Detection technology could help keep e-scooters off sidewalks
Among the technologies being tested is a system developed by the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHUB) that powers off a scooter when it is ridden on a sidewalk.
If embraced, such technology could ease growing conflicts over sidewalk use that have overwhelmed cities since e-scooters arrived more than two years ago, transportation and industry leaders say.
“If the companies put some effort behind it and continue to develop it, they could come up with a solution that is safe,” said Joseph Cevetello, chief information officer for Santa Monica, where the influx of scooters on sidewalks led the city to recruit DxHUB to develop a solution. The city is drafting regulations that would require scooter companies to employ sidewalk detection and other technology to help reduce sidewalk riding.
San Jose last year required companies operating in the city to come up with a sidewalk detection solution, prompting companies such as Bird, Lime, Lyft and Spin to come up with their own ideas.
In the District, one of the first cities in the United States to embrace scooters, the devices are banned from sidewalks downtown, and the D.C. Council is weighing legislation that would require better signage on streets to alert users about the prohibition against riding on sidewalks.
But cities are finding that simply designating sidewalks as off-limits for scooters isn’t working. Although campaigns to educate riders have yielded some results, sidewalk riding remains a top concern.
Scooter companies tell riders to avoid riding on sidewalks where prohibited through the use of in-app notifications, pre-ride education training and signage on the devices. They contend complaints have decreased as people have become more familiar with the services and the rules.
Some companies have been experimenting with technology such as GPS, sensors, Bluetooth beacons, onboard cameras and artificial intelligence, though none of the approaches has been fully incorporated into the services. Testing and deployment of the technologies would take time to prove their effectiveness, the companies say.
It also could require significant investments in scooter upgrades, though some industry experts say early prototypes indicate the cost would not be prohibitive.
In Santa Monica, where scooters are already banned from all sidewalks, officials last year recruited DxHUB to solve a growing problem: Despite a widespread public education program and law enforcement officers issuing tickets for violations, scooter users were still riding on sidewalks.
DxHUB, a partnership between Amazon Web Services and California Polytechnic State University, looked at potentially using GPS technology to help determine when a scooter was on a sidewalk or the street. They found that GPS wasn’t accurate enough to discern the difference of a few feet between the sidewalk and road. So the team got to thinking about how else it could differentiate between a sidewalk, a bike lane and a street, said Casey Johnson, a design and computer science student at MIT, who worked with DxHUB on the project.
“I thought about the cracks in the sidewalk and if there was some way that we could pick up on these cracks to then classify [the surface] of a sidewalk or road,” Johnson said.
Johnson, 20, wrote a surface categorization algorithm to detect the periodic cracks in a sidewalk. He then added an accelerator sensor — which costs less than $1 — to detect when the scooter is being used on an asphalt road versus a concrete sidewalk.
“So the sensor would be able to pick up on these features of the ground,” Johnson explained. With the algorithm written into it, the scooter would function normally when on the road, but as soon as it hit the concrete of the sidewalk, the sensor would slow it to a stop.
DxHUB Director Paul Jurasin said Johnson’s prototype proved a solution could be developed using readily available electronic parts and could be inexpensively and easily modified to enhance safety.
The DxHUB concept was successfully tested in Santa Monica a few months ago and reviewed by some of the country’s top scooter companies, city and DxHUB officials said.
The approach does raise safety concerns, some in the industry say. If the sensor failed and the surface was misidentified, for example, a sudden stop could cause a rider to crash.
Still, Bird is testing a similar tool that would immediately stop a scooter entering pedestrian spaces. Scott Rushforth, Bird’s chief vehicle officer, said the technology, which requires inserting a chip into scooters, will be incorporated into vehicles being built, though it will take some time to safely launch.
Bird and other scooter companies said they have been working to develop sidewalk detection technology as part of their commitment to safe riding and to address concerns.
The companies said they hope the technology will not only educate riders, but also guide cities in making decisions about investing in infrastructure for scooter riding. In most cases, they said, riders are making their trips on sidewalks because they don’t feel safe riding in mixed traffic.
“More than half of our riders say their number one place to ride is in a protected bike lane. But the reality is that our cities don’t have enough protected bike lanes,” said Sam Sadle, senior director of government relations at Lime.
Lime and Bird are testing a feature that tracks and informs scooter users how much of their trip was made on sidewalks and encourages them to use the road next time.
Lime, one of the world’s largest scooter operators, deployed the technology as part of a pilot in San Jose earlier this year and plans to expand to other markets. Using artificial intelligence, an accelerometer and speed data on each ride, Lime said it can determine with up to 95 percent accuracy the type of road a user is traveling on. If the company determines a rider is on a sidewalk more than 50 percent of the ride, it sends them a push notification to remind them to abide by the law.
“To be considerate of others, please ride on the street in the future,” the alert says.
Eventually, this tool could give the companies the ability to suspend repeat violators from using the services.
Although companies seem ready to embrace sidewalk detection systems for educational purposes, support for a system that powers down scooters while on sidewalks isn’t as broad.
Sadle said the company has no plans to incorporate the technology. He said educating riders and providing cities with data to support more investment in infrastructure are the best ways to reduce sidewalk riding.
“The last thing I want to have is somebody riding in the middle of the street and their system automatically stops because it thinks they’re on the sidewalk, and then they get into an accident,” he said.
Spin, which is owned by Ford Motor Company, tested geofences to deter sidewalk riding in a pilot program in San Jose.
Geofencing technology uses GPS signals to create geographic boundaries that restrict e-scooters from operating in specific areas. But while the technology has been used to enforce no-ride zones and virtual parking areas, it does not yet have the precision to prevent sidewalk riding.
The company, meanwhile, recently launched a navigation feature it says helps discourage sidewalk riding by directing riders to bike lanes.
“We know riders use sidewalks because they feel safer than when they ride on the road,” a Spin spokesperson said. “By helping riders take advantage of existing infrastructure, we can create a safer and more comfortable experience for riders, while reducing sidewalk riding.”
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