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Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities continue to rise in the U.S., with an estimated 7,485 people killed by drivers last year, an increase of almost 15 percent from 2020. Meanwhile, Ford Motor Company thinks it has a solution: a cellphone app.Ford will demonstrate a new app this week at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s World Congress—an industry group comprised of a who’s who of companies that make money selling cars or technology in cars—with the aim of using Bluetooth Low Energy, signals that existing smartphones are capable of emitting, “to communicate their location to a connected Ford vehicle,” a Ford press release stated. “If the vehicle calculates a potential crash risk,” Ford’s infotainment system will, in theory, “alert drivers by the in-vehicle screen showing graphics of pedestrians, bicyclists or more with audio alerts sounding.”
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It is difficult to envision how this system supposedly works. The idea is that the app would somehow know a pedestrian or cyclist—“even those hidden from direct view,” the press release says—is about to emerge in front of your car and create some kind of alert in the car via the app telling you there is someone nearby so you… slow down? Look up? Slam on the brakes? It is not clear what is supposed to happen after this alert occurs, other than to force you, the driver, to pay attention to the road. In theory.
It is also a grotesque caricature of how pedestrian and cyclist fatalities occur in the real world, as if we, the walkers and cyclists of the world, are hiding behind brick walls, trees, and light poles just beside the road. Far more typical are pedestrians who die trying to cross a wide street with a high speed limit and no crosswalks or a cyclist getting hit on a road that offers them no physical separation from cars, inviting tragedy. A smartphone app that stops people from hitting other people with their cars is, if nothing else, a deeply ironic solution to a problem that has long been blamed on people looking at their phones while driving. “Distracted driving” first came to prevalence in the late 2000s as texting while driving became a widespread habit and only spread as smartphones became ubiquitous. To date, there have been countless millions of dollars spent on distracted driving awareness campaigns. Google Scholar pulls up some 15,000 results for a search of the phrase “distracted driving,” 13,100 of them in the last decade. Approximately 7,440 of those studies discuss cell phone use as a major vector of distracted driving. But as more automakers incorporate giant infotainment screens that phones plug into, the distraction is not going away, but shifting from cellphones to car screens. And it is on these screens Ford hopes you will one day look to see a representation of a person walking when there is an actual person walking nearby, perhaps right in front of you, whom you are about to hit with your Ford. How looking down at your screen is a solution to avoiding the person within perhaps a hundred feet of your car—or how this is a better solution than not looking down at your screen—is something Ford will, hopefully, explain when the app debuts. Aside from distracted driving, another 2009 cellphone-related phenomenon was the phrase “There’s an app for that,” which Apple made famous that same year. As the U.S. has been busy trying to invent an app to stop people from getting hit by cars and putting out public service alerts asking people nicely to stop texting while driving, elsewhere in the world, efforts to actually prevent people from getting hit by cars—cutting speed limits, changing street design, banning most cars from dense urban areas, and making driving less convenient and more costly than other forms of transportation—continue to prove successful. It turns out there is no app for this particular problem, but don’t tell Ford. Maybe with another 10 years of research, they’ll figure something out.
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