Monday, January 19, 2009

The LightLane, a Better Mousetrap?

It seems to me that people over-value ideas, and under-value the hard sweaty work it takes to get ideas to be really fruitful implemen- tations. I remember Rich Diehl, a friend and employer, once saying to me, "One doesn't patent ideas; one patents implementations," and he was absolutely correct. Which brings me to the LightLane.

The LightLane is a concept from Alex Tee and Evan Gant of Altitude (I'm not 100% sure what "Altitude" is. A design firm, maybe?) Here's what they say about it:
A close brush with a distracted driver is enough to intimidate the most avid bikers from riding at night. The problem isn’t just about visibility, as safety lights are effective at capturing the attention of a driver. However, these lights are typically constrained to the bike frame, which highlights only a fraction of the bike’s envelope. Bike lanes have proven to be an effective method of protecting cyclists on congested roads. One key is that the lane establishes a well defined boundary beyond the envelope of the bicycle, providing a greater margin of safety between the car and the cyclist. Yet, only a small fraction of streets have dedicated bike lanes, and with an installation cost of $5,000 to $50,000 per mile, we shouldn’t expect to find them everywhere anytime soon. Instead of adapting cycling to established bike lanes, the bike lane should adapt to the cyclists. This is the idea behind the LightLane. Our system projects a crisply defined virtual bike lane onto pavement, using a laser, providing the driver with a familiar boundary to avoid. With a wider margin of safety, bikers will regain their confidence to ride at night, making the bike a more viable commuting alternative.
The LightLane is an idea (NOT an implementation, if I am to interpret the Photoshop job as the work-in-progress.) Not a bad idea, although not by any means fully fleshed out. The concept of defining in a clearly visible way a "safe zone" around a bicycle using a stroked laser is interesting. But it doesn't seem remotely ready for prime time, in my opinion. It looks to me like Tee and Gant might be trying to solve the wrong problem here:
  • Firstly, if (as they admit) high-intensity bike lights "are effective at capturing the attention of a driver", then the rest of the problem is simply a matter of obeying the rules of the road. What makes the "envelope" around bicycles any different from the reasonable safe clearance given any other vehicle by a safe driver?
  • Secondly, does this concept work in the day time, or is it conceived strictly as a replacement for bike lighting? (I can't imagine the laser that would be sufficiently bright to light up a virtual bike lane in the daytime without burning holes in things, if you know what I mean.)
  • Thirdly, the device as shown seems to be oriented more towards overtaking cars rather than cars ahead. It's been shown through accident statistics that very few accidents occur from cars overtaking bikes. Far more often, collisions occur when cars pull out in front of bicyclists (see below) or when they turn left in front of them, both as a result of not seeing the approaching bike. This device doesn't seem to significantly increase forward visibility of the bicylist, although it might in certain terrain.
  • Fourthly, and possibly most importantly, it seems to me that a (regular) bike lane has value precisely because it provides a zone of protection for a cyclist that has been agreed to by statute. It's there day and night, and it doesn't move around. The "virtual bike lane" does (at least in theory) make the cyclist more visible in certain situations, but that's really the limit of it. It should really be billed as an alternative night-lighting arrangement and compared to other such devices, and not as a alternative to infrastructures, which it really doesn't provide.
  • Lastly, even if all these issues could be dealt with, could this device be produced at any reasonable cost?
All these criticisms aside, I can think of things you could do with stroked laser type lighting. The idea of creating a virtual envelope around a bike might have merit, but I think it needs to be a 3D envelope, which almost suggests something more holographic. (I'm not sure this is possible with current technology). I could also conceive of a training aid to teach cyclists how to "find their line" in the traffic lane, although this is something that should be projected ahead of the cyclist, and should probably have some sonic detection to help the cyclist move out around parked cars, and this of course would add complexity and cost.

All in all, it's hard to see how this is much of an improvement over conventional night lighting for bicyclists. I'm put in mind of the Trek bicycle ad that they ran on OLN during the Tour de France, where they showed a cycle commuter at dusk on (presumably) a Trek bike, but with no headlight! (Hey, doofus, why do you think that car is pulling out in front of you? It's because he can't see you!)

Well, hmm, this has been a bit of a wandering post. I guess the point I want to make is about "the better mousetrap". I'm not seeing where projecting a lane on the pavement around me is going to increase my visibility to drivers all that much, while simply using a conventional light device doesn't do a bad job of it.


KGS Bikes - Kevin Saunders said...

I appreciate your post. I have been lukewarm at best regarding bike lanes because of their expense, lack of availability because right of ways are already maxed out, and the lack of maintenence makes them glass traps.

Additionally, car people think that one can only ride on a road with a bike lane.

I am a much bigger proponent of education as we already have the roads and you are correct that most accidents occur in front of the bicycle and half of them are the cyclists fault!

Willie said...

You mentioned laser projectors being made at a cost. I assure you that semiconductor lasers can be made cheaply and that this device could be made reasonably cheaply (lots less than, say, an Avid BB7 brake). Now, can they pass CPSC standards? What happens if the cyclist falls and the laser shines directly into the eyes of an oncoming motorist?

Solving the wrong problem, indeed. This just doesn't pass the practicality sniff test, IMO.