Will Auto Manufacturers Help Save Cyclists?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 08, 2015

Seeing the cyclist is the first challenge. No matter who-- or what-- sees it. (Volvo photo)Cars and bikes don’t always mix well. Deaths from bicyclists and cars colliding are up nationally, from 680 in 2011 to 726 in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Bicyclist fatalities in the U.S. were up 16 percent from 2010 to 2016.

In California, 338 cyclists were killed between 2010 and 2012. Florida was close behind, with 329 deaths during that period. Both are two of the most populous states, of course-- and with a climate that allows for cycling much if not all of the year. 

Is there a way to reduce the carnage? Sure. The nonprofit, Massachusetts-based MassBike, for instance, points to its partnership with the state’s DOT on a new program to increase bicycle and pedestrian safety, and both New York and San Francisco have set tough “Vision Zero” goals.

BMW's Night Vision system gets those cyclists in sight. Now, let's hope the driver can get off the phone. (BMW photo)New York is increasing its miles of bicycle paths, striped lanes and signed routes, as well as new car-free greenways. A city report points out that only one recent fatality occurred when a bicyclist was in a marked bike lane. And helmets are important—fully 97 percent of New York’s cycling fatalities where not wearing helmets. Heads get hurt in these accidents-- 74 percent of fatalities involve head injuries.

But there’s another approach, too, in which Volvo is, predictably, taking the lead. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that the most common fatality scenario, accounting for 23 percent of deaths, occurs with a car traveling in the same direction as a bicycle, and colliding with it from behind. (This contrasts with pedestrians, who are most often hit while crossing a road.) The second most common cause of death, at 22 percent, results from bicyclists crossing in front of a car or truck.

Jaguar Land Rover has its own approach to detecting bicyclists. Jaguar/Land Rover photo)Volvo has designed a forward collision warning system called "Advanced Cyclist Detection," with automatic braking, that should lessen the number of fatalities. Subaru, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover have similar systems, too. IIHS concludes that a system designed to cope with the three most common crash scenarios could reduce bike fatalities by 36 percent. Beefed up to react to a total of five scenarios, it could reduce crashes by 47 percent.

The Volvo XC90 has advanced cyclist detection as standard. (Volvo photo)The Volvo detection system, with auto braking for cyclists, has been standard equipment since 2013. That system provides both a visual and auditory warning when it senses that a crash is looming. If that doesn't get the driver's attention, the system starts to brake-- but it may not brake enough to avoid an accident entirely. The system uses LIDAR, a light-based radar system, to look for objects ahead of the vehicle.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, Volvo demonstrated a new, even more ingenious advanced system that marries technology in the car with a smart helmet on the cyclist. The helmet transmits signals that the car can recognize. Volvo says:

Using a popular smartphone app for bicyclists, like Strava, the cyclists’ position can be shared through the Volvo cloud with the car and vice versa. If a collision is imminent, both road users will be warned—and enabled to take the necessary action to avoid a potential accident. The Volvo driver gets an alert on the car’s heads-up display (even if the bicyclist isn’t visible) and the cyclist is warned via a helmet-mounted alert light.

Cyclist and moose detection are similar. No word yet on "smart antlers" though. (Volvo photo)Yet another approach to increasing safety for cyclists is technology already in use in Pleasanton, California. The devices, called Intersectors, can tell the difference between cars and bikes at intersections. According to Wired:

They use a combination of microwave and presence sensors to detect a vehicle, and offer enough precision to determine whether a vehicle has two, four or more wheels. Because it can detect what kind of vehicle is about to cross, it will adjust signal timing accordingly.

Volvo is probably the global leader in this specialized field, and it has a particularly ambitious goal “that cars do not crash any more.” That may take awhile, but its vision for 2020—nobody dying or getting seriously injured in a Volvo—is more likely to be realized. And the company includes bicyclists being hit by Volvos in that goal, too. Here's the auto company's technology on video:


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