Video: Backtracker uses radar technology to warn of approaching vehicles

New gadget seeking funding could provide radar-powered warning of approaching vehicles from behind + video

by David Arthur   July 2, 2014  

New gadget Backtracker, currently seeking the necessary funding to be put into production, provides early warning of vehicles approaching from behind using radar technology and alerts their distance and speed on a handlebar-mounted device.

Backtracker is claimed to be able to detect approaching vehicles up to 140m away. A handlebar-mounted unit indicates the speed and distance of an approaching vehicle, via an array of LED lights, while the rear-mounted unit, incorporating the radar technology, lights up to alert approaching vehicles.

The inventors describe the Backtracker as a “sixth sense” and, should it work as well as claimed, could provide a safe alternative to other measures for keeping an eye on other road users behind you, such as bar end mirrors or simply looking over your shoulder.

In a study carried out for the DfT by the Transport Research Laboratory in to cycling casualties a few years back, although getting hit from behind wasn't the most common type of collision involving cyclists and motor vehicles (getting hit from the side was) it was the type most likely to kill you.

Backtracker has been developed by a team of engineers based in Stellenbosch, South Africa, who set out in 2010 to develop a product that could make cycling safer. The idea came about after meeting a cyclist fearful of vehicles approaching from behind: “The idea for Backtracker was born through a chance meeting with an elderly cyclist, who had resorted to riding in the face of oncoming traffic, for fear of motorists behind him. It inspired us to create a safety product that could bring confidence back into every ride.

"As cyclists, we know the joy of taking to the open road. We also know the dangers, and rear approaching vehicles represent the worst kind. We don’t always hear them approaching, and motorists are often blissfully unaware of cyclists. In 2010 we set the task of solving this challenge in the hope of gaining some peace of mind while enjoying the fresh air."

The Backtracker has a maximum vehicle detection range of 140m and maximum vehicle speed of 100mph. The battery lasts a claimed 8-hours and the rear LED has a peak output of 40 lumens. The two units together weigh just 130g and use Bluetooth Low Energy to communicate with each other.

You can currently pre-order the Backtracker at crowdfunding website Dragon Innovation from $149. They’ve currently raised $9,707 of their $226,000 goal. More info at www.backtracker.io

58 user comments

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auldain wrote:
When will someone develop and market a lightweight and indescrete front and rear facing video camera wit a lot battery life an a loop in record in system. Either for fitting to th bike or incorporated into helmets or front and rear lights units. Surely no that complicated or difficult. Make the compulsory and make sure all car van and lorries and make sure they know bikes are carrying them and I predict drivers would instantly become more considerate.

I keep thinking the same thing, there's an absolute demand for someone to make a half decent quality, discrete bike camera with good battery life to use for safety and evidence if you're unlucky enough to need it.

Given how many people I see with a GoPro on their head, which is both expensive and about as discrete as a head mounted penguin, there's an absolute gap in the market. The mobius camera is the closest I've found in terms of the electronics and price, but it needs three things.
- A small rainproof case as standard, not something to go diving with that makes it huge.
- Double the battery life.
- Better mounts, either copy the GoPro system or something even smaller.

All the pieces to make such a camera are out there, the car dashcam market is overflowing with cheap hardware, someone just needs to produce something for the cyclists.

posted by bikebot [499 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 18:01

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levermonkey wrote:
Peowpeowpeowlasers wrote:
What a stupid invention. Haven't they heard of mirrors?

Mirrors are probably the worst thing you can fit to a cycle. The best indicator to a following road-user that you intend to do something is the look over the shoulder. If you stop doing this because 'you have a mirror' then what indication are they going to get if the road conditions, or your need to keep both hands on the bars, prevent you from giving a hand signal.

Personally I would ban mirrors from pedal cycles [unless a valid reason could be given eg. on a hand cranked cycle] in the interests of safety.

As to the kickstarter. Just what I always wanted -

A countdown to death! With disco lights!

I use a mirror for commuting, a tiny little thing on the end of the drops. It doesn't replace the shoulder check at all, if you're riding with traffic it's just another way to be aware of tailgating, without constantly taking your eye off the one in front. Or cars creeping forward at lights when they should be stationary. When you ride at night, peripheral vision will pick up on the headlights moving without even looking at it.

Oh, and then there's recumbents, where mirrors are much more common.

posted by bikebot [499 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 18:13

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700c wrote:
Peowpeowpeowlasers wrote:
What a stupid invention. Haven't they heard of mirrors?

But how many cyclists have them on their bike?

As many as feel they need them, which I imagine will be many more than would ever buy this tat...

posted by Peowpeowpeowlasers [65 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 18:24

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Whilst flawed, I do like it that people can come up with a concept like this and within hours get a whole raft of "feedback" from a huge and impassioned focus group. The hope is something may just come out of it which may just be of some use. Exactly what, I'm not sure. How about making it aero so it can tell you when you are about to be caught and dropped by your -2 minute man/woman in your club tt? Silly

posted by Steveal [25 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 19:09

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Peowpeowpeowlasers wrote:
700c wrote:
Peowpeowpeowlasers wrote:
What a stupid invention. Haven't they heard of mirrors?

But how many cyclists have them on their bike?

As many as feel they need them, which I imagine will be many more than would ever buy this tat...

bit harsh?!

anyway, as I said, I assume the point of safety devices like these is to give some additional information to the rider, to assist in decision making, not to replace actually looking where you are going!!! (ref my earlier comment/ comparison to blind spot warning systems in cars)

Not sure you can write it off until you've seen it in action.. Like I said, if it's done right, it might useful - and may help to make cyclists feel safer. There's another news story on here about people not cycling as they perceive UK roads as 'too dangerous'. Now I don't think that's the case, but something like this might provide some reassurance. Possibly.

posted by 700c [556 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 21:30

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This isn't really a warning device. It just tells you how far the cars are behind you. You can therefore make the best decision, given the information at hand, based on your context.

As an example: If it's a dodgy road, you'll interpret it as a warning. If its got a good shoulder, you're OK, then you don't see it as a warning.

posted by znarf [3 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 22:28

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I hope no one has spent money on this as it is a crock of shit idea. Don't give up the day job.

If it had missile lock it would be worth considering, but otherwise nah ……. it's rubbish!

Airzound

posted by Airzound [283 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 23:11

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Dude you have no clue - this is an amazing device! I've used it, and in all honesty I wouldn't want to cycle without it.

Its an amazing feeling to know what's going on behind you while cycling - very liberating!

posted by znarf [3 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 23:19

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Mirrors have some serious drawbacks!
(1) Short range
(2) It doesn't give you speed or distance easily
(3) It only works when visibility is good. When it's bad - the cyclist is dead in the water!

Keep in mind that this system also has an intelligent backlight...so its quite proactive!

posted by znarf [3 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 23:32

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If they replace the handlebar units LEDs with the motion tracker sound effect from Aliens, I'll buy it*

*not really.

posted by bikebot [499 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 3:43

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Chuck wrote:
Nice idea but a bit of a solution looking for a problem IMO.
Personally I almost never get surprised by a vehicle I didn't know was behind me- YMMV if you use headphones Wink
And just knowing something's there isn't all that useful- what are you going to do with that information?
Most of the things behind you won't be a problem, and even if this system could somehow detect which ones are a problem what are you going to do about it?

This.
It also ties nicely to your line about headphones. Why would not listening to music make a difference to whether an idiot drives into the back of you.

posted by andyp [860 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 8:41

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znarf wrote:
Keep in mind that this system also has an intelligent backlight

woo

Bez's picture

posted by Bez [371 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 9:00

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So, anyway, the point is this.

When a cyclist is killed by being hit from behind, the radar will show that a car is approaching from behind, perhaps quite quickly.

When a cyclist is passed by a car, the radar will show that a car is approaching from behind, perhaps quite quickly.

99.999999999999999% of cases will be the latter.

If it's not possible to identify the former (*and* to do so in time to react in such a way as to avoid the collision), the device seems useless.

Bez's picture

posted by Bez [371 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 9:16

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Perhaps there is an eventual application for this technology, though.

If the device could detect a speed above 30mph at a distance of less than 3m, and at that point it could trigger your phone to rapidly display all the photos stored on it, it would save you having to bother to have to flash your own life in front of your eyes before you die.

Bez's picture

posted by Bez [371 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 9:26

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Or have it logon to Twitter and say 'Bye'

posted by samuri [12 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 9:29

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The device imo opinion is useless in it's current form.
It could be massively improved by incorporating a safety-distance calculator.

http://geckocycling.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/wip-distance-calculator.html

Given the distance you can approximately calculate what speed a car should be doing if it's to slow down in time in the event it cant overtake.

That could be used to change the colour of the user screen. Green for car is slowing down (given the distance) or Red, the car is above the threshold.

Without such a calculator the device is somewhat useless because it leaves entirely to the rider to determine if speed X and distance Y is of concern.

All of this still doesnt fix the problem of the many, many, many false-positives, where there was room to overtake, which is actually what makes the device fairly redundant

posted by sfichele [99 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 9:39

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What cyclists need is a device which measures and records the speed of passing cars and the distance from the cyclist. Once we have evidence which is good enough for the courts the police would no longer be able to avoid prosecuting drivers for dangerous tailgating and overtaking.

posted by Fifth Gear [7 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 10:18

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What we need is a device that the police can use to detect the speed of vehicles and then they could prosecute. If only this sort of thing existed...

posted by GREGJONES [112 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 10:26

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andyp wrote:

This.
It also ties nicely to your line about headphones. Why would not listening to music make a difference to whether an idiot drives into the back of you.

I make the same point when people talk about headphone bans. If you are cycling in a responsible manner, what action can you possibly take when you hear something coming up behind you aggressively?

I don't wear headphones, but I really can't understand why people think it's so dangerous to do so.

posted by pikeamus [32 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 10:26

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Quote:
I don't wear headphones, but I really can't understand why people think it's so dangerous to do so.

Because I've come to overtake cyclists and runnerists who might be meandering a bit while absorbed in their music. Shouted a warning, which is generally ignored. I then pass said cyclist or runnerist only to see that it was the headphones that made them completely unaware of what is happening around them. Of course I understannd that it is fully my responsibility to pass these meanderers safely and they have to do nothing. #LawOfTheJungle.
Why deliberately handicap yourself? It's not like it's absolutely necessary, is it?

KalaBlinds 'cos we all need our beauty sleep.

posted by don simon [144 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 10:42

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I've also passed cyclists who *werent* wearing headphones, but were chatting, and then decided to turn right without looking over their shoulders because they couldnt hear a car. It's just easy to be a fukstick w/o earphones

posted by sfichele [99 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 11:06

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Quote:
It's just easy to be a fukstick w/o earphones

And I still fail to see how this revolutionary aid is going to be of any help to either set of "fucksticks".
"Fucksticks" will be "fucksticks".

KalaBlinds 'cos we all need our beauty sleep.

posted by don simon [144 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 11:16

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don simon wrote:
Because I've come to overtake cyclists and runnerists who might be meandering a bit while absorbed in their music. Shouted a warning, which is generally ignored. I then pass said cyclist or runnerist only to see that it was the headphones that made them completely unaware of what is happening around them. Of course I understannd that it is fully my responsibility to pass these meanderers safely and they have to do nothing. #LawOfTheJungle.
Why deliberately handicap yourself? It's not like it's absolutely necessary, is it?

Sounds like you are talking about passing on a cycle path, which is not usually the context of the discussion. The context is usually more on the lines of Boris Johnson's comments on a ban in London. On a road you should be passing with the same distance that we expect from a motor vehicle anyway, so a little meandering shouldn't make any difference.

Out of interest, what do you shout? I've seen cyclists and runners be confused by the typical "on your right", and move that way themselves thinking that's what they're being asked to do. I kind've think that mixing sport cyclists and summer-weekend-picnicking riders on the same cycle path is almost as awkward as mixing commuter cyclists on the same roads as traffic.

By way of contrast to your example, I've had several instances where a cyclist switched from undertaking a line of traffic to overtaking it, swerving into my path as they did so because they were relying on their hearing and didn't realise a cyclist was already overtaking the traffic.

posted by pikeamus [32 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 11:47

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Road and cycle paths.
I generally shout STRAAAAAAAAAAAAAVAAAAAAAAAAAA! as this is the most effective way of passing.
I'm more than comfortable in my passing technique, I say at volume that I'm passing on the right/left, whichever I deem safer and am more than capable of avoiding any form of contact if there is a misunderstanding. 1,000s of kms and zero collisions would support this. HTH.

Quote:
By way of contrast to your example, I've had several instances where a cyclist switched from undertaking a line of traffic to overtaking it, swerving into my path as they did so because they were relying on their hearing and didn't realise a cyclist was already overtaking the traffic.

And as the following cyclist, what did you do to avoid a collision?

KalaBlinds 'cos we all need our beauty sleep.

posted by don simon [144 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 12:01

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don simon wrote:
And as the following cyclist, what did you do to avoid a collision?

Braked sharply and gave them a few choice words, though I would dispute the phrase "following cyclist" in this context. On one instance, where I was far enough back, I yelled a warning and it made no difference. On a busy road during rush hour most people assume that yells they hear aren't directed at them. Because they typically aren't. When people yell at my I typically assume it's some sort of abuse and ignore it. Because it typically is.

Anyway, we're getting off track. My point is that, as a responsible rider, my hearing virtually never causes me to change what I'm doing.

posted by pikeamus [32 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 12:22

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pikeamus wrote:
andyp wrote:

This.
It also ties nicely to your line about headphones. Why would not listening to music make a difference to whether an idiot drives into the back of you.

I make the same point when people talk about headphone bans. If you are cycling in a responsible manner, what action can you possibly take when you hear something coming up behind you aggressively?

I don't wear headphones, but I really can't understand why people think it's so dangerous to do so.

Sometimes you can take action. As an example, a few times I've been aware of people racing up behind me as I approach a junction or car park on my left, making me suspect I'm going to get cut up, and I can put myself in a better position for when, sure enough, that's what happens.

OK, that doesn't happen too often, and of course if someone's going to just drive into the back of you hearing it coming isn't necessarily going to help you out.

But for me headphones are a trade off that isn't worth making. I like music, but struggling to hear it over road noise or with only one headphone in in exchange for reducing my awareness of my surroundings, even if only a little bit? Personally I'll leave it thanks.

And IMO all that stuff about drivers being able to listen to music etc. is a massive red herring, unless you find that you experience using the roads in your car exactly the same as when you're on your bike, including how you are treated.

All that said, people can do what they want and it doesn't really bother me when I see people with headphones, unless they're holding people up in blissful ignorance!

posted by Chuck [368 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 12:22

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pikeamus, as I said earlier "fucksticks" will be "fucksticks".

KalaBlinds 'cos we all need our beauty sleep.

posted by don simon [144 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 12:30

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don simon wrote:
pikeamus, as I said earlier "fucksticks" will be "fucksticks".

Well yes.

I'm just saying that I think people who believe cyclists that wear headphones are being inherently irresponsible are wrong.

posted by pikeamus [32 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 12:39

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Chuck wrote:

Sometimes you can take action. As an example, a few times I've been aware of people racing up behind me as I approach a junction or car park on my left, making me suspect I'm going to get cut up, and I can put myself in a better position for when, sure enough, that's what happens.

At the risk of seeing confrontational, which I really don't intend to be, what action can you take in that situation? Can you slow down? Seems like a bad idea, because the driver might've been intending to ride your back wheel until they could turn, and could now misjudge it. Prepare yourself to brake, just in case? Well my fingers are on the brake levers at all times anyway, and the car appearing in my peripheral vision is what actually clues me into a left hook being a possibility, not the noise. Can you change road position? I'm struggling to think of a road layout/situation for which this is a sensible thing to do, based just on the noise.

This is all assuming that you have heard something. I said before that I don't use headphones. Between the wind and the general traffic noise I find I often don't hear things coming up behind me anyway. I honestly think that all my hearing has enabled me to do is to occasionally get anxious, to hear what people say when they've yelled abuse (which frankly just makes me angry) and to hear approaching sirens slightly earlier (I'm sure people with headphones will still hear them, and frankly I very rarely find I have to move aside for emergency vehicles anyway - the benefits of not taking up much road space - despite living very near a hospital so meeting many ambulances).

I don't wear headphones (sorry for the repeition) but my reason is nothing to do with safety. I just enjoy riding more without them. It feels freer and more liberating to me. I also wear a helmet, also for reasons that have nothing to do with safety, but that's another story. Smile

posted by pikeamus [32 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 12:59

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pikeamus wrote:
Chuck wrote:

Sometimes you can take action. As an example, a few times I've been aware of people racing up behind me as I approach a junction or car park on my left, making me suspect I'm going to get cut up, and I can put myself in a better position for when, sure enough, that's what happens.

At the risk of seeing confrontational, which I really don't intend to be, what action can you take in that situation? Can you slow down? Seems like a bad idea, because the driver might've been intending to ride your back wheel until they could turn, and could now misjudge it. Prepare yourself to brake, just in case? Well my fingers are on the brake levers at all times anyway, and the car appearing in my peripheral vision is what actually clues me into a left hook being a possibility, not the noise. Can you change road position? I'm struggling to think of a road layout/situation for which this is a sensible thing to do, based just on the noise.

No confrontation perceived Smile
I don't like to get into specifics because I think these things can be much more nuanced in the real world than they can ever come across on here, and it's not helpful to focus on one particular set of circumstances or bit of road or junction.

When I said better position, I didn't mean specifically location in the road- obviously it's not usually a good idea to do anything too drastic in that sort of situation!
For me it's just being that little bit readier, before something appears in your peripheral vision. Sometimes you can't do anything about it, sometimes you can- perhaps adjust your speed fractionally if you judge you can do that safely, or at least safer than getting left hooked, or whatever it is you sense coming up. I think humans are very good at this sort of on-the-fly judgement, including whether that car is riding your back wheel or coming up faster in the next lane, if they've got a reasonable idea of what's going on around them.

I'm not claiming any Spidey sense or anything here, just stuff that I think helps me maintain a buffer sometimes when it might otherwise shrink. And maybe I'm just kidding myself about how effective that is.
But IMO awareness of a slightly bigger picture than I can see right in front of me is a Good Thing. Personally I don't feel the need to lose a bit of that in order to listen to music half-arsedly.

posted by Chuck [368 posts]
3rd July 2014 - 14:08

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