Go for a spin: meet the tech helping cyclists and drivers coexist

Tome software enables cars and bikes to “talk" to each other in real time.

By Betsy Verecky 

Whether your preferred method of transportation involves two wheels or four, sharing the road between bicyclists and drivers hasn’t always been easy. It’s often difficult for drivers to spot a fast-moving cyclist whizzing down the street until it’s too late—and not having bike lanes only compounds the problem by forcing cyclists to ride close to cars on the shoulder of the road. But soon, it will be easier for both parties to share the road, thanks to new technology that will help cars and bikes “talk” to each other in real time and help drivers spot cyclists out of their line of sight.

Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash

According to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2018 was the deadliest year for cyclists and pedestrians on American roads since 1990, with 857 people on bikes killed by drivers. Many of them were your average rider just trying to get from Point A to Point B.

“While a lot of cyclists are wearing Lycra spandex and hunched over the handlebars, the majority of cyclists aren’t racing,” says Jake Sigal, founder and CEO of Tome Software and a longtime cyclist himself. “They’re not athletes. They’re looking to have a good time.”

With bicycle safety top of mind, Detroit-based Tome is developing new software that will allow bicycles and drivers to communicate better with each other amid a growing number of cyclist fatalities.

“This is a real opportunity to reduce the number of deaths,” Sigal says.

How the pandemic sped up interest in the cycling industry

During COVID-19, people turned to their bikes to safely exercise outside and avoid public transportation. In doing so, many of them were reminded of the joy in bike riding and wondered why they had ever stopped riding.

“There’s such a sociological connection with a bicycle, and that’s really important,” Sigal says. “That’s part of the reason that the passion around cycling isn’t limited to racing or mountain bike communities. The increase in cycling through the pandemic has really helped people understand why micromobility is as important as it is.”

The increase in cycling through the pandemic has really helped people understand why micromobility is as important as it is.

—Jake Sigal, founder and CEO of Tome Software

McKinsey survey showed that people are now more willing to travel by micromobility (typically defined as either travel by bicycle, e-scooter or moped) in part because of a desire to social distance. During the pandemic, cities turned vehicle lanes into pedestrian and bike lanes, and last year it was virtually impossible to buy a bike because everyone wanted one. April 2020 sales for traditional bikes, indoor stationary bikes, parts, helmets, and other accessories grew 75 percent to $1 billion compared to the year before, according to The NPD Group. (Typically, April sales fall between $550 and $575 million, the group stated.)

Tome’s B2V tech can identify bikers before it’s too late

The idea for Tome’s bicycle-to-vehicle (B2V) technology began in 2016 and is designed to enable real-time communication between cyclists and drivers using Bluetooth 5 (the latest version of Bluetooth communication) by triggering alerts to drivers when they might be too close to a cyclist. Sigal has been in the mobile tech game for a while, having previously sold another company called Livio (a software organization that designs in-car connectivity solutions) to Ford Motor Company.

Tome’s B2V technology involves the placement of a sensor on a biker, bicycle, or even a biker’s helmet in order to transmit information about how fast a bicyclist is traveling, what direction they’re heading, as well as the bicyclist’s location. This data will then be transferred to a computer or smartphone and used to create a basic safety message (commonly known in the industry as a BSM) that can be picked up by a vehicle and displayed on that car’s screen in the same way a driver would receive an emergency warning to apply their brakes.

Courtesy of Tome Software

Sigal says Tome’s technology will be especially valuable in cities where bikes and cars are often traveling so fast that they just can’t see each other in time to avoid an accident. “The challenge we run into with bicycles is that, [if you’re a driver,] you can’t always see the bicycle until it’s too late,” Sigal explains. “If you’re in New York City and you’ve got a cyclist going around a corner, having wireless messages helps because now we’re telling the safety system that something’s coming, even though you can’t see yet it. It can be the difference between having enough time to stop and not.”

Currently, engineers are running lab tests, gathering on-road data, and deciding what exactly needs to be included in the safety message displayed inside a car. Right now the project is in the research and development phase, which Sigal expected to be completed by the end of the year. He hopes that the technology will be in use and on the road within three to five years, which is “pretty fast” for the automotive business. “There are opportunities in the future for autonomous vehicles, but that’s pretty far down the road,” he adds.

Why working in tandem with automakers and bike manufacturers matters

Implementation of Tome’s technology also depends on the partnerships the company has with automakers and other industry stakeholders.

Photo by S. on Unsplash

“I might be the instigator of all this, but ultimately it’s not my small software company in Detroit that’s making this happen,” Sigal says. It’s also crucial to have great engineers and business executives at automotive and bike companies onboard, too. “The only way we’re going to solve this is if we all come together and agree to standards.”

That’s why Tome is currently collaborating with automakers like Ford, which is testing Tome’s technology for use in its advanced driver-assistance system. In addition to acquiring Sigal’s prior company Livio, Ford acquired Spin, an e-scooter company, in 2018 to boost its presence in the mobility industry and debuted a jacket developed in collaboration with Tome that has built-in LEDs to help bicycle riders signal their actions to motorists. Tome’s other partnerships include one with bicycle maker Trek, which is adding Tome’s sensors to its detachable taillights to trigger a flashing light pattern to alert motorists.

“It’s really hard to build technology and solutions, and it’s even harder when you have to find competitors to work with,” Sigal says. Automakers and bike companies have different intellectual property, but “safety is something that’s for everybody.”

“Working together on open standards and industry standards allows all of you to save a lot of time and a lot of lives,” he adds.

Lead photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash