Even though more cities are adding bike lanes, it still isn’t always easy to get from one place to another without riding in the middle of the street with cars at least some of the time. A group of design students came up with a safer alternative for streets that don’t yet have separated lanes: A set of “whiskers” that can move back and forth to signal turns, make cyclists more visible, and carve out a little extra space for a bike on the road.
“When you’re in the middle of the street with cars, what tends to happen is drivers see the space around you and they’ll attempt to pass,” says Channing Shattuck, who worked on the design for the Vibrasee with five fellow students from California State University-Long Beach. “It’s dangerous for the cyclist, and dangerous for the car if there’s oncoming traffic. But what if we could expand the bike to look bigger, so cars don't try to go around?”
With the push of a button on the handlebars, the four long whiskers on the Vibrasee can flick fully outward, discouraging a car from squeezing by. Reflective stripes make each whisker stand out even more, and when a cyclist wants to turn, they can flick the whiskers on one side in the right direction and flash lights inside as a signal.
The project was part of the Biomimicry Student Design Challenge, which asked design students to take inspiration from local ecology to tackle a transportation issue.
"Since a big issue with bikes is navigating through traffic, we were looking for animals that are good navigators," says Shattuck. "At a local animal shelter, a specialist explained how cats and mice use whiskers to gauge if they can fit through openings. At the Aquarium of the Pacific, we learned that harbor seals use whiskers to follow fish through the water."
After some experimentation, including a vision of a future road where every vehicle on the road might have whiskers, the designers landed on the idea of the expanding, movable set.
"The same way mice will whisk their whiskers back and forth to feel the area around them, we were thinking bikers could whisk the air," Shattuck explains. "We also took inspiration from the octopus, and the idea of transforming to warn predators or whatever’s nearby."
In a simple test on the road, the students proved that the idea could work. "Our prototype was very much a prototype—we used strings to control the rod like puppeteers," Shattuck says. "But we were able to bike around and confirm that it was a very unique and visible way to get someone’s attention."
The design was a finalist in the Biomimicry Challenge. Unfortunately, thanks to limited time and no budget, the students don't have plans to pursue it, so it's unlikely to show up on streets anytime soon.