Monday, March 2, 2015

Sharing The Road Electronically

Bicycles are best when they're simple. All the electronic gadgetry and other car-like technologies being applied to bicycles only serves to make them more expensive and more complicated, but not really any better. I really believe that.

A variety of sensory alerts -- from audible alarms, to buzzes
and vibrations, and even physical "taps" would let drivers know
of bicyclists around their vehicle. (from Jaguar Land Rover)
Cars, on the other hand, being inherently more complicated to begin with, as well as considerably larger, heavier, faster, and capable of inflicting far more damage to fellow road-users, have a lot more potential to be improved by the addition of more technology. And now a couple of car companies are applying some of that new technology to actually making cars a little safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

Currently, Jaguar Land Rover is working on a system called "Bike Sense" that will use a number of sensors to detect bicyclists around the vehicle, as well as a variety of sounds and sensations to alert drivers to the presence and location of cyclists.

According to the company, "Rather than using a generic warning icon or sound, which takes time for the driver's brain to process, Bike sense uses lights and sounds that the driver will instinctively associate with the potential danger." For example, an audible sound, such as a bicycle bell, would come through the audio system on the side of the vehicle from which the cyclist is approaching. Other sensory tricks would include a "tap" on the shoulder when a cyclist is approaching from behind, and the driver's door handle would buzz or vibrate to alert them not to open the door in the path of a cyclist.
Volvo's Cyclist Detection System uses sensors and even
radar to detect cyclists, and can even apply the brakes if
necessary. (from Volvo)

Always at the forefront in motor vehicle safety, Volvo is another company that is looking at the safety of bicyclists sharing the road with drivers. Their Cyclist Detection System, introduced in 2013, is supposed to detect bicyclists and/or pedestrians in the vicinity of the car, and even apply the brakes if needed.

In a more recent development, the company is even working with the helmet company POC, and with the telecom company Ericsson, to enhance their alert system and even extend the alerts to the cyclists in something like a "mutual awareness system" -- as long as those cyclists happen to be wearing the appropriate POC helmet.

These are definitely some interesting developments -- though they are not completely immune from criticism. Certainly, nobody should think for a minute that these new technologies could or should take the place of badly needed driver and cyclist education. But also, there is the potential that drivers might come to rely on the technology instead of actually using their own senses -- you know, actually looking where they're going. With the Volvo/POC/Ericsson approach particularly, the system only works if everybody is using compatible devices or equipment. I wonder if drivers would get so used to being alerted by the car's technology that they stop looking, only to end up crushing some rider who doesn't happen to be wearing the right helmet (or no helmet for that matter).

There are valid concerns and criticisms -- though I'm going to remain hopeful that the technology is still in early stages, and that it will become better, more inclusive, and even find its way onto more affordable makes and models. In the meantime, I'll try to remain encouraged that car companies are turning some of their attention to us cyclists. It's a start, and it will be interesting to see where it leads.

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