What if we’d invested in safer cars instead of autonomy?

Last year a question fell into my brain that I haven’t been able to get rid of since:

What if we’d invested in safety instead of autonomy?

According to McKinsey, more than $100 billion has been spent so far on attempting to build fully autonomous vehicles.

What if we’d invested that money on vehicle safety instead? What if rather than autonomy, we attempted to get the risk of death for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to zero? What if we attempted to do it in a way that still allowed for the feeling of 99% autonomy for drivers?

I became obsessed with this idea last year. Could a technical solution exist to eliminate these deaths? Would it be closer, or further away than autonomous driving?

I decided to go looking.

How are people dying from vehicles?

Safety advances have mostly benefitted people riding in modern, luxury vehicles.

If you are lucky enough to drive a BMW X3 4WD, Nissan Pathfinder 2WD, or a Lexus ES 350, the NHTSA has a driver death rate of 0 for you.

IHTS Safety

Conversely, if you’re driving a Ram 3500 Crew Cab long bed 4WD, you are more than 5x more likely to kill someone else with your car, rather than yourself!


It seems the vehicles most likely to kill you while behind the wheel are big pickup trucks, muscle cars with RWD, or small cars.

Sidnote, as a sports car owner: Two wheel drive cars with high horsepower can lose control if you step on the pedal hard. The high horsepower muscle cars with AWD aren’t nearly as deadly for drivers.

But most alarmingly in all this data, between 2010 and 2021, bicycle fatalities in traffic increased by 58%.

Pedestrians made up 17% (!) of all traffic fatalities in 2021, with 77% of those deaths occurring in the dark.

Clearly we need to do a better job protecting cyclists and pedestrians from cars, and reverse the trend of deaths.

What are we doing to prevent deaths?


Thankfully, new cars and trucks are getting a layer of protection for pedestrians and cyclists.

It’s not yet standard across all vehicles, but Pedestrian Autonomous Emergency Braking allows for automatic braking when a collision is detected as iminent with a pedestrian. There’s even a whole set of tests for cars, included in the PDF linked above.

Unfortunately, the average age of vehicles on the road is 12.2 years, so even if we did add the technology to all vehicles tomorrow, we’re still facing at another 12 years to catch up.

Another possibility is building roads to give a larger physical buffer of protection to cyclists.

But building safer roads is prohibitively expensive in the United States. There are some programs looking to bring the cost down, but they cost an average of $133k per mile, and take two years to build if rushed.

What can we scale quickly to prevent these deaths?

Given the costs and time frames of the existing approaches to safety, we aren’t realistically going to reverse the trends of death.

What if we had a low-cost, widely distributable way to protect cyclists and pedestrians?

How High Risk, High Impact Technology Gets Funding in the United States

Americas Seed Fund

Last year I found out about America’s Seed Fund.

The SBIR program seeks to fund research and development of high risk, deep tech companies in the United States. Given I’d been interested in cyclist and pedestrian protection, I applied on a whim.

I created a proposal for a self-driving robot platform to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

I imagined a self-driving robot which followed a target person, creating a physical buffer between them and vehicles on the road. The idea scared me, because it’s a very ambitious goal, and not something straightforward to implement.

Ignoring that fear, I submitted my pitch.

Getting into Just Enough Trouble

Of course, two weeks later I was formally invited to submit a Phase I proposal.

I made up my mind to pursue this idea futher. I needed to think through what an actual approach to eliminating cyclist and pedestrian deaths would look like, and how I’d get it done.

With that, I jumped in to the problem. At first, I didn’t really believe it was possible. But over time, I started to see a path to making the first steps of the project work.

Jumping In to the Deep End


It turns out there’s a lot of data about how and where vehicles are crashing in the United States. Every crash is logged into a database with the NHTSA, among other places. A great paper showed how we could supplement the existing database with auxilary data to build an even richer dataset for training.

Imagine if you could get an alert that you were about to ride into a high risk zone on your bicycle. How might your change your cycling approach?

We already have weather applications to predict the weather, why not have cycling predictions too?

Bicycle Mounted Sensor Fusion

I started building a platform to ingest mmWave radar, depth, and camera data from a cyclist. I used the latest NVIDIA Jetson Orin Nano as my platform, with a DeWalt 20v battery as my power supply.

I built a data ingestion pipeline using rerun, and got a computer vision model up and running with live feedback over a bicycle network. You can read more about some of the process at my Github repo.

But people in my city kept getting hit by vehicles in broad daylight.

The Stakes Get Higher

Since I started work on this project, there’s been a steady stream of pedestrians hit by vehicles in my town. In one day, a child was hit by a school bus and two people were critically injured.

Frustrated, I reached out to the person responsible for cyclist safety in Florida for help with my proposal. I figured nobody would be more interested in helping me out than the person elected to eliminate cyclist deaths.

In my research, I discovered Florida has the highest rate of cyclist fatalities in the entire United States, despite a goal of zero incidents. Given the rapid population growth of the state, it appears to only be set to get worse.

After four emails without any response and three phone calls to the office, I gave up. I wasn’t going to get a response from my elected official who was responsible for safety, and so I needed to find help elsewhere.

I ended up finding my first help where I least expected it.

Continued in Part 2 where I go in to detail about how to submit a Phase I SBIR proposal.

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I’d also love to hear from you if you have any ideas or want to help. Please reach out via Twitter.