Electric Currents

I Nearly Hit A Bicyclist: Why We Need B2V Now!

Thursday, I came uncomfortably close to hitting a bicyclist.

I was driving a new Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, a car bristling with technology, including pedestrian sensors.  What it didn't sense was the lady in the yellow bicycle helmet who slipped into my blind spot on the right at the stoplight on Stockton Street, below Coit Tower where Todd Kaho, with Green Car Journal, and I had just been. We were guests of Ford for their fifth annual 'Further with Ford' media event, this time held in San Francisco where CEO Mark Fields announced some sweeping changes in the company's vision of itself going forward, including fractional car ownership, carsharing, and cloud-connected bicycles.

As I started to turn right on Stockton, my attention was focused on the cross traffic and a half-dozen road repair workers to my immediate right who were setting up signs and barriers to close off one lane.  I heard someone shout at me and I instantly slamming on the brakes and glanced over my shoulder. There was a middle aged woman in a bright yellow bicycle helmet into whom I nearly turned, barely avoiding making her another statistic that says most urban cyclists are injured or worse, killed, by vehicles turning right at intersections. I apologized as she scowled at me, saying something like 'you idiot.'  

The irony of this situation is that one of the reasons I wanted to attend the event was to talk to Ford about this very issue: improving bicyclist safety through B2V: bicycle-to-vehicle communication.  Earlier this year, I filed a provisional patent with the USPTO for an "intelligent electric bicycle battery," one that incorporated a number of cycling safety features, including B2V.  I wanted to open a dialogue with Ford engineers about this very issue.  Embarrassed, but relieved I hadn't struck the woman, we drove back to Pier 27 and I made a point of tracking down one of the engineers who works on Ford's SYNC system. I learned that Ford and other carmakers are working, apparently under a federal mandate, to create a V2V communication system that will, I gather, also include bicycles, but that project was 3-to-5 years off and will only include new cars going forward. The 250+ million cars and trucks on the road today won't be impacted.  I also learned that the system will be based on some type of WiFi technology. 

My suggestion to use Bluetooth LE 'beacon' technology isn't robust or fast enough, the engineer explained.  And neither are current pedestrian sensors, it turns out.  It completely missed the lady bicyclist, while pinging incessantly as I was stopped on Embarcadero waiting to U-turn into Pier 27.  

"Yes, they can be a bit over-sensitive in traffic," he admitted. 

Now I am not an electrical engineer, though I could have been after winning a city science award in Junior High School for building an air purifier for my mother who suffers from hay fever.  Instead, I pursued another path in life.  Now here I am wishing I knew more about electronics and why my Bluetooth LE idea won't work.  

In case you haven't heard of the technology, it's a tiny transmitter that sends out a radio frequency pulse that contains just a bit of digital information; in this way, it's similar to an aircraft transponder. The transmitter and battery are about the size of your thumbnail. The broadcast range can be up to 70 feet and the button-sized battery can last up to two years.  Newer versions reportedly can transmit from 250-450 meters, significantly improving driver response time. Retail businesses and airports are using these 'beacons' to trigger smart phone apps to either alert you to offers or the status of your flight as you walk within range of the device. 

My idea is to equip bikes with them, along with a mobile app that simply sets off a chime on your smart phone when it comes within range of the bike.  Nothing more sophisticated than that needs to happen.  Had yellow helmet lady had one on her bike and we'd SYNC'd Todd's smart phone to the C-Max (I am still styuck in the flip phone era), I would have known she'd slipped up behind me.   I even worked out the math on the flight out to San Francisco that a motorist would have some 2-3 seconds of alert time in a situation where the car was moving at 35 mph and the bicyclist 15 mph. That would be enough time to avoid the other most common car-bike accident: hitting the rider from behind.  While I was in California this week, over in Spirit Lake, Iowa a young cyclist was killed after being struck from behind by a 23 year-old motorist.

I am convinced this is something we can do right now. The technology is low-cost and readily adaptable to today's motoring fleet where millions of drivers already have their phones turned on while driving.   As I learned during my visit to Ford's new Innovation Lab in Palo Alto, company engineers are already working on on-bike sensor technology as part of the company's "infocycle" project.  They'd equipped a handful of stationary bikes with them: that's what the folks are riding in the above photo. This is something Ford could do now. 

How about it, Ford? Let's 'infocycle' this!

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