Highlights from the 2014 LA Auto Show

Review: Backtracker radar system for bikes

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July 28, 2014

The Backtracker handlebar unit indicates the position of the cyclist (green LED at top) an...

The Backtracker handlebar unit indicates the position of the cyclist (green LED at top) and the relative distance of a motorist closing in from behind (white LED)

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Earlier this month, we first heard about a radar system for cyclists, known as the Backtracker. In a nutshell, it emits radar pulses to the rear of the bike, then warns the rider when it detects vehicles approaching from behind. Although it's not yet commercially available, I recently had the chance to try out a pre-production review unit. It definitely shows promise, but could perhaps use one tweak.

As outlined in our previous article, the Backtracker actually consists of two modules. One of them is mounted on the seatpost, and contains a 24-GHz radar antenna, an ARM processor and a 40-lumen tail light. Using Bluetooth LE, it communicates with the other module, which sits on the handlebars.

When an approaching car closes to within 140 meters (153 yards) of the back of the cyclist, its radar reflection is picked up by the rear unit. That box sends a signal to the one in front, which alerts the rider via a row of LEDs. As the car gets closer, its increasing proximity is indicated on that display.

At the same time that this is happening, the tail light also switches from its regular slow blinking mode to one that's more rapid, in order to catch the attention of the motorist.

The Backtracker system consists of two modules, mounted on the handlebar and seatpost
The Backtracker system consists of two modules, mounted on the handlebar and seatpost

On my test setup, charging both modules via USB was pretty straight-ahead, as was mounting them using the accompanying rubber O-rings.

When I took the Backtracker out on the road, I found that it worked just as advertised. Every vehicle that approached me from behind was detected, and long before it got dangerously close (except for one that pulled out onto the road right after I passed it). It even picked up "multiple targets" simultaneously, indicating that more than one vehicle was on its way.

I additionally got in my car and drove up behind my parked bike, to confirm that the tail light does indeed start blinking more quickly as motorists approach it.

As a vehicle approaches, the tail light switches from its regular slow blinking mode to on...

Although the South African designers of the system suggest that it could be used in busy traffic, I think that it would prove fairly unnecessary in such a situation. Mine was lit up pretty much constantly when I rode on a heavily-traveled street, essentially just telling me what I already knew – that there were lots of cars behind me.

I think it would be much more useful for long-distance touring or road race training rides, where cyclists are moving along the shoulder of the highway. There can often be long gaps between vehicles in such scenarios, and when cars do show up, they can do so extremely quickly and unexpectedly.

One thing that I think the Backtracker needs, however, is some sort of optional audio alert. I found myself constantly having to look down at the handlebar unit to see if it was lighting up, and it occurred to me that I might just as well be checking in a much cheaper and simpler rearview mirror. If it beeped every time it detected a vehicle, it would more fully take advantage of the Backtracker's one big advantage over a mirror – that it detects vehicles for the rider, regardless of whether or not they're paying attention to what's behind them at the time.

The Backtracker is currently the subject of a crowfunding project, on the Dragon Innovation website. If you're interested in getting one when and if they reach production, you'll need to pledge US$179.

Sources: Backtracker, Dragon Innovation

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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8 Comments

Why would one want something like this.

If it is to make your rear lights become more visible then all that says is that having rear lights that are more visible all the time would be better (and cheaper and simpler). And if one needs to warned about traffic nearing so one can get out of the way then surely it would be better to ride like traffic is there all the time, after all that is what one should be doing while on the road in the first place. Not to mention that if it is to keep one warned about fast cars, then the detection range is hardly sufficient to give much warning time.

The only real function I can remotely imagine this gizmo having would be that it might trigger radar warnings that some drivers use, meaning that if so it could make those drivers to slow down.

BZD
28th July, 2014 @ 04:15 pm PDT

How about using the radar sensor to trigger a flare or (better) a 12m rocket to deter tailgaitors?

Over a certain speed, say 80 km/h, for half a km or so, and the fellow gets a hole in his radiator.

Make the tail-light a moving LED message so they know to back off!

The Skud
28th July, 2014 @ 07:57 pm PDT

When I was a kid I had a mirror on my bike. IMHO they should be compulsory on all bikes.

splatman
29th July, 2014 @ 04:50 am PDT

helmet mirror

much much better

wle

Larry English
29th July, 2014 @ 09:00 am PDT

@BZD - I can see this as being quite useful for the bikers I see humping their way up the hills around Los Angeles where they often end up away from the (shoulder less) side of the road and vehicles (cars and motorcycles) can come up from behind rather quickly.

Between cyclists listening to music while they ride (hopefully not with headsets, though I have seen that) and the relative silence of ever-more-popular EVs, this actually makes sense to me for someone who enjoys riding long distances in less populated areas.

f8lee
29th July, 2014 @ 10:04 am PDT

Interesting idea!

As the reviewer and commenters have mentioned, there are situations where it may or may not be useful. I like that it's relatively portable, so I could use it on either my bicycle or my motorcycle, though hopefully in the latter case it would not constantly trigger my radar detector, depending on how directional the antenna is and how well shielded the housing is to prevent ambient noise. In both applications, I'd rather mount it farther back, like on a rear rack or low on a seat stay, rather than under the seat - the last thing cyclists need is something else reducing fertility! :)

Agree about the audio alert, though for motorcycling applications it would need either an output jack to plug in a buzzer or headset, or a Bluetooth signal compatible with wireless headsets (though there are third-party Bluetooth transmitters that plug into output jacks, so maybe that's all that's needed, to keep costs low for everyone).

One thing I really can't stand when motorcycling is when another biker sneaks up and passes in the same lane without warning. It's not only rude but extremely dangerous as sometimes I was about to change position within the lane when they blast by right where I was about to go. This device would be a great early warning against that.

Suman M Subramanian
29th July, 2014 @ 11:50 am PDT

I doubt that having a microwave source next to your reproductive organs and eyes would be advisable.

ezeflyer
29th July, 2014 @ 02:08 pm PDT

Having one of these is a definite indicator that you have more money than brains. Hasn't anyone heard of rear vision mirrors? Considerably more efficient and helmet mounted for preference.

apprenticeearthwiz
29th July, 2014 @ 05:01 pm PDT
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