Cities can admonish drivers to share the road all they want, but accidents still happen. Cyclists and pedestrians get run over. Maybe self-driving cars could prevent most of these accidents, but it will be a long time before the entire vehicle fleet—or even a small percentage of it—switches over. In the meantime, GM is working solution: a system to alert drivers of nearby pedestrians and cyclists. The hitch is that the system only detects people equipped with smartphones. Luddites and people who can’t afford expensive data plans are out of luck.
GM’s system integrates Wi-Fi Direct, a peer-to-peer wireless standard that lets smartphones directly communicate with each other, with driver alert and sensor systems found in many of today’s vehicles. Wi-Fi Direct allows devices to communicate within a second, while conventional systems that force smartphones to connect via an intermediary (like a cell phone tower) take seven or eight seconds.
As a result, a driver with a Wi-Fi Direct alert system that’s near a pedestrian or cyclist carrying a Wi-Fi Direct-equipped smartphone could be warned when their vehicle is inching a little bit too close. “This new wireless capability could warn drivers about pedestrians who might be stepping into the roadway from behind a parked vehicle, or bicyclists who are riding in the car’s blind spot,” explained Nady Boules, GM Global R&D director of the Electrical and Control Systems Research Lab, in a statement.
The system (which has no set release date) has limited use for now, largely because many smartphones—including the iPhone—still don’t have Wi-Fi Direct capability. Over the coming years, that’s expected to change. Still, it’s important to emphasize that this system won’t work at all with pedestrians who don’t have smartphones. GM will have to figure out how to distinguish between smartphones carried by people on the street versus smartphones in other vehicles. But if drivers become reliant on GM’s system to tell them if there’s a pedestrian walking behind them or a cyclist in the next lane over, that could be a real problem.