Bike Safety Features in Cars — More Development Needed

By Nicholas Mead

A Volvo driver gets a cycle proximity alert through a heads-up display. Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Corporation Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Corporation Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Corporation

A Volvo driver gets a cycle proximity alert through a heads-up display. Photo courtesy of Volvo Car Corporation

In an attempt to reduce accidents and collisions between cyclists and motor vehicles, Volvo has launched specialized software in their vehicles to alert drivers to the presence of cyclists, and Jaguar Cars is following suit with the development of their “Bike Sense” system. While certainly a laudable goal, these technological developments warrant further investigation in their practicality, and perhaps most relevant to cyclists, the extent of their efficacy.

While Jaguar’s Bike Sense system is still currently in development, Volvo has already established a precedent with a City Safety Pedestrian Detection system that functions in much the same way as their new product previewed at the 2015 Consumer Electronic Show. Using Lidar technology positioned at the top of the windshield, City Safety can detect the presence of objects up to 20 feet in front of the vehicle and as small as 2 foot 7 inches. During testing in 2011, Consumer Reports magazine noted that while the Pedestrian Detection system generally worked as advertised, it “wasn’t perfect at detecting people approaching from the side” — a potential flaw considering the number of cyclists injured by opening driver-side doors. The Bike Sense system currently under development by Jaguar aims to reduce the risk of these accidents. If a driver or passenger attempts to open a door in the path of an oncoming bicyclist, the door will activate lights and vibration to caution the exiting person. Jaguar USA was unable to comment on the development of Bike Sense, but one reasonable concern of this feature is whether it works when the car itself has been turned off — the most common instance in which one would be exiting their vehicle.

Unlike its earlier Pedestrian Detection system and Jaguar’s Bike Sense, Volvo’s newest version of City Safety connects the cyclists with drivers via the Volvo Cloud, allowing both parties notifications upon an impending collision, thanks to collaborative efforts of Swedish helmet manufacturer POC, the software development company Ericsson, and of course Volvo. For the system to work, multiple variables must be in play: the cyclist must be wearing a special POC helmet built with Ericsson software while simultaneously using a GPS cycling application (such as Strava). When the GPS software in the Volvo Cloud detects an imminent collision, the cyclist’s helmet will flash lights situated above the rider’s brow and vibrate whilst the Volvo driver will receive a warning through the vehicle heads up display. Even if both parties are unable to manually brake in time, the Volvo’s City Safety system (a standard feature in the new XC90 and all 2014 models) will automatically brake in an attempt to prevent the collision as long as the vehicle is going under 31mph and above 3mph.

A number of videos on YouTube show the automatic breaking feature of the XC60 with mixed results. While most of these videos date to the initial release and testing periods of the Volvo City Safety feature, several particularly critical videos show the XC60 in a controlled environment crashing head-on into parked trailers and inflatable dummy cars. The fact that these tests were set up to demonstrate the efficiency of City Safe is disconcerting and admittedly a tad comical. The notion that the safety system “mostly” works is not entirely reassuring and should be a reminder to drivers and cyclists alike that City Safe is a last resort rather than a luxury feature. Even in ideal conditions, technology can fail us. The obvious concern that seems to prevail is that the new safety systems may lure drivers, and perhaps even cyclists, into a false sense of security. Drivers assuming that the vehicle will do the brunt of the work in preventing accidents risk lowering their awareness of nearby vehicle operators, potentially heightening the risk of hazardous or distracted driving. Additionally, it might be prudent for consumers to be wary of features that take control away from the vehicle operator and place it in the hands of the Volvo Cloud — it is not unreasonable to conceive of instances in which the driver’s judgment may be more prudent than that of the GPS system. Nor is it not entirely clear what size objects or persons City Safety will detect. Furthermore, not all cars on the road will be equipped with this technology: if one Pedestrian Detection or City Safety Volvo comes to a grinding halt for a cyclist (or let’s say a deer), there may be nothing stopping the cars behind it from plowing onwards and injuring all three parties involved. Entertaining these notions certainly flies in the face of ambitions by Volvo that by 2020, “No one is killed or injured in a new Volvo,” according to Anders Eugensson, Volvo’s head of government affairs in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2012. Eugensson’s metaphor for new Volvo’s is, “The car of the future will be just like the farmer’s horse. The farmer can steer the horse and carriage but if he falls asleep the horse can still (get) back home. And if the farmer tries to steer the carriage against a tree or off a cliff, the horse will refuse.” It is quite possible, however, that in a number of common instances the horse will, in fact, acquiesce. Volvo Cars Support website lists a number of limitations of the City Safety system where the technology will not prevent a collision:

The sensor’s limitations mean that City Safety™ has poorer functionality — or none at all — in e.g. heavy snowfall or rain, dense fog, dust storms or white-out situations. Misting, dirt, ice or snow on the windscreen may also disrupt the function.

Low-hanging objects, e.g. a flag/pennant for projecting load, or accessories such as auxiliary lamps and bull bars that are higher than the bonnet limit the function.

The laser light from the sensor in City Safety™ measures how the light is reflected. The sensor cannot detect objects with low reflection capacity. The rear sections of the vehicle generally reflect the light sufficiently thanks to the number plate and rear light reflectors.

On slippery road surfaces the braking distance is extended, which may reduce the capacity of City Safety™ to avoid a collision. In such situations the ABS and ESC systems will provide best possible braking force with maintained stability.

When your own car is reversing, City Safety™ is temporarily deactivated.

City Safety™ is not activated at low speeds — under 4 km/h, which is why the system does not intervene in situations where a vehicle in front is being approached very slowly, e.g. when parking.

Driver commands are always prioritized, which is why City Safety™ does not intervene in situations where the driver is steering or accelerating in a clear manner, even if a collision is unavoidable.

When City Safety™ has prevented a collision with a stationary object the car remains stationary for a maximum of 1.5 seconds. If the car is braked for a vehicle in front that is moving, then speed is reduced to the same speed as that maintained by the vehicle in front.

On a car with manual gearbox the engine stops when City Safety™ has stopped the car, unless the driver manages to depress the clutch pedal beforehand.

Drivers and cyclists alike should clearly take heed as the system is by no means foolproof. For cyclists in the Pacific Northwest, heavy rain that may affect the lasers used by the City Safety system is a common occurrence. It also seems unfortunate that City Safety does not work when the car is operating in reverse, as that situation presents the lowest visibility for a driver backing out into traffic. Those wary of City Safety can disable it under the “Car Settings” menu, but must do so each time the car is turned on, as it automatically resets after the engine is turned off.

This is not to paint the developments of Volvo and Jaguar as useless by any means, merely to urge caution with an eye towards the realistic conditions in which accidents may occur. It’s important to keep in mind that this technology is relatively new and the full extent of its efficacy cannot be entirely determined as of yet. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has endorsed the concept of vehicle-to-vehicle communication in accident prevention, and features like City Safety and Bike Sense may soon become required in new cars by as early as 2016, much like their recent announcement of mandatory backup cameras by May 2018.

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