Smart Helmet Connects Drivers and Cyclists

According to a recent press release issued by the Volvo Cars North America, 50 percent of all cyclists killed in European traffic were a result of a collision with a car. In the U.S., there are nearly 50,000 cyclist fatalities and injuries every year.

Volvo Cars, telecom provider Ericsson and bike helmets manufacturer POC Sports have joint forces to demonstrate a technology that “consists of a connected car and helmet prototype that will establish 2-way communication offering proximity alerts to Volvo drivers and cyclists and thereby avoid accidents.” The system will be demonstrated at CES 2015.

It’s an interesting concept, and an important one. Although we tend to think of cars as being at the center of the vehicle to vehicle (V2V) universe, pedestrians and cyclists are far more vulnerable than cars.  After all, cars designs incorporate many passive safety features, and automakers are adding increasingly sophisticated active safely features in every new car.

But the proposed system also raises several important questions:

  • Will cyclists be willing to share their location with Volvo’s cloud? Probably, especially if they are already using a bike activity app like Strava and are convinced of the added safety offered by the connected helmet.
  • The system, as proposed, will provide “alerts to Volvo drivers.” Even in Sweden, where Volvo cars top the market, only 22 percent of new cars sold are Volvos (Volkswagen is second.)
  • If the Volvo cloud service is disrupted, is Volvo responsible for a collision that would have otherwise been averted?

From V2V to V2X

The promise of smart connected car technologies drives much interest and significant investments in research and engineering in V2V-enabled products and services, ranging from monitoring driver’s health to prevent crashes, to parking and charging applications, to traffic management. An interesting, if  highly optimistic, video Connected Vehicles: the Future of Transportation posted by the U.S. Department of Transportation gives a glimpse into a world in which cars, cyclists, pedestrians and traffic management systems communicate in real time.

This innovation torrent is inevitably causing significant fragmentation in technologies and business models at a very fundamental level. Notice, for example, that the Volvo press release describes how “the Volvo driver will be alerted“; and the U.S. DOT’s video promises “360 degrees awareness” but only “of similarly equipped vehicles.”

The full potential of V2V technology to improve traffic safety and efficiency and overall mobility experience cannot be reached by stovepipe applications delivered and managed by individual OEMs or service providers.

Wireless vs. Dedicated Spectrum

The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s position is that without a government mandate, no single manufacturer would have the incentive to build vehicles able to “talk” to other vehicles, if there are no other vehicles to talk to – leading to likely market failure without the creation of a mandate to induce collective action.” NHTSA posted an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) proposing to require that all new passenger cars and light trucks be capable of communicating with each other to help avoid and mitigate crashes.

There is a camp that argues that there is no need for a dedicated Wi-Fi spectrum for V2V and that commercial wireless communication can meet the needs of connected cars, similar to Volvo’s connected helmet. Communication technology aside, the use of wireless carrier network for safety-critical applications inevitably raises questions and concerns about Net Neutrality.

NHTSA issued a detailed assessment of the readiness of Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications technology.

Information Interoperability

The more critical challenge is the implementation of a ubiquitous and interoperable data exchange ecosystem to form an intelligent transportation system (ITS) that incorporates vehicle operating systems and built-in devices, consumer brought-in devices, and pedestrian and cyclist wearable devices.  While OEMs continue to place the car and built-in technologies at the center of the V2X conversation, it’s obvious that aftermarket technologies and consumer devices will have a significant role in ITS, which may support the case for the use of open commercial wireless networks.

The Open Automotive Alliance (of which Volvo is a member) is an example of a cross-industry intiative to drive commonality and interoperability across disparate mobile devices. Although the declared purpose of the alliance is to make cars connected Android devices, the notion of an open platform that transcends devices and transportation modalities represents an appropriate manifestation of the consumer’s mobile digital identity.

(Photo source: Volvo Cars)