allows them to be unlocked by a code entered upon its buttons.

Onboard the lock are an nRF51822, 4G radio, and of course the lock mechanism itself. The battery is likely to be flat by now, and though he doesn’t tell us what it is it’s worth our pointing out that similar designs sometimes use hazardous LiSOCl2 chemistry which any hacker should be very cautious with. He gives us full instructions for finding the programming connections for the chip, which can either have its stock firmware downloaded for examination, or be wiped for insertion of the new version. To show the code in action there is also a short YouTube video that we’ve put below the break. Meanwhile we’ve peered inside an Ofo lock before, back in 2018.

Ofo bike image:  Popolon / CC BY-SA 4.0

29 thoughts on “When A Bike Sharing Startup Goes Away, What Do You Do With The Bikes?

  1. It was mobike in my city. I would have loved to pick up one of their bikes for maybe £30-50 to use as a basic ’round town bike. It probably would have been hell to get parts for, the disc brakes seemed custom as did the wheels, the drive shaft etc but so long as it still functions why not get a bit of use out of it. If it gets stolen someone else has taken the future maintenance issue off my hands.

  2. I was curious as to why the LiSOCl2 battery is being cautioned against, but beyond a fire, they seem quite stable and non-hazardous. While on fire they release terribly poisonous chemicals, but basically you don’t want any battery to catch fire in your hands, so is there something I’m missing?

      1. It looks like they’re used in implantables. So I think unless something has been draining the hell out of that battery it’s probably good for quite a while. Nobody wants unnecessary surgery to replace a defibrilator because the battery didn’t last for the design life.

    1. Not particularly. They should be handled and recycled appropriately, just like any other primary cell. They have a specific set of limitations, though (recommended maximum average current draw of about a milliamp!), so most hobbyists are better off using literally any other technology.

      1. Yeah, LiSOCl2 doesn’t seem particularly more hazardous than a normal lithium-polymer battery. But I doubt this one actually has LiSOCl2, as 4G modems tend to take such large current pulses that LiSOCl2 wouldn’t handle it. Unless they have a huge supercap or a secondary battery to buffer it.

        1. A large supercap in parallel with the LiSOCl2 cell is almost always how they’re found in the field, along with extremely low duty cycles on the high power components to allow the cap to recharge.

          It’s still not perfect; the more energy you pull from the cap the more current it pulls from the primary cell as it recharges.

          I’ve previously worked on smart metering hardware that had a design goal of a 15 year service life and daily 4G data uploads, all off the LiSOCl2 cell that was sealed into the unit at manufacture. It wasn’t an unachievable goal, but there’s a lot of work involved in getting the power usage down and keeping it down.

          A key part is using the narrowband 4G modems (e.g. CAT-NB1 and CAT-M2) rather than the standard phone ones. Unfortunately the modem manufacturers still come from a background of phone development and do some REALLY STUPID THINGS like waking up unexpectedly and pulling large currents for no good reason, resulting in spontaneously dead devices.

  3. Locally they all turned up at the scrapyard at once in a giant blue pile, to be replaced by E-bikes that will surely suffer the same fate. No attempt to vend/give/donate them at all – straight to the grinder.

    1. That’s why you preemptively retire and cannibalize them. Just drill out the sim card and take those juicy batteries and motors and frame. You can get some apps or hardware to make sure the gps and cellular signals are truly dead.

  4. The city managers should have thought of this before issuing a vendor’s license to the companies. The companies are making money by operating on public property, and in fact are storing their private goods (bicycles) on public grounds.

    The cities should have included a requirement that the companies put up a bond to cover the costs of disposal of the bikes, or a clause allowing the cities to confiscate the bikes when the companies fail to properly manage them.

    The same goes for the scooters you see in many cities.

    1. >The companies are making money by operating on public property

      You made an easy mistake there. Companies are making money by sucking on the teat of VC funding, pumping money out of the company as fast as possible before it collapses. Sometimes they also rob a city by signing paid in advance multi year support contracts, only to go bankrupt after first year. Rides themselves dont make any money.

  5. There’s a scooter-share company that’s trying out an interesting solution to the problem of people leaving electric scooters wherever they fall at the end of the ride: The scooters have an autonomous mode, so you call the scooter to you with your phone, and when you’re done riding, it ambles off to its charging station by itself. At least it looks like it’s not capable of doing as much damage as an autonomous car.

  6. Really nice of these companies to leave their trash and not recover it. That is so irresponsible. Everyone just wants to grab a dollar, pray for a hyped IPO and then flush the world on follow through.

  7. oBike had the BALLS to launch here in Amsterdam with terrible bikes, so clumsy, slow and uncomfortable, not to mention small for the average Dutch person. People here know a thing or two about bikes… the startup failed miserably and the bikes? nobody wants them, not even for free. Thank you.

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