Can New Tech Make City Cycling Safer?

The rise of bicycle trips in New York City, as well as a concurrent rise in cyclist fatalities, has placed an increase emphasis on bicycle safety in the city. According to a recent report by the New York Times, some advocates are proposing new technology to help cyclists and motorists safely coexist.

Bicycle fatalities were trending upwards before the coronavirus pandemic, with 10 fatalities in 2018 rising to 29 in 2019. So far in 2020, at least 14 bicyclists have been killed. Safety advocates argue that the most effective safety measures are dedicated and protected bike lines, which separate cars and bicycles altogether. Other researchers are examining the possibility of technological solutions.

One option examined by the Times is a 5G wireless program that enables communication between bicycles and nearby cars. The report describes a situation in Turin, Italy last fall, when “a wobbly cyclist skirted a line of parked cars on a jammed suburban street as a large sedan rapidly approached from behind.” The driver did not notice the cyclist until “a warning graphic flashed on a display above the dashboard, indicating that a bicyclist was directly ahead, and the driver slowed to give the rider more room.” The technology in question was a “cellular vehicle-to-everything” system created by the LINKS Foundation, which placed a “global navigation device” and a 5G transceiver on the bicycle, allowing it to send its location data to vehicles in its proximity. The Foundation and its backers argue that in the future, cities can make roads safer by placing similar technology on traffic lights and other infrastructure, allowing cars, bicycles, and the infrastructure to all “talk” to each other.

As the Times report notes, some cyclists already use similar technology, like radar taillights that warn cyclists when cars are approaching. In the future, the Times suggests, “advanced driver assistance safety systems” like a collision feature used by Volvo “will even automatically brake for cyclists.” A representative of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety told the Times that such technology might reduce crashes, at least those involving cars and vulnerable road users like cyclists, by as much as 35%.

These warning systems do not solve the problem completely, however. The Times notes that they use video cameras and car-based radar, neither of which allow them to determine what threats lurk around corners. Camera-based systems, additionally, can run into trouble distinguishing bicycles from other objects in the background, like mailboxes and telephone poles. A bicycle-to-vehicle warning system could solve these problems by sending signals “around buildings and hundreds of feet up and down roads,” though the technology would need to be able to compute the cyclist’s likely trajectories and identify any other information that would need to sent to nearby vehicles.

Then the technology would need to be available at low-cost, so as to maximize use. “We want it to be accessible to people who can’t necessarily afford a $200 bike computer,” said on CEO of a software company working on bicycle-to-vehicle warning systems, and a member of the “Bicycle-to-Vehicle Executive Advisory Board,” whose other members include auto companies like Ford and Subaru, and bicycle companies like Giant and Trek. According to the Times, the Board “is working to standardize what safety information needs to be communicated in these so-called B2V transmissions,” and plans to finish a number of field tests by the end of 2020. More information on the Bicycle-to-Vehicle Executive Advisory Board’s efforts is available via the New York Times.

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