Continental is working with Vodafone to develop a digital shield that will above all serve to protect pedestrians and cyclists. In our interview, Rob Gee, Telematics Engineering Manager at Continental, explains how the new technology will help to make the roads a safer place – and what this innovative system has in common with “the Force” in the Star Wars epic.
Rob Gee, Continental is developing a digital shield to provide pedestrians and cyclists with greater safety out on the road. The idea of a “digital shield” sounds like a new defense mechanism against the Imperial fleet in a Star Wars movie. Where did you get your inspiration from for this technological innovation? Did your research team take time out for a movie night?
While a movie night would be cool, our inspiration came because it’s our job – and a matter of honor – to do good. The numbers speak to the situation at hand: Every year around the world, some 1.35 million fatalities result from road accidents, and this is unacceptable. As one of the leading technology companies, we are committed to reaching our Vision Zero – a world without crashes.
Like you say, there are still way too many crashes every day and vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists are often the victims. How will the new shield protect them in dangerous situations?
The digital shield is one of the focal points of our cooperation with Vodafone. It helps to protect precisely the vulnerable road users you just mentioned. Cyclists and pedestrians are among those who are most frequently involved. For children and young people between the age of five and 29, road accidents are the most common cause of death around the world. So the question is, how can we protect all road users, and in particular those who cannot rely on assistance systems? The solution lies in the fact that today, almost everyone carries a smartphone with them. Likewise, about half of all new cars sold in the world today include cellular Telematics systems. So now we’re getting the pedestrians’ and cyclists’ smartphones to communicate with the vehicles around them. An app downloaded to their smartphones can send the individual’s position, direction, and speed to our server via the mobile network base station. This data can then be relayed to nearby vehicles that have cellular telematics or V2X (vehicle-to- infrastructure) communications equipment. And because the vehicles have access to additional information such as steering wheel angle, speed and turn signal activation, the system can issue a warning if the courses of the vehicle and a cyclist or pedestrian are threatening to cross in a dangerous manner.
Is that the new future of mobility: everybody connected to everybody?
Yes, but by choice, not by necessity. While it is certainly beneficial if all pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles participate in this safety network, individuals actively choose to opt in, using the app on their smartphone. They should be assured, though, that the V2X messaging standards allow for protection of personally identifiable information, and the servers relaying the messages can provide anonymized information only to those vehicles for which the pedestrian’s position would be relevant. Today, the same type of information is exchanged, but by sight: A driver watches the movement of pedestrians in the vicinity, and pedestrians watch for approaching vehicles. By automating this communication and leveraging the processing power of the computers, more consistent and timely calculations can be made to determine the real risk of an incident.
So this specific technology requires that as many road users as possible drive a connected car or have a smartphone in their pocket?
A smartphone is not the only solution, because there are many wearable wireless devices today, such as medical and fitness monitors, smart watches, wireless headsets, music players, and we are even seeing the introduction of smart garments with electronics embedded in the fabric. For cyclists, solutions can include the onboard trip computer and theft tracking device, and for motorcyclists, the infotainment and telematics systems. So it doesn’t have to be a smartphone. Essentially, what you need is an electronic device capable of sending the required information. The beauty of the digital shield is that it can leverage the technology that people are already electing to buy and carry with them. It doesn’t necessarily require consumers to purchase more than they already have.
But even so, data about road users’ position and route is being acquired and transmitted. Don’t you think people will feel like “big brother is watching you”?
I don’t think so. Today, the vast majority of people carry smartphones, use online search engines, navigate with online maps, and participate in some form of social media because of the benefits they receive. While arguably providing a far greater safety benefit than navigation or social media apps, the digital shield requires only a tiny fraction of the information that people are already giving away in these contexts, and does not require personal information to be sent to vehicles or other users. The information transmitted digitally is anonymized and only intended to minimize potentially hazardous situations.
Continental is collaborating with Vodafone to develop the digital shield. Is that also a sign of where mobility is heading: automotive suppliers working hand in hand with telecommunication companies?
Definitely. Collaborations lead to innovations, and innovations drive the state of the art forward. Today and even more so in the future, vehicles need to be able to navigate safely through our road and data networks. Our cooperation with Vodafone brings experts from both worlds, auto-motive and telecommunications, together to develop solutions based on smart communication technologies such as 5G, cellular V2X and mobile edge computing. By combining Continental’s expertise in auto-motive, telematics and connectivity with Vodafone´s knowledge in IoT, 5G and cellular technologies, Continental is developing and testing ap-proaches like our digital shield to help make the roads safer for all users. This way we can pursue our goal of Vision Zero even more effectively.
Going back to Star Wars: There are many examples of how Holly-wood directors have somehow predicted technological innovati-ons, like when James Bond uses his phone to remote control his car, or there’s the voice assistant in KITT, the talking car in the TV series Knight Rider. Do you ever actually get inspiration from science fiction movies?
With wireless V2X technologies and Continental’s digital shield for vulnerable road users, we can start to bring science fiction to life. Who wouldn’t want to have foreknowledge of key events, especially ones involving dangerous situations that can be avoided? This would be like having “the Force” in Star Wars, or Spiderman’s “Spidey Sense.”