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Ford’s Info Cycle project equips bicycles with data-gathering sensors

Ford may be one of the world’s largest car companies, but its latest research project involves vehicles with fewer wheels, and human power rather than horsepower.

The Dearborn carmaker doesn’t necessarily think of bicycles as a possible future product line. But it does believe they can be used to collect data that can help analysts better understand the dynamics of urban streets, according to CityLab.

To learn more about cycles and how they interact with cars on the street, Ford started the Info Cycle project to gather data from onboard sensors. A kit was developed by the carmaker’s research center in Palo Alto, California that allows Ford to collect information on location, speed, ambient light, temperature, and altitude, among other factors.

A sensor is clipped to a bicycle’s front fork. It’s made from off-the-shelf electronics and uses Ford’s open-source OpenXC platform, which was created to encourage third parties to develop apps for the company’s in-car infotainment systems. The data generated by Info Cycle will then be made available for analysis.

While only a handful of bikes are part of the project right now, Ford expects that number to grow, and sees many potential uses for the data they acquire.

City planners could use it to track traffic movement, bike advocacy groups could use it to make the case for more bike lanes, and Ford itself could combine the data with OpenXC data from its cars to get a clearer picture of how urban streets are used, and how cars and bikes interact, researchers say.

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To help scale up the project, Ford is now working on ways to integrate sensors into bicycles more seamlessly. It says many riders are reluctant to add weight simply for the purposes of this experiment, so engineers are looking for ways to incorporate the sensor into existing components like the handlebars, lights, or bell.

Once the design is finalized, researchers plan to build about 1,000 devices and hand them out to a “select group of cyclists in well defined geographic areas.” What those cyclists do with the devices is an open question.

The goal is to attract a community of active users who will do things with this data-harvesting capability that perhaps even Ford itself didn’t anticipate. The carmaker says the system’s open-source nature will allow people to adapt it for their own local projects.

Ford has experimented with bicycles before. It unveiled the MoDe range of electric bike prototypes earlier this year, and attempted to market an e-bike called the Think back in 2001. Maybe “Big Data” will help the Blue Oval finally achieve a beachhead in the bike business.