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Starts & Stops

‘Smart bike’ focuses on safety

Four engineering students at Northeastern University have created a “smart bike” with sensors to detect cars.

Martine Powers/Globe Staff

Four engineering students at Northeastern University have created a “smart bike” with sensors to detect cars.

It sounds like a picture straight out of the Jetsons: A bicycle that communicates with its rider, sends messages to surrounding drivers, and can serve as a black box in the unfortunate event of a collision.

But for four mechanical engineering students at Northeastern University, that future isn’t too far away.

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They’ve created a “smart bike” — officially known as the Interactive Bicyclist Accident Prevention System — and though it’s still a ways off from appearing on the market, the students are hopeful that their system might be a game-changer when it comes bicyclist safety.

Their creation consists of two consoles that can be mounted to the front and rear of a bicycle, featuring multiple sensors that detect encroaching cars.

If there is not a 3-foot-wide berth between the car and the bike, both consoles on the bike will project green laser lines onto pavement, creating an emergency bike lane.

“These are supposed to imitate a bike lane where there are no bike lanes in the street,” said one of the students working on the project, undergraduate mechanical engineer Carlo Sartori.

There are other features designed to help cyclists and drivers avoid an imminent crash: If a car and bike are too close, the bike will emit a loud message, telling the driver to move further away. And if a cyclist approaches an intersection too quickly, the handlebars will vibrate, telling the cyclist to slow down or stop for a red light.

The consoles will also feature Bluetooth technology, allowing the rider’s smartphone to communicate with the bike: the phone, for example, will be able to detect trends in people’s riding habits, informing them that if they keep riding the way they do, they have a 70 percent likelihood of getting into a crash.

And the vibrating handles, hooked up to the phone’s GPS signal, can alert riders when they need to turn to reach their destination.

But perhaps the coolest part of this smart bike technology is the potential ability for the bike to communicate directly with the driver of a car.

Car-to-car communication and collision avoidance systems have been turning a lot of heads recently; Hyundai topped many of this year’s lists of best Super Bowl commercials lists with a slapstick advertisement about its new auto-emergency braking system, featuring a hapless teenager who narrowly avoids a fender-bender because of the technology.

The “smart bike” designers want to bring that same technology to bikes, providing drivers with a heads-up if they’re about to pass a person on a bicycle or instructing them to move to another lane to give the cyclist more space.

Amir B. Farjadian, a mechanical engineering doctoral student working on the project, said he expects that someday technology to enable bicycle warning systems will be required in all new vehicles.

To get their prototype out of the lab and into stores, they’ve received support from IDEA, Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator, which will provide funding as they refine the technology’s design.

Farjadian said his work making a “smart bike” a reality is driven by the prevalence of crashes in the United States and in Boston; he rides his bike to school every day, and on his route, he passes by two ghost bikes — bicycles painted white to memorialize a person killed while cycling.

“That’s a very sad scene, and that scene triggered us to think about improving people’s safety,” Farjadian said. “Almost nothing has been done in this area.”

Constantinos Mavroidis, a Northeastern professor and director of the school’s Biomedical Mechatronics Laboratory, said there has been a dearth of safety improvements to bicycles, which have remained largely the same for years.

“We’re trying to establish communication between the biker and other vehicles, so everyone will be warned,” Mavroidis said.

And the designers, who include students Qingchao Andy Kong and Camilo Madriz, have earned a seal of approval from Nicole Freedman, Boston’s bike czar.

They said she’s interested in the technology, but warned that it would have to be affordable — under $100 — in order to garner widespread appeal.

Madriz, who has been racing bikes since he was a child and rides on Northeastern’s cycling team, said he expects to see sensors and Bluetooth technology become standard fare for people seeking to trick out their new bicycles.

“At bike stores, they’re always trying to push you to buy performance metric stuff for your bike,” Madriz said. “But apart from the bike light and the helmet, there’s nothing else to buy to keep you safe.”

Cold prevents repair to traffic light in Roslindale

Reason number 674 why this “polar vortex” weather is basically the worst thing ever: It’s messing with our traffic lights.

Driver Ron Paulus wrote a couple months ago to say that he had noticed an improvement in the traffic lights at Centre Street and VFW Parkway, directly across from the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, that lasted a while.

“The lights were converted to ‘smart lights’ some many months ago and really helped the flow of traffic in this heavily traveled area,” Paulus said, referring to the kind of traffic lights that use sensors to detect approaching cars and adjust the timing cycle to minimize the number of idling vehicles.

The lights were working great, Paulus reported, cutting down on the amount of time he spent twiddling his thumbs in gridlock. That is, until they weren’t.

“Since last September they have not functioned as smart lights,” Paulus said, “and simply change on a regular pattern.”

He wanted to complain, or at least get an explanation about what happened, but he said he was given the typical bureaucratic run-around: A call to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation led him to State Police, who said on multiple occasions that they would look into it but never responded, which prompted another call to the secretary of transportation’s office, who punted to the Boston mayor’s hotline, which finally patched him through to the agency responsible: the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

And yet, when he got through to them with his question, he never heard back.

“Maybe there is a simple answer to this, and there is a good reason smart lights aren’t functioning at this intersection, but I feel ineffective in finding the answer,” Paulus wrote. “It is just amazing when one encounters the barriers that bureaucracy builds that prevent the resolution of a simple straightforward problem.”

I talked to Bill Hickey, Department of Conservation and Recreation spokesman, and he had an answer: The light was broken. And it couldn’t be fixed right now because of the cold.

“Our contractors went out to inspect the light in question, and found that there is an issue with a cable that feeds the detection system on one of the approaches to the light,” Hickey said. “As a result, the light defaulted back to being timer-driven rather than sensor-driven.”

Reverting to the default timer setting, Hickey added, does not pose any safety issue to drivers at the intersection.

There are plans to fix the cable so the traffic lights can return to sensory mode, but Department of Conservation and Recreation officials can’t do it yet.

“The cable is underground, and the ground is frozen,” Hickey said. “So we will have to wait until there is a thaw before we can replace the cable.”

In the meantime, Hickey said, DCR will make an adjustment to the light’s timer, to help prevent the extended waits that drivers are experiencing.

Paulus said he was glad to hear that a solution is on its way, but disappointed that a light installed so recently would already be experiencing mechanical issues.

“It just is irritating that we spend so much on these traffic issues, attempting to resolve conflicts, and when we are successful the maintenance of the new technology is lacking,” Paulus said.

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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