By Louis-P. Huard, Co-founder & CEO of Boréal Bikes

The Business of Mobility is an Urban Mobility Company series highlighting some of the fastest-growing, new businesses in the mobility sector. Featuring a closer look at the way in which companies stand out, CEOs, Directors and other C-level executives elaborate on what it takes to turn a brilliant idea into a successful company.

The continued surge in e-bike ridership and ownership has been a boon for urbanites and the environment alike, as air quality in city centres improves. However, on the flip side, with their growing popularity, road fatalities involving bikes are on the rise and are even surpassing car fatalities in several traditionally bike-friendly cities and countries, like Berlin and the Netherlands. We asked Louis-P. Huard, CEO of Boréal Bikes, “How can we make bikes and e-bikes safer?”

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At Boréal Bikes, we believe that we are on the verge of eliminating urban cyclist fatalities through active safety. This could be potentially done in the next five years, as the technology and the needed connectivity is here. In fact, ADAS — or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems — that provide active safety for trucks and newer car models have become ubiquitous. These on-board devices provide assistive features to their users, and, as a result, numerous accidents involving cars and trucks have been averted. Consequently, the number of car fatalities have been falling.

The reality for bikes and e-bikes is, however, quite the opposite. Currently, active safety is non-existent for bikes, although the consideration for cyclists’ safety should be equal to that of car and truck drivers’. Until recently, the efforts in developing such technology for micromobility have been few. That is why, since 2015, our focus has been on the development of an ADAS for micromobility – working with researchers and scientists from around the world to make such a system a reality for cyclists.

The challenges of developing Active Safety for micromobility

Developing an active safety system for cyclists is a daunting task. When we first started, no bike manufacturer or component supplier wanted to pursue such an undertaking with us. We soon realized that we had numerous barriers to overcome. First, the cost of sensors and of embedded systems was prohibitive, making it impossible to produce an ADAS as a consumer product in the short-term. We assumed that the cost of components would eventually fall, making such a product feasible in the future.

Second, developing such a system required that we be able to collect huge amounts of data from on-board sensors. The development of our system required lidars that are normally used on autonomous vehicles. In a normal riding scenario, such sensors would probably not be necessary, but since our goal was to be able to detect intent so that cyclists can have that extra second to avoid an accident, we needed the extra data. We felt the baseline data we were about to collect with our ADAS solution could also be of great value for researchers and specialists in the fields of transportation and mobility, as well as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), urban planning and vehicle engineering.

How it all started: designing a better and safer biking experience

In 2015, we noticed the growing usage of smartphones while biking. We also realized that this practice was dangerous. My own close call with a potentially life-threatening car accident while cycling and using my navigation app made me reconsider my use of the smartphone. However, I knew smartphones were here to stay. Being a newcomer in Berlin, I definitely wanted a navigation app while cycling. The benefit of knowing where to go clearly outweighed the potential risk of cycling without giving full attention to the road. So how could biking while using a smartphone still be safe and distraction-free?

We came up with the idea of a device that would offer the best of both worlds. A device that would communicate essential information provided by a smartphone and warn the user of road hazards ahead – keeping the rider distraction-free and safe. The cylindrical devices inserted into the handlebar ends were to be called smrtGRiPS. Using haptic, auditory and visual notifications to warn cyclists of road hazards and dangers ahead and to indicate the direction to take, the smrtGRiPs are a Human-to-Machine Interface (HMI). Left vibration, left turn. Right vibration, right turn. Strong vibration from both grips, full stop.

Realizing that such a device could gather the necessary data to help make cycling safer in cities, we engaged with outside experts to have our bike data repurposed for further study – therefore funding the cost of development and helping to streamline hardware development. In one fell swoop, our cost and data barriers had been solved by making each challenge the other’s solution.

The general response to the product idea was very enthusiastic. In fact, the smrtGRiPS quickly caught the attention of researchers working on a project funded by the US Department of Transportation. Looking for ways to communicate safety messages to cyclists originating from an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), the smrtGRiPS proved to be an effective HMI solution for cyclists connected to an ITS. Cyclists using the devices were quick to respond to warning messages originating from the vehicular network.

Other research projects followed and similar conclusions confirmed that we were on the path to developing a promising active safety solution for cyclists of all ages – especially children. We had found a way to effectively communicate system messages originating from a vehicular network (V2x) or an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) to cyclists, triggering an immediate response and thus keeping cyclists safe, even in critical situations.

Our critics have often said that an ADAS for bikes is a band-aid or a last resort solution for road safety when everything else fails. What cyclists really need is better infrastructure, something we certainly agree with. However, we have found that the more granular data captured by our ADAS could also be instrumental in building better infrastructure.

Paving the road towards greater accessibility

As Europe’s median age increases, accessibility to mobility will become an important issue. Accessibility will be one of the driving factors that will allow connective and autonomous technologies to be translated to active modalities. As it is right now, consumers who are looking for a vehicle with autonomous or assistive features must choose from a selection of mostly large automotive vehicles. A car-centric approach to connected mobility is neither suitable for cities, nor is it sustainable. The introduction of autonomous technologies to better adapted modalities will help usher in a new era of urban mobility that will be rich in assistive and connected features and, while being safer and more personalized, will have a considerably smaller environmental footprint.

Growing the Movement

We started as a maker of a connected bike accessory, and now we are active throughout Europe, working closely with strategic partners that include research institutes, OEMs, ICT partners, telcos and universities that share the same vision of active safety, accessibility and inclusivity for mobility.

From our experience, we have come to realize that this technology can not be created in a vacuum. Involving the entire ecosystem is an absolute necessity if you want such technology to have a positive impact on society as a whole. We realize today that the insights provided by our partners, thanks to the data generated by our bikes, didn’t just improve our understanding of cycling and fund the development of our ADAS for bikes. It was also a source of valuable information for urban planners in deciding the best location for a bike lane, and it gave the ability to generate data-rich maps indicating the precise traffic flow of microbility vehicles. In 2021, we will be giving access to the world’s first vehicular GDPR compliant data sets that combine vehicle big data (annotated images, telemetry, point cloud and GIS) with naturalistic cycling data sets.

We feel fortunate to have been working on assistive and autonomous technologies that seek to humanise urban mobility from the early stages. Now, we look forward to the day when we may all live in cities that are truly inclusive and safe for all their inhabitants.