As Bicycles Get Smarter Will Bikers Get Dumber?

Hubway Bike With Harvard Logo

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about intelligent bicycles. What is meant by “intelligent” is never clearly defined, but it implies that the bicycle has the ability to do something beyond rolling along on two tires.

Such a bike was released, not long ago, in The Netherlands.

“The Netherlands launched its first-ever intelligent bicycle, fitted with an array of electronic devices to help bring down the high accident rate among elderly cyclists in the bicycle-mad country. Developed for the government by the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), the intelligent bicycle prototype runs on electricity, and sports a forward-looking radar mounted below the handlebars and a camera in the rear mudguard.”

This bike’s forward and rear detection devices are linked via an onboard computer. To make the warning system work, the seat and handlebars have been fitted with vibration devices which alert the rider to danger. Very cleverly, the saddle vibration is associated with vehicles approaching from the rear and the handlebar vibration is associated with obstacles in front of the bicycle.

There is, apparently, a tablet and an app associated with this system which enhances the functionality of the safety mechanisms. It uses the same technology already available in onboard automobile systems.

According to the Dutch Environment and Infrastructure Minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen, “More and more elderly people are using a bicycle, not only for short distances, but also for longer distances. This type of bicycle is truly needed in the Netherlands because it will help us down bring the number of elderly people who are injured every year and allow them to continue enjoy cycling.”

A large majority of the injuries and cycling deaths seen in the Netherlands occur among the elderly. While this is not surprising, it does go against the grain of what we have been told about how safe cycling is in the Netherlands.

Granted, it would have to be safer than riding a bike in the U.S., no matter what your age. But, certainly age makes all physical activity more difficult. This would not change just because the person in question had ridden a bike for many years.

We all slow down as we get older. Muscle mass is lost, balance is disturbed, reflexes diminish and vision and hearing decline. No amount of experience can entirely make up for such changes.

Just as with everything else, aids can be developed to help those who are in some way impaired. This allows people to continue doing things independently that they might otherwise have to give up. An intelligent bicycle is one example.

From the description of the bike, which will be commercially available within the next two years, it sounds like a way to make up for abilities often lost through aging. The bike has a motor. It senses things in its environment so that the rider won’t have to rely on his or her own senses. In essence, it provides power and an additional “eye” to look out for the safety of the rider.

Not only would this be good for elderly cyclists, but it would be good for anyone with a disability or anyone who is afraid of riding in traffic. A bike of this type wouldn’t be sufficient in cases where a car was approaching at high speed. The vibrating warning wouldn’t give the cyclist enough time to react. However, in a bike lane, warnings of this type might be adequate.

So, what does it mean for cycling now that bicycles are getting smarter? The bicycles are definitely taking some of the burden of riding safely away from the rider. The bike is making decisions for the rider, although one would hope that the rider would consider the validity of the bicycle’s input.

What would happen if a lot of these bikes were on the road? Would cyclists become wholly dependent on them? Would they use the bikes as an excuse to ride recklessly — assuming they were not elderly riders — and then blame the bike if they crashed?

Who would be responsible if the rider did hit something and crash? The bicycle? The manufacturer? Or the rider?

In an ideal world, the rider would be expected to use his judgment about the bicycle’s recommendations. Still, as with many other technological advances, when a machine can do something a human once did, the human becomes more stupid and reliant on the machine.

This goes along with the dumbing down of society. Before the advent of technology, people were forced to be self-sufficient. Now most people are dependent on a variety of machines to do things for them. Without the machines, they are lost.

In the short run, intelligent bicycles shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Their cost will keep their numbers low.

But, as with all things, once they become mass produced, the prices will fall and more riders will want to take advantage of the bicycle safety factors available through such bicycles. How cyclists will be encouraged to remain vigilant is unclear.

Safety has always been a major priority for cyclists. They have had to be smart to survive, uninjured. Hopefully, smart bikes will not make them dumb and complacent. Otherwise, they will end up crashing more than they would if they relied on their own senses and their own judgment.

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