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Screen capture from Volvo video showing collision avoidance simulation between cyclist and motorist.
Screen capture from Volvo video showing collision avoidance simulation between cyclist and motorist.

Volvo, Jaguar Developing Pioneering Cyclist Alert Systems

Far too many cyclists are killed annually by inattentive - and sometimes sociopathic - drivers as they ride along streets and road. Two car makers have introduced experimental alert systems that could solve the first problem, if not the second.

Of the nearly two dozen witnesses who testified in Lincoln (NE) this week in support of LB 39, three of them had been hit by passing motor vehicles… and survived to tell their stories. In two of their cases, the drivers simply kept going, leaving their shattered side view mirror scattered, along with the lucky-to-be alive rider, on the highway shoulder. Only in one of the three collisions did the driver stop and that was an 90-year old man who wasn't even aware he'd hit the rider. In the other two cases, the circumstances suggest the drivers were either distracted or even worse, deliberately swerved to hit the cyclist.

LB 39 would require drivers in the state to pull into the opposite lane when passing a cyclist, just as they would when passing a larger motor vehicle. At present, state statute only requires they give the rider three feet of clearance.

With the rise of cycling as a form of transportation globally, instead of just recreation or sport, the incidences of cyclist-motor vehicle collisions are bound to increase. Separate bike lanes and cycling infrastructure can help, but that's also a costly and long-term investment by cities that are often financially strapped or simply don't yet have the political will or vision to make the investment.

To their credit, two carmakers aren't waiting for city fathers and car-centric taxpayers to see the light. Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover have just introduced prototype warning systems to alert either the driver and/or the cyclist when a potential collision is imminent.

Volvo was the first to demonstrate its system at CES in Las Vegas earlier this month. Their system, developed in collaboration with Ericsson and POC, the sports equipment manufacturer, creates a cloud-based network between the car and the rider, as demonstrated in the first video below. The especially-designed cycling helmet apparently uses Bluetooth to communicate with the rider's smart phone. An app like Strava (http://www.strava.com/), which uses GPS to know the location of the rider, communicates this information to the Cloud, where it is relayed to the Volvo driver. If a collision appears likely, both the driver and the rider are alerted; in the cyclist's case, red LED lights in the font of the helmet start to flash. The driver is similarly alerted.

Volvo, Ericsson, POC Cloud-Based System

In Jaguar's system, the car uses its embedded proximity warning system to alert the driver to the presence of the cyclist, signaling via visual, audio and vibratory cues that a bicyclist - or pedestrian - is near. Since one of the major causes of cyclist accidents is 'dooring' when a driver opens his door just a bicyclist is passing, Jaguar's system of vibrating the door handle, alerts the driver that they need to check before opening it.

Jaguar Cyclist Alert System

Both systems are only experimental prototypes and may or may not ever see production; and if they do, it will take many years to see it gradually introduced into entire vehicle fleets. But they are certainly both positive steps forward, if only that they signal recognition that a problem exists and that solutions need to be developed.

A simpler, more immediate way to address one of the problems - dooring - would be to require car makers to etch the symbol of a cyclist into the glass of driver side mirrors as a simple reminder to look before opening the door. Another relatively easy fix for this problem would be to cause the car's tail lights to flash briefly when the car is placed in the Park position. This would alert the cyclist that a driver may be about to exit the car.

Because more and more cars and trucks are being equipped with proximity warning systems, another possible interim solution would be to offer the bicycle equivalent of an aircraft transponder that broadcasts a radio signal that the car's warming system recognizes and alerts the driver, either with visual, audio and/or vibratory cues.

None of these approaches, however, will prevent a clearly sociopathic motorist who hates cyclists from seeing how close they can come to knocking them off their bikes, too often with deadly consequences. For that person, no amount of electronic gee-wizardry is going to change their hearts. And if they are ever caught - and from the testimony of two of cyclists who testified in Lincoln, neither motorist was identified - there's slim chance they would be charged, much less convicted of attempted vehicle homicide. Unless, of course, they boasted about it on their Facebook or Twitter accounts, as was the case of one Ms. Emma Way in the UK.

I should point out the LB 39 was introduced by State Senator Rick Kolowski in response to the death of one of his constituents 10 months ago, a much-loved retired high school teacher and athletic trainer, Jim Johnston, who was killed while riding his bike in west Omaha. The motorist was an 82-year-old woman who pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter.

In her case and that of the 90-year-old driver who struck one of the witnesses in Lincoln, technology - especially self-driving cars - might have made the difference.

Posted By: Bill Moore [23-Jan-2015]


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