On city roads there's an uneasy alliance of enemies, of cyclists and drivers, forced to share the same small, imperfect space.
Years of mutual distrust, neglect and violence – sometimes deadly – has poisoned the relationship.
But what if taxi passengers stopped opening doors on cyclists, throwing them over handlebars and into traffic? What if drivers could always see a cyclist pedalling in their blind spot?
Could trust be built? Could all road users learn to share the space?
Bike Sense, developed by Jaguar Land Rover in partnership with students from Portland State University, could do just that.
It works like this: If you're about to door a cyclist, the door handle vibrates and a warning light goes off. If you're about to turn right cutting off a cyclist, the seat vibrates at your right shoulder and a bike bell chimes through the right speaker.
Matt Jones and his team at Jaguar Land Rover's newly created Open Software Technology Centre in Portland worked on the development of the Bike Sense system.
"It's being prototyped in vehicles," says Jones in a telephone interview. He's careful to note there's no timeline for when or if Bike Sense could go into production cars. "But there's nothing there that the two of us on this phone call couldn't imagine in the car of the future."
The system uses existing automotive technology – such as 360-degree radar and stereo cameras, which are currently used to track other vehicles – to track cyclists and alert drivers to potential danger.
It could save lives.
But persuading a major car company to look into cyclist safety was a tough sell.
The project was supposed to be about how governments could raise infrastructure revenue without gas tax, if cars go all-electric in future.
"The students from Portland State University were like, 'We don't drive, actually,'" Jones says. The students said: "We cycle to work or to school every day, and every day people are trying to knock us off. They can't see us coming: They're turning across us and opening their doors into us."
"But we're like, 'Okay, that sounds pretty serious, but let's get back to the road-use issue,'" says Jones. "And then [the students] hit us with the bombshell. One of them said, 'Well, my friend died three weeks ago.'"
Jones and his team got to work exploring how to protect the road's most vulnerable users and Bike Sense was born.
The idea is so good, so simple, you have to wonder why it's not already on all vehicles. Why has the auto industry made 18-way power adjustable heated-and-cooled seats with hot-stone massage function, but a passenger has no way to know if he or she is about to door a cyclist?
"Ultimately, cars are big chunks of steel with a lot of electronics inside," says Jones. "You can't revolutionize a car overnight. LED lighting only came onto vehicles really in the last five to seven years, but LEDs have been out since the mid '80s. It takes a long time to move anything in automotive."
Cars have gradually become extremely effective at protecting their occupants. Now it's time for the industry to look outward, to changing streetscapes, to ways of protecting more vulnerable road users.
Maybe, just maybe, all these years of distrust and violence between cyclists and drivers can be undone.
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