Why aren’t people, dogs, and cars equipped with transponders?

My suburban neighbors get their panties in a twist periodically over the issue of people speeding along narrow two-lane roads bordered by houses and occasionally used by pedestrians and dogs (we have decided not to invest in sidewalks). There are demands for speed bumps that town officials refuse to meet.

We’re now in about Year 20 of most residents of the U.S. carrying an electronic device most of the time. Cars are stuffed full of electronics and have near-infinite electric power available.

If human lives are important to us, why haven’t we developed an electronic infrastructure for collision-avoidance in situations like this? Cars tell the pedestrians’ phones that they are approaching and phones alert cars and drivers that it is time to slow down for that person in the road just over the hill. This can be tied into the auto-braking systems that manufacturers are now putting into cars.

There would have to be a way for the devices to notice that there were so many cars and pedestrians that it was time to shut down (“Manhattan mode”) but that doesn’t seem too challenging to build.

Self-driving cars seem to be relying on the same senses that had led to accidents for human-driven cars. Why not supplement with the electronics that have successfully prevented nearly all high-altitude mid-air collisions among airplanes?

12 thoughts on “Why aren’t people, dogs, and cars equipped with transponders?

  1. So you in effect advocate for that idiocy known as “the Internet of things,” and then for a universal, wireless variety of it?

  2. People would start to rely on the system rather than being alert, which would be fine until someone forgets their phone and becomes invisible to speeding drivers. Maybe this would not be a problem in the real world, but it seems somewhat likely to me.

    Do aeroplanes already do something like this? Is it where you are getting this from?

  3. > why haven’t we developed an electronic infrastructure for collision-avoidance in situations like this

    Wouldn’t building sidewalks be cheaper, more effective and present fewer coordination problems?

  4. ilya: Great question! The town tried building more sidewalks a few years ago but got itself tied up in knots regarding permits, landowner permission, construction costs, etc. Building physical infrastructure is a weak area for the U.S. (see http://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2015/05/25/u-s-versus-german-infrastructure-spending-and-results/ ) so I do think it would be cheaper to go electronic. Also, even if there are sidewalks it is bad when cars are whipping by children, dogs, etc., who may not strictly adhere to sidewalk protocol.

  5. As for the original question, let’s assume somebody develops a transponder system with a reliability of 99.999%.

    Assuming the system is relevant for 30 of driver-pedestrian interactions per day, that would be 0.1 system malfunction per driving-year. If just 1/10000 of the malfunctions will lead to tragic accidents, that would still be enough material for hundreds of “Company X’s devices kill people yet again” headlines (e.g. compare to “Uber driver rapes”) and sue the company to oblivion.

  6. If a plane A with its transponder turned off crashes into plane B (with its transponder on), is plane A considered at fault? So if a car mows down an 80 year old who doesn’t walk with their phone, can they blame the pedestrian?

  7. * There are important differences between airplanes and dogs/etc.
    * Not all airplanes have transponders (as far as I understand).
    * Airplanes are expensive. The added cost of a transponder is minimal.
    * Airplanes have a large (relatively) power source necessary for operation. A transponder doesn’t add much demand to that power source. Cars have a similar power source. Cellphones don’t.
    * It would be more reliable to have the transponder always running but that would eat into the already limited battery power in cell phones (haven’t you complained about cell phone battery life?).
    * There aren’t typically things in between airplanes that could interfere with a transponder.
    * There probably is much more of a need to avoid collisions in places like Manhattan and you suggest disabling the system were it would do the most good.

  8. ilya: “Wouldn’t building sidewalks be cheaper, more effective and present fewer coordination problems?”

    What percentage of pedestrians are hit in places without sidewalks?

    philg: “(we have decided not to invest in sidewalks).”
    You often comment about government expense.

    philg: “Building physical infrastructure is a weak area for the U.S.”
    That you are talking about an infrastructure that would “occasionally used” kind of suggests building sidewalks there might be kind of a waste.

  9. Where I live there are no sidewalks but people just walk (to the extent they walk at all -mostly they drive) on the side of the road (not in the road bed but on adjoining lawns, etc. There are a few dicey places where the road passes thru a cut with steep slopes and you are almost forced to walk in the road bed but for the most part it works quite well. Legally, the “right of way” of the road is usually wider than the paved area, so you are walking in the public area and not trespassing when you walk on the edge of someone’s lawn. On very quiet streets people just walk in the road bed and shift to the lawns when they hear a car coming. You are already equipped with sensors – they are called your “eyes” and “ears”. Although there are no sidewalks, there are curbs so the distinction between the road bed and pedestrian areas is pretty clear cut. Other than accidents at intersections (where sidewalks wouldn’t help) a car would have to jump the curb to hit a pedestrian. Naturally children and dogs have to be watched or leashed (in France it’s common to leash your little kids). It’s actually more comfortable to walk on grass than it is to walk on a concrete sidewalk and there aren’t enough pedestrians to wear a path in the grass or turn it to mud in spring, so sidewalks don’t really add much.

  10. > Why aren’t people, dogs, and cars equipped with transponders?

    Speaking for myself and anyone who feels the same as I do: because we don’t want to live that way.

    When I go for a walk — every day, or twice a day if I’m lucky — I don’t want to feel like I have a radio collar locked around my neck, and I don’t want to feel like a blinking red dot on someone else’s grid map. The phone stays home.

    If self-driving cars become the major mode of personal transportation and if I live that long, I expect to receive a “walking without a transponder” citation. If they can locate me.

  11. Just have a cop sit on the side of the road a few times. That serves as well as a speed bump. My city even resorted to placing an empty police car on a highway that had a lot of speeding related accidents. Things calmed down quickly.

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