How Michigan Know-How Is Bringing Bikes Into The Connected Driving Revolution

Courtney Overbey

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Someday, as you approach a line of slow-moving traffic, your car will know the cause of the delay, even if you can’t see it.

It will have detected that the cars ahead are waiting to pass a cyclist. This information will reduce the frustration of a mysterious slowdown, but more importantly, it will protect the cyclist. The more visible bikes are to vehicles, the less likely they are to collide. 

This and other types of bicycle-to-vehicle, or B2V, communication technologies are under development now at the University of Michigan’s TechLab at Mcity, a business incubator located at the on-campus urban mobility testing facility. Together with university students and faculty, tech company Tome Software has partnered with bicycling company Trek and Ford Motor Company to pursue multiple B2V concepts.

“The focus is very clear: It’s creating safer roads for cyclists,” said Jake Sigal, co-founder and CEO of the Royal Oak, Mich.-based Tome.

The goal of the partnership is to integrate some or all of these technologies into the real world to the extent that it becomes commonplace for cars to communicate with all bikes. And it could start happening sooner than you’d expect.

A Need For Safer Cycling

According to the National Highway Safety Administration, 840 cyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles in 2016, accounting for 2.2 percent of all traffic deaths


“They are the most vulnerable users of the transportation network,” explained Kirk T. Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “They have no means to protect themselves. There are no airbags; there are no crumple zones.”

PeopleForBikes found that the number of bike trips in the U.S. doubled between 1990 and 2009. As increasing numbers of people are choosing pedals over steering wheels, the need for bicycle safety is growing. That’s why when Sigal met Trek’s electronics product manager, Scott Kasin, at a trade show, Kasin challenged him to do something about the bike hazards that cars pose.

“He’d heard about our automotive experience and knew we were from Michigan,” Sigal said. “He asked who had the ability to bring the automotive and the cycling communities together.”

A year later, Tome had partnered with Trek and Ford Motor Company to become the answer to that question. Together they’re working toward answering another one: How can tech make roads safer for cyclists?

“If we can do this work and it saves one person from getting hit by a car, then it’s worth it,” Sigal said. “The technology already exists. We just have to come up with a better way to work with what’s out there.” 

An Array Of B2V Ideas

Vehicles could communicate with bikes in several ways, which is why Tome and its partners are working on a number of ideas at Mcity. Some of the ideas involve true B2V communication systems, in which technology in the car communicates with technology on the bike, creating better visibility for both.

Another project would decrease the likelihood that cars and bikes will meet at all. Tome is working on a map layer that identifies common routes that cyclists take. When installed on a commercial mapping product – Google Maps, Apple Maps, etc. – it would direct vehicles around them. “As a driver, you wouldn’t notice a change,” Sigal said. “It could be as simple as taking you the next street over.”

Yet another concept aims to make cameras in existing infrastructure, such as traffic lights, smart enough to identify cyclists and direct traffic accordingly.

“V2I, or vehicle to infrastructure, is going to be really important moving forward,” said Amanda Roraff, PlanetM operations manager with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “It’s about cities being prepared to receive the information that’s needed to make transportation safer.”

The B2V Challenge

Making B2V affordable enough for cities – and vehicles, and bicycles – to adopt widely is the big challenge. The technology to bring any of the above solutions to market already exists, but it’s currently too expensive for widespread use.

“If you put $1,000 cameras in traffic signals, you could solve the problem,” Sigal said, “but cities couldn’t afford the solution.”

Similarly, a cyclist is unlikely to add to a bike a B2V device that costs more than the bike itself. Working with U-M students and faculty at Mcity has made it possible to make software that can operate on extremely low-cost computers – the kind many cities already have. “U-M has been a terrific partner with us and has really worked to improve the accuracy and to reduce the costs,” said Sigal.

Additionally, B2V systems in vehicles won’t take off until there’s some sort of uniformity to the technology, so all cars can communicate with all bikes. “Everything we are developing has to be open and available to everybody. It can’t be proprietary technology,” said Sigal. “No matter how it works, the underlying technology has to be industry-standardized so everybody can be safer on the roads.”

That’s why the partnership is aiming to create open-source technology, so any company can use it to build their own software. “We believe that’s the only way it can be successful,” Sigal stated.

Having these technologies in widespread use “would be tremendous,” said Steudle – and could have a dramatic effect on cycling safety.

Hitting The Roads Soon

Perhaps the most exciting part of the B2V research happening at Mcity is how quickly it could be available for riders and drivers.

“We’ll be on the road piloting our technologies in the next 12 months,” Sigal said. “The mapping could be deployed as soon as 18 months from now.”

That means roadways could start becoming safer places for cyclists – and for everyone else, too – in just a few years. And increased safety could inspire more people to choose cycling.

“We look at this as a mobility solution because riding a bicycle in an urban environment is faster than driving a car,” Sigal said. “Safety is one of the main reasons people don’t want to buy a road bike.”

Better safety means even more people could start choosing bikes, for both recreation and as part or all of their mobility needs. And more safe, highly visible cyclists on the roads means fewer cars, which is good news for the entire transportation network and everyone who uses it.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Forbes in 2018.  

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