Spoke Speaks Up for Vulnerable Road Users

Spoke and Qualcomm collaborate to bring connected bikes into the smart city

Whenever I read about smart cities and mobility, it always seems that the car is at the very heart of the network, with the underlying assumption that connected cars are the revolution we need to make roads safer and more efficient. To be fair, the car-centric viewpoint isn’t new, and it’s also not unique to new projects focussing on smart cities. As someone who regularly cycles in London, it’s frustrating to see how often drivers are prioritized over cyclists, with infrastructure such as bike lanes often being neglected.

It’s a problematic scenario. Many city planners would love to get more people riding bikes — as a clean mode of transport, it lessens the burden on roads and encourages citizens to be more active. Bikes and technology aimed at cyclists have even become a focal point at global automotive trade shows such as IAA Mobility 2021, which is taking place in Munich, Germany. But from my experience, concerns about road safety are a huge barrier to wider participation. I know dozens of people who are keen to cycle more but feel unsafe given how busy city roads are.

For that reason, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on a new venture between Qualcomm and Spoke, a company that’s building a new platform promising greater safety and connectivity for cyclists and other vulnerable road users. The partnership between the two firms aims to improve the safety of those on bikes and electric scooters, ultimately contributing to smart cities that are better for all road users.

How does this work? Well, Spoke is building on the cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) wireless standard promoted by Qualcomm — which we talked about in Planning for a Transportation Network of the Future — with a new connectivity standard Spoke calls “vulnerable road user-to-everything” (VRU2X). According to the company, this will allow bikes and other smaller means of transport to be seen and understood by the rest of the connected transport network.

In practice, this relies on the use of a small connectivity unit made by Spoke. The company’s first-generation device is about the size of an iPhone and can be mounted on a bike’s frame. It broadcasts the location of the cyclist at roughly 10 times per second, using a reliable low-latency connection. This brings awareness of where bikes and scooters are into the network of the smart city in a way that we haven’t seen before.

If successful, this initiative will have an exciting impact. In short, it means that a driver of a connected car can know about a cyclist in the road well before they see them; Spoke suggests that drivers can receive an alert about an upcoming cyclist at a distance of about 200 metres. As connected and autonomous vehicles become more widespread, this will play a huge role in reducing the number of accidents involving vulnerable road users, as drivers will have greater awareness of those around them.

This could be a game-changer when it comes to rider safety. When I met up with Jarrett Wendt, Spoke’s CEO, he likened the technology to the introduction of seatbelts in cars. He pointed out that at first, adoption of seatbelts was low and customers were unwilling to pay for a new and unfamiliar safety feature. However, over time, the transformative effect that seatbelts had on safety made them impossible to ignore. Mr Wendt’s vision is that Spoke’s technology will take a similar route.

But the benefits stretch beyond rider safety; I think this move will be seen as another important step toward smarter cities. Expanding the smart city vision to smaller modes of transport creates some strong synergies. For example, rental bikes and scooters are becoming more and more popular in cities around the world and are a natural fit for Spoke’s technology, which could help tourists and visitors feel safer navigating new places on cleaner and more convenient forms of transport.

Naturally, the question for many is about scale: how does this technology go from concept to deployment? There’s no doubt that this sort of initiative requires deep partnerships and support, and both Spoke and Qualcomm appear well set to contribute in this regard. Spoke has promised partnerships with various bike-makers as it seeks to integrate its technology into the latest models, beginning to create awareness with a range of road users. Qualcomm brings a wealth of expertise and scale with its own smart city projects — many of which it will highlight at its Smart Cities Accelerate event at the end of September 2021 — and this should help VRU2X gain traction as a wireless standard.

The journey to smart, connected cities continues, and with it comes expanding concern for all road users, rather than just cars. In my view, any technology that encourages cycling in urban environments is a huge benefit — and making it safer and easier is a win-win situation. The partnership between Spoke and Qualcomm could start a virtuous circle — or indeed a cycle — where more and more people choose to get on a bike, feeling safer than ever before on two wheels.