It is not about making the world safer for cyclists, it is about making the world safer for autonomous cars.
Ford has been doing a big "smart city" push at CES, the tech extravaganza formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show. According to BikeBiz, they announced a "new artificial intelligence-driven bicycle-to-vehicle communication system."
At the show on Tuesday, Ford announced a system that uses cellular communications to allow vehicles to communicate with other vehicles, pedestrian devices, bikes, and roadside infrastructure including traffic signs and construction zones. This is a development of a system announced earlier by Detroit software company Tome and Trek bikes.
Trek electronics product manager Scott Kasin said, "The future for us is moving from a more passive approach to cycling safety and focusing our development on active safety measures. We want to ensure that while cyclists have the tools and knowledge to do what they can to create a safer experience, they will now have the enhanced ability to communicate their presence directly to vehicles."
All of this is being driven by the push to self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs) where many people are questioning their ability to recognize pedestrians and cyclists, or walkers and cyclers as I prefer to call them. After all, cars are big and relatively predictable and easy to see, and V2V communications can be built into them at relatively little incremental cost.
The idea with B2V (bike to vehicle) or V2X (Vehicle to everything) is that the AV would know where everything is because of the cellular or other signal that they emit. It is not a new idea; Volvo proposed it a few years ago with a smart helmet system that could talk to your phone and then to the cars. We noted a couple of problems at the time; most importantly, it might work in a suburb where there are just a few cars and a few bikes, but in a real urban area? "In any city with a decent number of things to ping that helmet would be ringing and buzzing nonstop." If there were lots of bikes or pedestrians, the AV would barely be able to move.
But earlier this year, Bez at Singletrack pointed out a much more likely scenario, where V2X systems become key to making AVs work. Bez notes that "to solve the problems of autonomous vehicles one must not only control the vehicle, one must control the system."
If I were solely interested in maximising the economic welfare of an autonomous vehicle manufacturer, and had no interest in public liberty or the benefits of active transport, this is what I’d do.
V2X means there is a need to attach some form of connected electronic device to you. This may be a smartphone or it may be a tag, but it will communicate your position to vehicles and infrastructure around you. In the case of cyclists, a good way to ensure everyone has a tag is to ensure everyone has something within which a tag can be embedded. That means a helmet, a hi-viz vest or a registration plate on the bicycle. Of these, two have distinct advantages to the auto industry: helmet laws are known to dramatically reduce the number of people who cycle, and the reflective material on hi-viz jackets makes the wearer easier to detect by Lidar.
And it has to be everyone or the system doesn't work. That means mandatory licensing, and mandatory vests or helmets with the V2X tag. Children? Ban them from biking, it isn't safe anyway.
Then there’s the issue of pedestrians.... A V2X app on a smartphone is easy enough, but people will still try to roam freely. So a jaywalking law will cover off those tricky incidents where cars fail to detect people in unexpected places: if the worst happens, at least the vehicle maker won’t be liable. Cross at the V2X-enabled crossing, or on your head be it.
I have predicted this before -- dramatically more severe jaywalking laws, fenced off roads or even grade separation of cars from pedestrians. Because Bez notes, this has been done before, with trains.
In a world of AVs there is no point in having a V2X system unless everyone is part of it. That means every bike and, who knows, perhaps every pedestrian unless you take the stairs to a grade-separated crosswalk that exempts you from V2X.
That's how you control the system, and that is where the AV crowd will push us.