Ford thinks Bluetooth LE can keep pedestrians and cyclists safe from cars

One good thing that has come out of the pandemic is that more people have taken up cycling. In the first three months of 2021, American consumer spending on bicycles and bicycle accessories increased 34 percent year over year to $8.2 billion. However, the pandemic also saw more deaths and injuries from cycling. According to the National Safety Council, 1,260 cyclists were killed in 2020, a 16 percent increase from 2019.

It’s a problem that Ford believes technology can address. On Monday, the automaker announced it was working with Commsignia, PSS, Ohio State University, T-Mobile and Tome Software to investigate how a smartphone app could warn drivers about pedestrians and cyclists they might not see. As someone sharing the road with a car, you would install the company’s software on your phone. Using Bluetooth Low Energy, vehicles with Ford’s Sync infotainment system would see you as “beacons”. Then, when the car determines that there is a possibility of an accident, it warns the driver with audio-visual cues.

According to Ford, his approach has some merits. One of them is that Bluetooth LE is almost ubiquitous. The technology has been part of the Bluetooth protocol since 2009, making it accessible to any modern smartphone. If you own a Ford vehicle, you don’t need to take your car to a dealer for a hardware upgrade because the Sync system is Bluetooth compatible. The other benefit of using Bluetooth LE is that your car doesn’t need to see pedestrians and cyclists before it can warn you. Ford and T-Mobile are also working on a version of the app that uses 5G instead of Bluetooth LE.

In practice, the company’s approach is reminiscent of the COVID notification apps some countries and states deployed at the beginning of the pandemic. As you may recall, these also used Bluetooth LE. However, despite support from Apple and Google, they have never been effective due to low usage. In Canada, for example, the federal COVID Alert app has been downloaded just 6.9 million times and logged 63,117 positive tests. Put another way, far from enough Canadians have downloaded the software to make it an effective contact tracing tool. Ford’s app will likely have some of the same issues.

As an avid cyclist, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen riding bikes at night without LED lights to make themselves visible to traffic. On the other hand, statistics suggest that motorists have been driving more aggressively in recent years, leading to the increase in cyclist fatalities and vehicle accidents mentioned above. Any kind of intervention would be welcome, but Ford’s app probably won’t be a viable solution if it ever launches. While the Bluetooth LE solution to COVID has only had one surge, apps like Ford’s have had two: cyclist adoption and automaker adoption.

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