The News: The just announced Qualcomm Spoke partnership is designed to improve safety for bicyclists, expanding the smart transportation safety ecosystem and improving safety for other vulnerable road users by connecting them with larger vehicles using C-V2X (Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything) technology. The Qualcomm Spoke partnership is expected to produce a number of C-V2X solutions for vulnerable road users (VRUs) launching in 2022.
Qualcomm Spoke Partnership Brings C-V2X to Bicycles, Expands Smart Transportation Safety Ecosystem
Analyst Take: Qualcomm’s partnership with Spoke, the mobility platform, aims to address an important challenge in the ever-expanding universe of smart, connected transportation: How to bring small vehicles like bicycles, scooters, skateboards, and other portable vehicles (also referred to as “vulnerable road users” or VRUs) into the C-V2X ecosystem. Between Spoke’s expertise in developing mobility solutions and Qualcomm’s leadership in automotive connectivity, 5G, and C-V2X, on principle alone, this partnership is off to a good start.
The plan is for Spoke to release solutions powered by Qualcomm technologies to connect vulnerable road users, including bicyclists and scooter riders to other vehicles, and to each other with C-V2X. These solutions will combine Spoke hardware and software suite, which I believe are the industry’s first connected system to offer secure V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communications for contextual awareness and alerts between drivers and riders. The Spoke solution is also intended to provide direct communication with roadside infrastructure.
Note that the system is capable of providing these low-latency direct paths of communication without the need for a cellular network, using the 5.9 GHz ITS spectrum instead, for dependable, real-time data sharing vital to road-specific safety applications. This capability provides a valuable augmentation to other Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) sensors, such as cameras, radar, and LIDAR. It also improves location accuracy through direct digital communication that connects all users anonymously to each other and to the infrastructure.
We already know that C-V2X can provide highly reliable, low-latency broadcast to support 2/2 advanced safety use cases and enhanced vehicle automation, so its expansion into this VRU piece of the puzzle is most welcome (and somewhat overdue). C-V2X direct communication is quickly becoming an essential technology platform for smart transportation, helping reduce not only crashes but also incident-related congestion to improve traffic efficiency. Note that C-V2X is already globally compatible with 5G networks, cloud-based APIs, and very friendly to AI/ML-enhanced safety features.
Because it combines C-V2X technologies with VRU use cases, this sytem has been dubbed “VRU2X” by both companies, perhaps giving rise to an entirely new category of C-V2X solutions within the broader ecosystem.
In my view, the most impressive aspect of this project is the miniaturization of the C-V2X form factor previously designed for larger vehicles. Traditionally, C-V2X hardware was bigger and heavier. What Qualcomm and Spoke are co-developing is hardware that can be mounted on a bicycle or scooter tube, or slipped into a pocket. This was the key to being able to bring C-V2X technology to VRUs.
As an avid cyclist, other features, like the ability to add a rear-facing camera that alerts VRUs to the proximity and speed of an approaching vehicle, is particularly attractive to me as it provides cyclists with an added layer of contextual awareness that can and will save lives. I understand that, should a crash occur, video of the crash could be captured and uploaded to the cloud for later use by law enforcement and/or insurance companies, for example, which I also find extremely important and valuable.
Qualcomm Spoke Partnership: The Pros and Cons
The Pros. When it comes to the Qualcomm Spoke partnership, as always, there are pros and cons. As an avid cyclist myself, and an urban dweller at that, this partnership is extremely exciting to me beyond my professional interest. When I ride my bike, I want to be more visible to motorists, and when I drive my car, I want better smart safety integration between motorists and cyclists. I want this. I need this. We all need this. Consider that in 2018, (the most recent year from which data is available), about 857 bicyclists were killed in traffic accidents in the U.S., according to the 2018 motor vehicle crash report from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Two percent of total car crash deaths in the U.S. are bicyclists, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. As more people turn to bikes for exercise, commuting, or just making short trips to the coffee shop, encounters between motorists and VRUs also grow, which means more potential for accidents and fatal crashes. Fifty-one more bicycle deaths occurred in 2018 than in 2017, for example, but over the past decade, we have seen a 37% increase in U.S. bicycle fatalities. Looking beyond the U.S., Germany alone saw over 87,000 bike related injuries in 2019, a staggering figure.
Perhaps most telling, and most relevant when it comes to C-V2X applications, according to the NHTSA, about 79% of 2018 fatal bicycle-car crashes took place in urban areas. More tactically, 1 in 4 cyclist deaths occurred because drivers tried to overtake bike lanes between intersections, according to the National Transportation Safety Board — a problem that absolutely can be remedied by better C-V2X implementation between vehicles and VRUs.
The most critical pro argument for this technology is therefore that it is sorely needed, and that it will help save lives. It’s a no-brainer. Every bike, scooter, skateboard, and baby stroller should be equipped with this. We can only hope that it will become small enough at some point to warrant a form factor specifically designed for pedestrians, particularly joggers and runners — I would even strap one to my dog’s collar.
Note that due to its smaller form factor, Spoke could repackage this as an after-market C-V2X system for cars not initially built with one, and this might be the most important business insight in this entire post.
Now, the Cons – or the Challenges. Or rather… let’s explore the hurdles that the first few generations of these devices developed out of the Qualcomm Spoke partnership are likely to encounter. Looking at this from the perspective of two different types of cyclists, on the one hand, you have your recreational user or commuter, riding a steel or aluminum bike, in everyday clothes, perhaps even an e-bike. On the other, you have competitive or fitness cyclists, decked out in Lycra and clipped into their pedals, zipping around like they’re in the Tour de France. I am both.
Weight and Form Factor Challenges: For the first group (the commuter), weight and form factors don’t really matter. A “box” that clips to the seatpost, paired with a display roughly the size, shape, and weight of a smartphone that clips on the handlebars, is fine. The hardware could weigh as much as three pounds, and nobody would bat an eyelash. But for competitive cyclists, weight and size do matter. They matter a lot. Competitive cyclists tend to obsess over component weight, down to the gram. As it is likely that early generations of this type of system will not fall under 300 grams (let’s say that the combined weight of the main unit and the display unit is 1 lb,) it’s going to be a tough sell. This doesn’t mean that competitive cyclists won’t eventually adopt this, but I expect that this won’t happen at scale until the form factor and weight drop to below 300 grams. Something to think about.
This also means that as Spoke works directly with bike OEMs, a significant hurdle it will run into at first is reluctance from these OEMs to add this technology to their fitness/competitive lines of bikes, and limit its install base to heavier, non-performance oriented urban and e-bike lines. At least until the form factors reach that magical weight sweet spot.
Platform challenges are unlikely to be a problem with the first group — the commuters. For competitive cyclists, however, the notion of having a bike computer from one of the market leaders in bike tech (like Garmin, for example) and a separate device for road safety, even one with a rear-facing screen, might be a problem as well. For starters, you have the added weight of a second screen on your handlebars. Second, you have the added problem of real estate on your handlebars: There already isn’t that much room for one screen, let alone two, so finding room for a second screen may prove difficult. Third, two screens are distracting, and there comes a point where too much can be too much from a sensory and analysis perspective, and too many screens might create its own bike safety issue. The obvious solution to this problem is either to license and integrate the solution into existing bike compute platforms or try to displace the current market leaders with an alternative bike computer product with these added features. It is far too soon to know how this will shake out, but I expect that one of these two solutions will have to happen, at least as it relates to the bike electronics market aimed at competitive cyclists. For everyone else, carry on.
Pricing is also going to be a challenge, at least at first. Let’s break pricing down into two categories: Product pricing, and Service fees.
Product Pricing. I have not done any market research on this, but my feel for this type of product is that serious competitive cyclists would pay as much as $850 for a completely integrated C-V2X, STRAVA-compatible bike computer with rear-mounted cameras that weighs less than 350 grams. Anything short of this combination of features, and you aren’t going to move a lot of units. For the safety features alone, I feel that $350 is probably the price ceiling for the device IF it at least comes with GPS and other basic bike computer features. If Spoke’s strategy is to market this directly to OEMs rather than to consumers, at least at first — and I think that’s the plan — then it is good to note that the price elasticity of bicycles may not be able to absorb more than an extra $200 to the price of a bike. This becomes even more problematic with scooters.
On the back end, it is also important to consider that Garmin bike computers generally don’t charge a monthly service fee, so if Spoke intends to monetize connectivity-based services, which is also likely, they are likely to encounter some resistance there. Not because the value isn’t there, but because consumers simply haven’t been trained to pay for bike computer connectivity, regardless of what type of cyclist you are. Changing that behavior and those consumer expectations will take time and effort that Spoke and bike OEMs will need to take into consideration.
In other words, I expect that, as great as this solution is, and as needed as it is, its first few years may be a little difficult on the adoption front, if for no other reason than pricing may not justify the benefits. I could be wrong, but it is a very real possibility. Just because a product is great doesn’t mean it will sell, let alone at scale. Pricing has to be aligned with perceived value.
Timing. Lastly, because C-V2X and smart transportation infrastructure are still in their infancy, I fear that consumers and bike OEMs may be a bit shy about the value of this kind of solution today, as opposed to three to five years from now. In many ways, this VRU solution is ahead of its time in terms of ecosystem maturity, so Spoke may feel a bit of resistance or skepticism there, with some risk-averse or not particularly forward-looking market players perhaps opting to wait another year or two before opting in.
Final Thoughts on the Qualcomm Spoke Partnership
Without question, I believe the Qualcomm Spoke partnership bodes well for good things ahead for not only cyclists, but for the entire smart transportation safety ecosystem and the protection it can provide to vulnerable road users. Spoke’s portfolio, which will also include modem-based communications, will be launching with their OEM bicycle, motorcycle and scooter partners in 2022, so it may be a few months before we get a better look at how they plan to go to market with this. For now, this partnership is very exciting, the products that will come out of it are sorely needed, and I look forward to seeing VRUs becoming a lot less V starting next year.
Disclosure: Futurum Research is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this article.