One good thing that came out of the pandemic is that more people picked up cycling. In the first three months of 2021, American consumer spending on bikes and cycling accessories increased by 34 percent year on year to $8.2 billion. However, the pandemic also saw more die and suffer injuries while biking. 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 thinks technology can address. On Monday, the automaker announced it’s working with Commsignia, PSS, Ohio State University, T-Mobile and Tome Software to explore how a smartphone app could warn drivers of pedestrians and cyclists they may not see. As someone sharing the road with a car, you would install the company's software on your phone. With the help of Bluetooth Low Energy, vehicles with Ford’s Sync infotainment system would see you as “beacons.” If the car then determines there’s the potential for a crash, it will warn the driver using audiovisual cues.
According to Ford, its approach has a few advantages. One is that Bluetooth LE is nearly ubiquitous. The technology has been part of the Bluetooth protocol since 2009, meaning every modern smartphone has access to it. If you own a Ford vehicle, you won’t need to bring your car to a dealership for a hardware upgrade since the Sync system features Bluetooth compatibility. The other advantage of using Bluetooth LE is that your car won’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 exposure notification apps some countries and states deployed at the beginning of the pandemic. As you may recall, those also used Bluetooth LE. However, despite backing from Apple and Google, they were never effective due to low usage. In Canada, for instance, the federal COVID Alert app was only downloaded 6.9 million times and logged 63,117 positive tests. Put another way, nowhere near enough Canadians downloaded the software to make it an effective contact tracing tool. Ford's app is likely to experience some of the same issues.
As an avid cyclist, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen riding their bikes at night without an LED light to make themselves visible to traffic. On the other hand, statistics suggest motorists have been driving more aggressively in recent years, leading to the aforementioned increase in cyclist deaths as well as vehicle crashes. Any kind of intervention would be welcome, but Ford's app isn't likely to be a meaningful solution if it ever comes to market. While the Bluetooth LE solution to COVID had only one uphill climb, apps like Ford's have two: adoption by cyclists and adoption by automakers.