If you are, say, over the age of 3, chances are someone has told you not to climb into a van, parked in an alley, with a bunch of strangers. But this was for science, mom, and the very nice trio that beckoned a reporter within turned out to be rather entrepreneurial spirits, who just want to create a good night’s sleep. A good night’s sleep in any context, really, but especially for the 23 passengers they hope to pack into a bus rollicking down a California freeway.
Inside, Cabin CEO Gaetano Crupi grabbed the wheel, CTO Tom Currier grabbed a jumper seat, and PR rep Ashley Thompson folded herself into what, truthfully, looked not unlike a coffin. But this long, thin box—an open box, to be fair, and one complete with a mattress, a water bottle, a sleep mask, a fleece blanket, and a whole mess of springs and wires on its underside—is what Crupi calls the key to hacking the long-haul bus market. It was time to hit the potholed highways of San Francisco.
Cabin calls itself a “moving hotel,” offering lay-flat bunks on a 45-foot bus that travels overnight between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Although the flight time is only one hour, 20 minutes, Cabin’s idea is that people would rather spend eight hours asleep while traveling than four hours getting to and from an airport and in a cramped seat in the air.
Since July 2017, the company has transported 10,000 snoozers, but feedback is that bumpy roads make getting decent sleep difficult—a major challenge to the company’s business model. If riders can't get a good snooze in, they're way less willing to pay $178 to $228 per round-trip. (A savvy flier who buys their ticket at the right time can usually snag a trip between SFO and LAX for about $115).
So Cabin set out to build a lab on wheels and started collecting data on road conditions and sleep science. The company says although a passenger can put up with whole-body vibration for 2.5 hours when seated upright, studies show they’ll deal with the same motion for only five minutes when lying down. The solution is what Cabin lured us into the van to experience: individual beds on active suspensions. The company calls it the Cabin Cloud.
“We have a set of sensors that are measuring the acceleration of the vehicle, and also the bed, to compute in real time what we should be cancelling out,” Currier says. He believes two accelerometers per bed (which measure up and down movement rather than the bus peeling away from traffic lights) will be enough.
Cabin worked with off-the-shelf components, using a cheap Raspberry Pi computer and the electric motor from a hoverboard to move the bed up and down quickly enough in the opposite direction to cancel out the potholes. Bus goes up, bed goes down, to actually stay level. And vice versa. Without gearing or linkages, the motor moves the bed up to 1,000 times a second. Currier describes it as noise-canceling headphones but for bumps.
Right now, the system can only move the bed up and down, so passengers will still feel hard braking and tight turns. But since Cabin’s buses mostly stick to freeways, Currier says, it should be enough to make a trip down the pockmarked coasts feel like riding a maglev train. Someday, it could even be more soothing than sleeping in, say, a house.
“We can isolate a passenger’s body, and input frequencies that help people relax and fall asleep” in the same way that a hammock or rocking chair can help people chill out, Currier says.
Our ride in Cabin’s prototype wasn’t completely smooth. The road’s jolts were still there, albeit muffled and less organ-jostling. But it was notably more comfortable than the tech-free journey, a lullaby with a few off-key notes. The system did its best work smoothing out the really jarring bumps—the sort of impact that ruins a good sleep.
The concept is similar to the active suspension system being developed by ClearMotion, a startup out of MIT. In a demo for WIRED in April, that company showed how it could control an entire car’s motion with fast-moving actuators at each corner. ClearMotion also sells the Active Seat, a chair that nixes bumps for long-distance truckers.
“You can think of it as a skier going down the slopes, where the suspension between the seat and the base is like the skiers knees,” says Zack Anderson, cofounder of ClearMotion. The idea was first sold by Bose (the noise-cancelling headphone outfit), but ClearMotion bought Bose out of that business. Now it has plans to develop versions for smaller pickup trucks and agricultural vehicles. It says the concept is well proven, through 1 billion miles a year of trucking. Anderson sees a 97 percent reduction of g-forces transmitted into drivers backs from lumps and thumps in the roads.
The challenges for ClearMotion have been around industrialization and safety. The seat has to work for thousands of hours, so the components need to be tough and reliable. They also have to be crash-worthy—the seat can’t allow an occupant to slide out from under a seat belt, for example.
Cabin must consider those same problems as it works to take its tech from the van to a paying service, especially while trying to keep costs low. And it has to worry about the noise of all those motorized beds. An even ride isn’t much good if it’s also a noisy one.
Someday, this sort of technology could even make it into the air—passengers in the fancy seats might appreciate turbulence-free sleep. Both Cabin and ClearMotion see a future for their technology in an autonomous world, where passengers aren’t necessarily facing forward. If they’re staring at their phones, or reclining, they’re going to appreciate a smoother, less vomit-inducing trip.