Ford Motor Co. seems to know that driving privately-owned cars will not be the key of efficient urban mobility. As well as initiatives such as Ford's car-sharing pilot, navigating the busy streets of the future will probably involve a return to bicycling, for at least a part of a modern multi-modal transportation system.
At last week's Further With Ford conference, hosted this year in Silicon Valley, bikes were prominent in the automaker's thinking -- noteworthy enough to feature in CEO Mark Fields' keynote address. In addition, a number of employee-designed prototype folding e-bikes, suitable to fit in the trunk of Ford vehicles, was on display: the product of an internal competition among Ford employees to come up with innovative designs. Ford's interest in two-wheeled transport is most likely a smart move as cities will inexorably become more dense and congested.
In a data-driven world, though, while Ford admits it knows an awful lot about the habits of car drivers, conversely, it knows very little about how bike riders navigate the often unsafe streets in urban environments. To address this knowledge gap, Ford is about to launch its Info Cycle project, which will involve gathering intelligence on the cycling habits of a selected group of urban riders. To do this, the company will put a small device onto a bicycle's front fork, which bundles together off-the-shelf sensors, allowing it to record data as the cyclists go about their days.
The device contains GPS, light, accelerometer, temperature, altitude and humidity sensors to track a range of environmental variables. As this information is captured, it can be sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone, or a handlebar-mounted tablet, which can provide useful data to riders.
At the same time, Ford will be able to determine riding patterns on aggregate and see how riders respond to changing environmental factors. For instance, the light sensors might be able to reveal how routes through cities change depending on the available light. The accelerometers, in conjunction with GPS location, might reveal where potholes are located as bikes detect irregularities in the road surface.
A representative from Ford told me that the company is not exactly sure what it expects to find out from the project, or even what business opportunity may result; after all, until it gains intelligence from the endeavor, it has to keep an open mind. However, Ford thinks there is probably a "safety story" that will result from the experiment, which could lead to safer urban mobility.
For example, city officials might benefit from the findings. What if information on poor street-lighting correlates to an avoidance of certain routes after dark? Officials might be able to take the opportunity to offer better street-lighting, for example, to encourage a distribution of traffic to quieter, though previously poorly-lit, streets. Alternatively when poor road surfaces are revealed as a result of the accelerometers consistently being triggered by bumps at the same spots, cities could quickly make improvements to road surfaces or bike lanes, by knowing exactly where those trouble spots exist. Possibly, too, the system might be enhanced by analyzing lean angles on the bikes, which could indicate if a rider has fallen off, automatically triggering a message to the rider to confirm if they are safe.
While there are many cycling apps out there for athletes to track their fitness data, this project will instead build a different sort of data set for urban cyclists. Ford plans to find a thousand cyclists this year willing to attach the devices to their bikes and begin gathering information in multiple cities.
Image credit: Picture taken by author
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.