Ford & T-Mobile Test Autonomous Tech That Works With Smartphones To Protect Pedestrians & Cyclists

I’ve never struck a pedestrian, largely because I try to slow down in places where I’m likely to encounter them when driving. That slower speed helped buy me some time to avoid disaster during some close calls, like it has for many other drivers.

On a couple of occasions, the position of my A-pillar (the frame pieces to the left and right of the windshield) lined right up with where a pedestrian was walking, and I only saw them a lot later than I would have liked to. This is a widely known problem in automobile safety, especially as A-pillars have become thicker to make vehicles safer in rollover crashes (by making the roof harder to crush). CleanTechnica Editor in Chief Zach Shahan just wrote about this problem with his Tesla Model 3 a few days ago.

On another occasion, a cyclist was riding on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic when I was preparing to make a left turn. Seeing a break in traffic, I lifted my foot from the brake pedal just as the bike came in front of me. I hadn’t seen him before that because of some bushes that had grown into the sidewalk. He passed by so quickly that I didn’t hit him, but had he come along half a second later, I might have hit him.

While many collisions with pedestrians, cyclists, and those riding electric micromobility are caused by drivers simply not paying attention, or going far too fast for conditions (and thus not having time to stop or change course to avoid a collision), there are times when just not being able to see them results in tragedy, even for the most cautious and responsible drivers. On top of the examples I gave above from my own frightening experiences, there are also problems that arise in darkness, when pedestrians emerge from behind other objects too quickly, or when a driver is backing out of a parking space.

That’s why Ford has been working with partners in academia and industry to come up with solutions to these dangers and save lives. These folks are working on a new smartphone-based communications technology that might assist in warning drivers of pedestrians, bicyclists, and other road users — even those approaching a car’s path but blocked from a driver’s sight.

This week at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s World Congress in Los Angeles, smartphone app developers are demonstrating how their concept for an app running on a pedestrian’s phone uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) messaging to communicate their location to a connected Ford vehicle. If the vehicle calculates a potential crash risk, Ford SYNC can alert drivers by displaying graphics of pedestrians, bicyclists, or more objects on the in-vehicle screen with accompanying audio alerts.

This warning can buy a driver immeasurably valuable fractions of a second to bring the vehicle to a stop or at least slow down enough to make the collision less injurious. There’s also likely some potential to integrate these warnings with automatic emergency braking systems (AEB) to buy even more time.

“Newer Ford vehicles already with Ford Co-Pilot360 Technology can detect and help warn drivers of pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders and others — and even apply brakes if drivers do not respond in time,” said Jim Buczkowski, Executive Director, Research and Advanced Engineering. “We are now exploring ways to expand vehicle sensing capability, for areas drivers cannot see, to help people drive even more confidently on roads increasingly shared by others using their two feet or two wheels.”

Ford is a founding member of the Vulnerable Road User Safety Consortium (VRUSC), a consortia program of SAE Industries Technology Consortia Programs (SAE ITC®), an affiliate of SAE Group. The VRUSC was established by vehicle, bicycle, ridesharing, and technology firms to look for technological solutions to increasing pedestrian, bicycle, and other road users’ accidents. Tome Software started the Bike-to-Vehicle Advisory Board, which evolved into the new organization.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic fatalities increased by 13% in 2021 to 7,342. Additionally, bicyclist fatalities rose 5% during that same period of time — totaling 1,000 deaths.

“We see other possible applications for this technology, including detecting road construction zones and construction workers,” said Buczkowski. “Ford innovates for the masses, so it’s very promising to start with Bluetooth Low Energy technology that’s already become part of our everyday lives because it’s affordable and effective.”

Individual wireless personal area networks may be created utilizing radio waves in the 2.4-gigahertz band to communicate with other devices that are similarly equipped. It is already commonly available in smartphones and works with SYNC connected vehicle technology without requiring any hard modifications to the automobile.

BLE has the ability to communicate with other devices that are equipped with similar technology, which creates opportunities for safety alerts. Even if pedestrians or bicyclists are hidden behind objects, BLE can detect them. This is helpful because not all technologies rely on line-of-sight detection, like cameras or radar. Ultimately, this reduces stress levels for those who have to share the roads in big cities.

BLE technology is frequently utilized in personal electronic devices, such as smartphones, fitness tracking devices, entertainment systems and much more. Its low power consumption means batteries can be very small yet still operate for long periods of time. Normally, BLE pairing involves two devices. However, Ford’s concept uses it as a beacon to sense other nearby equipped devices without the need to pair them first.

By analyzing a person’s speed and direction, the system can distinguish pedestrians from cyclists and others. To limit signal interference, BLE devices rapidly change communications channels (known as frequency hopping) in the 2.4 GHz radio band.

Another advantage to using low-power local communication like this is that it’s better for privacy. Systems that rely on aggregating information on servers risk abuse by nefarious users, like stalkers, thieves, and authoritarian regimes. Because this information is only available very close to the user, there’s no information available that someone couldn’t already see with their own eyes.

Ford and T-Mobile will show how the Ford app can be used to replace BLE communication with T-Mobile’s 5G Advanced Network Solution, which combines hyperscale computing — which adds resources from across a distributed computing network as demand rises — into a single solution to help improve communications reliability. T-Mobile’s 5G network reduces data travel time, allowing detection warnings to be immediately shown on the vehicle’s SYNC screen. This second solution has additional privacy concerns and may require some hardware modifications.


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