The Ro-Ped

Low-Cost Personal Urban Transport in the World of Transhuman Space

by Phil Masters

A typical urban street scene in Transhuman Space's world of the year 2100 includes a lot that would puzzle or startle a viewer from a hundred years before, but also a lot that would seem fairly familiar, even in the most sophisticated Fifth Wave cities. What are perhaps most interesting, though, are the elements which would be half familiar and half strange -- concepts and technologies which have survived the 21st century, but which have evolved and mutated in the process.

The type of civilian vehicle known variously as the ro-ped, robobike, cyberscooter, and by dozens of other names, belongs in this category. The direct and obvious technological descendent of the light motorized two and three-wheeled urban transports which became so popular across much of the globe in the second half of the 20th century, the ro-ped is often used in much the same way. However, increasing technological sophistication has given it additional capabilities, and in 2100, it is no longer simply a vehicle.

The Ro-Ped as Cybershell

The key development in this process was the installation of increasingly sophisticated computer systems in motorized vehicles, a design approach which long since reached even this type of light, cheap transport. Such vehicles have become fully capable of maintaining and steering themselves, and indeed, manual vehicle operation is now prohibited on some roads in some areas. That in itself technically transforms vehicles into cybershells, but the term really means most with smaller designs. In particular, many manufacturers have included manipulator arms in their "ro-peds," enabling them to perform routine maintenance on themselves, run errands -- often without any human operator or passenger -- and help around the garden. The borderline between personal transport and medium-sized civilian utility cybershell has thus become blurred, and most industry observers believe that it will disappear entirely within a few years.

The Market

As with its ancestral "motor scooter" of the late 20th century, the ro-ped is found in almost every city in the world, but its image and socio-economic niche varies with local conditions. In Fifth Wave cities, such vehicles represent cheap personal transport for the young and the (relatively) poor; popular models tend to be designed for looks and style rather than durability or long-term reliability, and often incorporate minor luxury features. Parents often appreciate the idea that a good AI, installed in the vehicle's computer, can supervise their adolescent offspring, preventing unsafe or illegal behavior and reminding them of deadlines and curfews; those same adolescent users sometimes trade supposed methods for subverting or befuddling standard AI types.

The one snag with such vehicles from the recreational user's point of view is of course that they are open to the elements, which is why, for the last 150 years, such things have been most popular is regions with warmer climates, but their low cost and agility in traffic make them popular even in wetter and colder countries. A small but significant secondary market consists of couriers who are employed to move portable urgent packages around urban areas, which helps to make the ro-ped a familiar sight in every advanced city on Earth.

The ro-ped sees similar use in Fourth Wave areas, and indeed the technology may even be slightly more common in such regions, as their citizens are more accustomed to physical travel over short distances rather than conducting their social and business lives purely in networked virtual reality. Prices of even the latest designs are well within the budgets of many "Fourth Wavers," although the typical model of choice may be slightly more utilitarian than in richer markets, with fewer luxury options. In fact, though, ro-peds are perhaps most popular among the younger members of wealthier social classes, who use them as a way of flaunting their wealth and emulating Fifth Wave sophistication.

Third Wave city streets are also frequently full of ro-peds, although these are often older models, kept running by diligent or improvisational maintenance work, or even purchased in more advanced areas by dealers who ship them to the poorer regions for second-hand sale. Many lack much in the way of computer capacity, with only the most basic AIs installed; indeed, some older models are completely incapable of independent operation. Several older but serviceable designs have been flagrantly pirated by manufacturers in the TSA, and can be seen on the streets of Alliance cities, giving observant Fifth Wave visitors a persistent sense of deja vu.

Many ro-peds found in Third Wave areas have only one manipulator arm fitted, or even completely lack this feature. While a few young, wealthy users seek to imitate fashionable Fifth Wave folk, most "Third Waver" ro-peds are employed for much more utilitarian purposes, sometimes serving as a whole family's only form of transport. (This in turn tends to prevent them being seen as much of a status symbol by wealthier locals.) They may be overloaded, under- maintained, and shabby. Even so, the ro-ped is helping to bring the concept of ubiquitous cybershell use even to the poorest countries.

The CIT "Arlesienne" mk.III (GUPRS Third Edition)

Subassemblies: Body +0, two Arms -2, three Wheels -2.

Power and Propulsion: 5 kW ceramic engine with wheeled drivetrain. 0.5 kWh energy cell.

Fuel: 2 gallon standard fuel tank for alcohol.

Occupancy: 2 CYCS. Cargo: 3 cf.

All: 2/4

Body: Small computer (incorporates GPS). Short-range radio with cellular capability. LLTV (×5 magnification) and passive IR sensors (front, back, right and left). Basic sound detector.

Size: 3'×2'×5' Payload: 471.60 lbs. Lwt.: 728.28 lbs.
Volume: 7.8 cf. Size Mod: +0 Cost: $3,621.90 + computer

HT: 9 HP: 15 [Body], 6 [each Arm], 3 [each Wheel]

gSpeed: 60 gAccel: 3 gDecel: 15 gMR: 1.5 gSR: 2
High Ground Pressure. Off-Road Speed 10.

The CIT "Arlesienne" mk.III (GUPRS Fourth Edition)

The ro-ped has ST/HP 25, Hnd/SR +1/2, HT 10f, Move 3/30, LWt 0.36, Load 0.2, SM 0, Occ 1+1, DR 4, Range 800, Cost $4K, Locations E3W2A.

Use of electrical batteries rather alcohol fuel than eliminates the ro-ped's flammability; however, it also reduces Range to 240.

The most popular model in CIT/Provencale's cyberscooter range, the Arlesienne is about as sleek and stylish as a three-wheeled urban transport can probably hope to be. Typically sold with a cheap computer pre-loaded with a standard NAI-4 plus skill sets for Driving (Automobile)-13 and Mechanic (Internal Combustion Engine)-12 (total cost $600), the Arlesienne uses a system architecture and interfaces based on a well-established, even slightly outdated industry open standard. This helps make the model popular with hobbyist "cyber-hackers" who upgrade and tinker with the software and often the processor; while this brings relatively few additional sales directly, it gives the Arlesienne's image a degree of "cool" in wider markets -- as the company's memeticists intended.

The performance figures above are for when the ro-ped is laden with two riders and their luggage. With just a 200 lb. driver, it has gSpeed 75, gAccel 4, and off-road speed 13; completely unladen, operating as an autonomous cybershell, these figures rise to gSpeed 100, gAccel 5, and (thanks to ground pressure falling to moderate) off-road speed 25.

Design Notes: This typical ro-ped design was created using GURPS Vehicles and the "Transhuman Space Technical Appendix". It uses an alcohol-burning ceramic engine for versatility; a full tank of fuel costs around $1 and is good for 11 hours of use at full speed, or about twice that in more normal use. It has three wheels rather than two so that it can function independently as a cybershell at low speeds; two-wheeled motorcycles still exist in 2100, but are usually designed as long-range high-speed tourers rather than as urban runabouts.

The design also has a light, cheap, steel alloy frame (robotic, like all modern vehicles in the setting), an aluminum bodyshell, cheap arm motors, and improved brakes. The controls are fully computerized, and indeed the computer has no problem operating the vehicle, with or without a rider. Maintenance interval is 330 hours.

The Ro-Ped as a Cybershell

Converting the above vehicle design into a "character" cybershell gives the following template:

GURPS Third Edition

Attribute Modifiers: ST Upper Body -5, Lower Body +40 (No Fine Manipulators: -40%) [35]; HT -1 [-10].

Advantages: Absolute Direction (Uses GPS, -20%) [4]; DR 4 [12]; Extra Encumbrance [5]; Extra Hit Points +6 [30]; Filter Lungs [5]; Increased Speed +1 (only improves ground movement, not Dodge, Initiative, or anything else: -75%) [6]; Infravision [15]; Machine Body [37]; Night Vision [10]; Passive Defense +2 [50]; Peripheral Vision [15]; Polarized Eyes [5]; Radio Speech [25]; Super Running x3 [60]; Telescopic Vision x2 [12].

Disadvantages: Limited Sense of Touch [-10]; Mistaken Identity [-5]; No Sense of Smell/Taste [-5]; Social Stigma (Valuable Property) [-10]; Very Restricted Movement (Wheels/Tracks) [-25].

Features: Complexity 5-7 small computer. External seats for two people. Internal space (room for 3 cf of luggage).

Date: c.2060 Cost: $3,621.90 + computer.

This template has a total cost of 261 points.

As the ro-ped's carrying capacity implies a load-bearing strength far greater than that built into its manipulator arms, the "Split ST" rules (p.CI176) have been applied. The "upper body" ST should be used if the vehicle ever tries to exert force with or through its upper structure, reflecting the fact that its frame simply isn't engineered for this.

Two disadvantages in this template, Limited Sense of Touch and Restricted Movement, come from an earlier Pyramid article, "The Car as the Star"; see that for details, and for discussion of several other issues arising when treating vehicles as characters.

Also as discussed in that article, this treatment assumes that the controlling AI can monitor just one of the vehicle's four camera arrays properly at a time, but can pay enough attention to the others to justify the Peripheral Vision advantage. It might be possible to design an AI to monitor every camera at once, giving 360- degree Vision (+10 points to the package cost); however, this would probably be limited to AIs specifically designed as vehicle controllers or for very similar applications.

Technological Variations

Electric Power: This option is most often taken in more advanced regions, where there are cheap, reliable electricity supplies and often significantly tighter anti-pollution laws. It also tends to be popular with any user who wants to employ the ro-ped indoors in confined spaces; even 2100-era alcohol-burning engines generate some unhealthy exhaust fumes. For a typical example, replace the engine, fuel tank, and small energy cell in the above design with a 15 kWh energy cell (permitting 3 hours of operation at top speed or about twice that in normal use). This reduces the unladen weight by 16.5 lbs., and changes the price to $3,866.90 and the maintenance interval to 320 hours. If treating the ro-ped as a cybershell, replace Filter Lungs with Doesn't Breathe [20] and add Limited Endurance [-10].

Arm Modifications: Thanks to the cost of arm motor/control systems, the manipulator arms included in the above design increase the cost fairly substantially, to the extent that several ro-ped manufacturers were surprised with how popular they proved when they were first introduced. (It turns out that people are prepared to pay quite a lot for a vehicle that can maintain itself and help carry the shopping.) Hence, there are still quite a few cheaper models around with just one arm (reduce cost by $750, add One Arm [-20] to the template), and a few with none (reduce cost by $1,500 and add No Manipulators [-50] to the template).

A compromise can involve using cheaper, low-dexterity manipulator systems (reduce cost by $750, add Bad Grip [-10] to the template), but this is generally seen as losing too much functionality for too little cost reduction. (Some older, badly-maintained ro-peds effectively acquire Bad or Poor Grip anyway . . .) At the other end of the scale, some ro-ped purchasers demand greater strength, making the cybershell a more useful general servant; for example, raising ST to 10 in both arms adds $1,500 to the cash price and 20 points to the template cost.

Liquid Crystal Skin: Liquid crystal "paint" is popular with wealthier users who can't decide what their favorite color might be, and is also sometimes acquired by anyone who has to use a ro-ped for clandestine operations -- a "shadow" is somewhat less likely to be spotted by an unsuspecting target if the vehicle involved changes its appearance periodically, at carefully judged moments. It can also be programmed to display a serviceable camouflage pattern. The coating costs $800, and may give a small bonus to Camouflage, Shadowing, or Stealth rolls on some occasions, at the GM's option.

All-Terrain Capability: This variant gives a ro-ped off-road wheels and all-wheel steering. The result cannot actually operate on any terrain, but it has markedly less problem with difficult conditions than a standard model. While popular with some recreational users, the main objective of these enhancements is actually to make ro-peds more useful as general-purpose cybershells. The cost becomes $4,897.60, the weight becomes 268.88 lbs. unladen or 740.48 lbs. fully laden, and the total volume becomes 8.3 cf, while the larger wheels have 4 HP each. As a result, gMR becomes 1.75, and off-road speed with a single rider becomes 19, or 33 if completely unladen. In the character template, change Very Restricted Movement to Somewhat Restricted Movement [-15].

Even more sophisticated and versatile models also have powerful miniaturised motors driving the steered front wheel, giving the vehicle all-wheel drive. This increases weight to 281.38 lbs. unladen or 752.98 lbs. fully laden, and cost to $5,397.60, while reducing top speed slightly to 70 with just one rider or 95 fully unladen; however, it also increases off-road speed, to 15 when fully laden, 23 when carrying a single rider, or 48 when unladen.

GURPS Fourth Edition Notes

The ro-ped template is as follows:

Attribute Modifiers: ST +15 [150].

Secondary Characteristic Modifiers: Basic Move +1 [5].


Absolute Direction (Requires Signal, -20%) [4]; Damage Resistance (4) [20]; Enhanced Move (Running) 3 [60]; Filter Lungs [5]; High Pain Threshold [10]; Infravision [10]; Machine [25]; Night Vision 5 [5]; Payload 5 (62.5 lbs, 3 cf) [5]; Peripheral Vision [15]; Protected Vision [5]; Radio [10]; Reduced Consumption 3 [6]; Telescopic Vision ×2 [10].

(Note that Absolute Timing is now included in the templates for AI software.)

Disadvantages: Electrical [-20]; No Legs (Wheeled) [-20]; No Sense of Smell/Taste [-5]; Numb [-20]; Social Stigma (Valuable Property) [-10]; Weak Arms (1/4 Body ST) [-10].

Quirks: Road wheels only (suffers even worse problems on rough country than most wheeled characters) [-1].

Features: Complexity 5-7 small computer; External seats for two people; Looks identical to countless others; Sterile.

Date: c.2060 Cost: $3,621.90 + computer.

Total template cost: 259 points.


Electric Power: Replace Filter Lungs with Doesn't Breathe [20] and delete Reduced Consumption. (Electrical recharges are treated as "refuelling" for game purposes.)

One Arm: Add the One Arm Disadvantage [-20], while the value of the Weak Arms Disadvantage becomes [-5].

No Arms: Apply the -40% "No Fine Manipulators" limitation to ST (reducing the cost to 90 points) and replace Weak Arms with No Manipulators [-50].

Bad Grip: Add some level of Bad Grip, usually -4 [-10].

Stronger Arms: Weak Arms (1/2 Body ST) is worth [-5] instead of [-10] (or [-2] if the cybershell only has one arm).

Liquid Crystal Skin: Add one level of Chameleon [5] and a Perk (Variable surface color; a neat gimmick, and may give a small bonus to, e.g., Shadowing rolls on some occasions, at the GM's option) [1].

All-Terrain Capability: Delete the "Road wheels only" Quirk.

Game Uses

Obviously, a ro-ped is nobody's idea of a glamorous pursuit vehicle; anyone who wants speed, combat effectiveness, or serious agility and versatility will choose almost anything else. However, this very innocuous inoffensiveness can bring such vehicles into many scenarios.

If nothing else, PCs may encounter countless ro-peds getting in their way on busy streets or being used as transportation by important but unsuspecting NPCs, or they may use such vehicles themselves for shadowing and surveillance work. Ro-peds can certainly factor into impromptu chase scenes; they are a lot faster than a human being on foot, after all, and a mugger or other criminal might plausibly choose to use one as a getaway vehicle on cramped and busy streets. Youth gangs in Third Wave cities might well ride around on the best transport they can afford, while Fifth Wave "AI hackers" might favor such cybershells for numerous purposes, from the innocuous to the nefarious.

Scenario Ideas

Bonus Feature: The purchaser of an imported second-hand ro-ped in a Third Wave city (maybe a PC, or one of the PCs' friends or relations) has just discovered to his surprise and delight that its computer appears to be more powerful than its documentation suggests -- and indeed, its AI appears to be a fairly sophisticated LAI, rather than a cheap, basic NAI. Of course, this raises the question of what else might be stored (perhaps encrypted) in the computer's memory, what else the AI might be capable of which it won't admit, and who might want any of this stuff back if they find out.

The AI certainly seems secretive and evasive, but that may not be deliberate; it may just be a poorly designed amateur "hack job," or damaged by memory corruption. If the PCs can discover some relevant encryption keys, they might even find that it's simply treating them as inadequately authorised to use it. But who can they trust to ask for help? And when the AI asks for access to the Net in order to acquire some error patches which might make it more useful, dare they agree?

Streets of Fire: The PCs are employed as part of a counter- terrorist operation in a "low Fourth Wave" city when an insurgent group launches a large-scale campaign against the local political structure. Early attacks show that the assassins are expert and ruthless bombjackers, employing innocuous ro-peds as weapons. A little detective work finds that the vehicles used were built by the same popular manufacturer, and it emerges that the terrorists have subverted the supervisory software in that company's local maintenance center. While the security hole can be fixed, a software "upgrade" transmitted to vehicles throughout the city means that they might be taken over at any moment, and they are refusing to accept new software patches.

The government might order all of the relevant vehicles off the road, at the risk of triggering widespread hysteria -- but scores are already on the loose without riders and now ignoring recall signals. Some carry bombs, others are acting as decoys. Furthermore, ro-peds are popular in this city; banning their use, or even spreading the news story, is going to cause economic problems and general chaos, while jumpy PCs and other agents are going to have difficulty telling potentially dangerous units from visually similar models built by other manufacturers. And then there are the home-modified models using processors and software from one manufacturer in another's vehicles. Things are going to get messy before they get better.

My (Software) Generation: A new, rather experimental SAI-7 being developed in a Fifth Wave laboratory is displaying personality problems. The designers attempted to enhance its ability to benefit from training and education by giving it a less rigid, more "questioning" personality, and to a certain extent they may have succeeded -- at the cost of making it rather surly and uncooperative. It's not malevolent or any sort of "rogue," so far as they can tell; it just has something of the personality of a human adolescent. Unfortunately, fixing this directly would require low-level manipulation of its software structures, to a degree which local AI protection law only permits with the informed consent of the SAI itself -- which isn't forthcoming. Anyway, the researchers aren't sure that they can fix the problem without damaging the successful aspects of their work. "And besides, he'll grow out of it . . . "

All of which would be an entirely academic issue if the SAI hadn't recently declared a need to interact with the world at large. It was built to be capable of learning; refusing to let it acquire experience could be considered cruel, and might possibly even be damaging. So it needs, well, babysitters -- which is where the PCs come in. Unfortunately, one of the first things the SAI discovers is the joy of first teleoperating and eventually downloading itself to cybershells, with a particular taste for ro-peds, for no apparent reason. Ro-peds, 130-year-old soul music, and not telling its "guardians" where it's going when it goes out . . .


Article publication date: September 24, 2004

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