British Startup Rolls Out RFID Bike-Safety System

By Claire Swedberg

Cycle Alert is being tested in the cities of London and York to help truck and bus drivers view where RFID-tagged bicycles are in their vicinity, thanks to an onboard unit that warns if a bike ventures too close.

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Croydon, in the southern part of London, has the largest population of any of the city’s boroughs. With redevelopment plans currently in the works, it expects its numbers to continue growing, leading not only to vehicular traffic congestion but also to growing hazards for bicyclists. Bikes must share the roads with cars, trucks and buses, and can often be overlooked by motorists, especially those in large vehicles. To address the risk of bicycle-vehicle collisions, Croydon’s council has begun testing an RFID-based safety-awareness system to help truck drivers identify a bicycle and its approximate location if it comes in the vicinity of their vehicles. The council installed RFID readers on three trucks—known as heavy goods vehicles (HGVs)—that operate in the borough, and will then evaluate whether and how the system should be expanded and deployed permanently among both trucks and buses. The system, known as Cycle Alert, is also being tested or used in other parts of London, as well as in the city of York.

“Croydon’s multibillion-pound regeneration over the coming decades will attract more and more people to live, work and shop here,” says Kathy Bee, one of the borough’s councilors, “and our long-term vision for safer, more sustainable transport will help make it happen.”

The bicycle tag can be attached to a cyclist’s handlebars or helmet.

Part of that vision is a system from the London-based startup Cycle Alert, consisting of RFID tags for bicycles, as well as readers attached to a vehicle’s exterior to interrogate the cycle tags and forward the collected read data to a unit on the vehicle’s dashboard.

Without the technology, truck and bus drivers must rely on mirrors and windows to view whether there are any bikes in the area as they maneuver through traffic or conduct their turns. However, there are many blind spots on such vehicles, which can sometimes lead to fatal collisions. The Croydon Council, Bee says, is focused on solutions that make it possible for bicyclists to feel more comfortable on the roads, ensuring that they are safer and thereby encouraging more commuters to leave their cars home and venture out on two wheels.

Cycle Alert’s two co-founders, Robert Cooper and Peter Le Masurier, were inspired to create a technological system to prevent truck or bus collisions with bicycles after hearing a 2013 radio interview in which a distraught driver described how he unintentionally took a cyclist’s life simply because he didn’t see that person on the road.

In seeking a solution to this kind of tragedy, the duo launched Cycle Alert and spent several years developing the technology. Le Masurier says he and Cooper investigated camera, radar and infrared technologies, but found them to be insufficient since they would not be able to single out bicycles, but instead would merely detect the proximity of any object. They also considered Bluetooth, he says, but realized that the technology would not work as well as an active RFID system. Therefore, the company developed a solution consisting of battery-powered 2.4 GHz RFID tags in an ABS-PC industrial thermoplastic case measuring about an inch in diameter. Each bicycle tag transmits a unique ID number at a rate of once per second. The two men also developed a battery-powered reader that would receive that transmission and also function as RFID tags, forwarding that data to the onboard unit via their own 2.4 GHz signals. A U.K. company is manufacturing all of the devices for Cycle Alert.

A truck, bus or other large vehicle is typically equipped with a central cab unit and three to five RFID readers with integrated antennas mounted to the sides or rear of the vehicle, spaced at distances of no greater than 4.5 meters (14.8 feet). The system also comes with a printed bumper sticker to advertise the fact that the vehicle is using Cycle Alert. Each reader receives RFID transmissions from tags on bikes within its vicinity, and wirelessly forwards that data to the central cab unit mounted on the dashboard or windshield. The cab unit, which has a built-in processor running Cycle Alert software, is typically hardwired into the vehicle electronics or plugged into the lighter for power. When the cab unit receives transmissions from the readers, it determines which are closest to the tag transmission and uses this data, as well as the bicycle tag’s signal strength, to calculate the bike’s location.

Three to five battery-powered RFID readers with integrated antennas are mounted to the sides or rear of a vehicle.

If a tag is detected to be within 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) of the vehicle, the cab unit flashes an alert and emits an audible alarm to warn the driver of a nearby cyclist, and also illuminates several LED lights to indicate that bicycle’s location relative to the vehicle. The Cycle Alert software residing on the cab unit stores each read event. A central Cycle Alert server collects all read data via a cellular connection once daily, and can then make that information available to bus or truck companies, indicating how many bikes came within range of buses, how often this occurred and at what locations (the information is paired with GPS data from the vehicle). This data could provide businesses with information to help them understand where and when bicycles are of greatest concern, and to train their drivers accordingly.

In commercializing the solution, however, the company faced what Le Masurier calls a chicken-and-egg problem. Bicyclists would not want the tags if no vehicles were equipped to read them, while drivers would be disinclined to pay for the system if they thought bike riders were not using the tags.

However, Le Masurier found there is enough concern about bicycle safety among vehicle fleet managers that they were willing not only to launch the system, but to help with both the education process and tag distribution.

Cycle Alert first provided the solution, in 2014, to the University of York and Transdev, the public transmit company whose buses are operated on campus and throughout the city of York. Each bus uses a kit that contains the readers and a central cab unit with built-in software to identify the presence of bicycles around a vehicle. Bicyclists paid about €5 ($5.39) apiece for the tags, which they mounted on their handlebars.

The only data stored in the software is each vehicle’s interaction with a bicycle tag, and the location of that event. To protect privacy, a bike tag’s ID number is not stored.

The cab unit flashes an alert and emits an audible alarm to warn the driver of a nearby cyclist, and also illuminates several LED lights to indicate that bicycle’s location relative to the vehicle.

Raising awareness has also included such efforts as parking a large vehicle and inviting cyclists to sit in the driver’s seat and view the blind spots that drivers must deal with. This, Le Masurier says, helps cyclists better understand how invisible they can be. “We call this ‘exchanging places,'” he states.

According to Bee, the Croydon Council has made hundreds of Cycle Alert tags available to cyclists, by having independent bike shops in the area distribute them to customers at no cost.

After the trial—which began this month on three vehicles—concludes in six months, she adds, Croydon plans to evaluate its next step for the technology.

Altogether, Le Masurier reports, approximately 10,000 tags to date have been sold or handed out to bicyclists. The Croydon deployment, he adds, is expected to add thousands more tags to that number, as well as about 40 vehicle kits.