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Royal Oak's Tome Software innovates for safer cycling

Tome's Mr. Blinky Sign is a software solution that makes roads safer for cyclists


Bicycling is stretching beyond a leisurely weekend activity into a viable mode of transportation, moving people to and from work, school, and everywhere in between. As southeast Michigan and the rest of the world adapts roads for more effective shared use between vehicles and cycles, Royal Oak-based Tome Software is at work creating solutions to make our roads safer for cyclists.
Tome Software helps large companies connect to things that move, by providing the agility and brains only that a small, innovative startup knows how to do.

Tome was founded in 2014 by entrepreneurs Jake Sigal and Massimo Baldini, after their first startup, Livio, was acquired by Ford. Recognized as a rising startup during Techweek Detroit 2017, the team at Tome Software designs, develops, and tests mobility services and artificial intelligence solutions for a variety of clients.

We caught up with CEO Jake Sigal to learn more about how Tome Software innovates to keep cyclists safer on the road, including one product called Mr. Blinky Sign. We started our conversation by asking about a recent partnership with some very big names in the mobility world.

Let’s talk about the collaboration between Tome, Ford, and Trek to create the B2V, or bicycle-to-vehicle Executive Advisory Board. What are you looking to achieve through this?

Well, the reason why we created it is that safety is larger than any one company. And Ford and Trek were immediately open. In fact, Ford has a partnership with General Motors, with a group called CAMP, which is Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership. It's been around for about 15 years. And it's just an example that Ford's taking on how to be open and realize that there are some things that are not designed to sell more cars, but designed to make the world safer.

So B2V, bicycle-to-vehicle, it's not about some fancy do-dad on a vehicle that's going to make you buy a Ford car versus something else. It's really just about understanding the opportunity with people on bicycles as part of mobility. And working with a number of companies, including us at Tome, and all the bike companies that were announced, to really say, "Look, this is an industry problem, and we need to come up with industry standard solutions." And that's something that for all of our board members was a requirement. And it really didn't have any pushback at all. I thought there'd be way more pushback than there was for creating industry standards around cycling safety.
Jake Sigal is co-founder and CEO of Tome Software in Royal Oak
Why is that?

It's such a competitive industry. And everyone's got their intellectual property, and their statuses, and when we approached this problem and said, "Look, we really want to make the roads safer for cyclists. And we want to help create the right industry standards but not try to create something proprietary. Just look at what's already out there and what we can do to help accommodate cyclists." It just made more sense.

So that's really the work effort. And to be clear, we're doing research and development. And this is a long-term place. We're looking at pilots within the next 12 months, then full-scale production solutions, and we might be years away from them. But we look for small wins. And now is the time to start doing this work because the technology that's going into cars in a few years is being decided on today. So it's the right time to get engaged in this conversation.

Can you talk about Mr. Blinky Sign? What is it and how does it work?

Yeah, great question. Mr. Blinky Sign is a software product. Right now we're showing it on a sign. So the basic idea is that when a cyclist is in a cyclist-specific lane, it could be one of those bike trails, it could be a crosswalk where cyclists go, we have a lot of those all over the world. It could be a rail trail. There are all these different areas where a cyclist is vulnerable. It also includes areas like tunnels and bridges or blind corners. But when a cyclist is in a very vulnerable location, we want to be able to provide an alert for upcoming traffic to know that that cyclist is there, right now, and they're in a vulnerable location.

So Mr. Blinky Sign can detect a cyclist either using a camera or wireless via Bluetooth. Some cyclists have no electronics, and some have a bike computer, or an app on their phone, that the sign can detect. The sign then flashes. So pretty basic stuff. It flashes to alert drivers that there's a cyclist that's ahead.

Now for cars in the future that have this vehicle-to-vehicle communication system, or V2V, we can send out a wireless message to any vehicles in range letting them know that there's a cyclist up ahead. And we demonstrated that with Mr. Blinky Sign at a conference with Qualcomm, Ford, and Audi a few months ago.

One of the coolest things about Mr. Blinky Sign, being a software product, is that it's not limited only to a crosswalk sign. You could also incorporate Mr. Blinky Sign into traffic lights. So, for example, at a large intersection, when a cyclist is in a left turn lane, they're kind of stuck out there in the middle of the intersection, waiting for traffic to clear. Maybe you want to provide a little more time for the cyclist. Mr. Blinky Sign software inside of a traffic light knows that a cyclist is in the intersection via camera, and can hold the green light another two seconds to give the cyclist a little bit of extra time to safely clear the intersection. 

When are we likely to see Mr. Blinky Sign on our roads here in southeast Michigan?

Very soon. I don't think I have clearance to tell you who it's with at this point, but we did sign our first pilot contract and we will be installing later this year. Very excited about that. And we have a number of cities that have reached out to us to power our technology for two reasons.

One, is that cities are very interested in technology that can make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The second thing is that the cycling infrastructure is increased dramatically within cities. We're seeing bike lanes being put in in the suburbs, bike lanes in downtown, right here in southeast Michigan. There's connectors up in Pontiac. I mean, there's all these biking infrastructures there. And we look at this as an opportunity, really for the person that's using a bicycle as a form of transportation to get to work. And for many of those people that's their only form of transportation. So they don't have a car either because of the cost of car insurance, or just the financing of a vehicle, where a bicycle is way more affordable and it should be just as safe, if not safer, than driving a car to work.

I've witnessed a fair amount of hostility between drivers and cyclists, and complaints about bike lanes, even here in Royal Oak. What's behind this hostility?

The issues that we see here, I think, are very common in the U.S., and in Michigan, in particular, and other small cities where cycling is relatively new as a form of mobility. It really comes down to education for cyclists and for drivers.

Cyclists are required to follow the rules of the road. And that doesn't always happen. And drivers also have to follow the rules of the road. Let’s say you are a driver and you've never seen a [commuter] cyclist on the road before, and all of a sudden you see four or five cyclists zipping up Woodward Avenue, you're not going to remember what you may have learned 20 years ago in driver's ed about what you do.

And then there's also, I believe, a social aspect as well, for drivers that don’t understand about the vulnerability of being on a bike. And couple that with distracted driving. Add up those three things, again there's education, experience, and distracted driving, and it makes it very vulnerable for you as a cyclist on the road. Those are the problems.

What are the solutions?

What helps a lot is good signage. For example, in downtown Royal Oaks there are signs on the corners which say, "Do not ride your bike. Walk your bike on the sidewalk." And then signs that say, "Share the road." And painted sharrows on the road.

I think education, experience, and then signage is really what helps. Now outside of that, there are some educational pushes that are going on. There's new legislation in Lansing, a three-foot passing rule, which is pretty important for newer vehicles that have safety systems, like lane departure warning, where the vehicle has to know, "Okay, what is the proper safe passing distance?" This is for not just an autonomous vehicle, but even one that's got a safety system. That is definitely helpful. And I think it's all positive.

But, just in my opinion, the real thing is also educating cyclists. When I see a cyclist going the wrong direction down a bike lane, or on the wrong side of the road and I'm like, "Really?" I'm sure that there's a lot of these types of situations that come up. But I feel like there's a social interaction between a cyclist and a driver. And the only two that really scare me the most is what I don't believe technology will solve, which is distracted driving and impaired driving. And really the only option there is separating bicycles from cars, period.

Where are your personal favorite places to ride in Oakland County?

Well, I would have to say that without a doubt the rail-trails that we have here, and the Oakland County connecting system is fantastic. I mean, that's number one. It provides safe access for anybody at any rider level. And e-bikes are also now permitted on that, which is great for people that may have a family member that isn't as fast of a rider, or may have a disability in that they can't ride a bicycle in full speed. Being able to take an e-bike safely out there and enjoying and spending time with your friends and family, that's what cycling is all about.

The Clinton River Trail starts up around 75 and Adams, and goes into downtown Rochester and then you end up in Macomb County and some other areas. This offers a safe way to connect between cities without requiring getting in a car, and it gives people options to have a good time.

Why is Royal Oak a great home for your mobility business?

I think the biggest thing for us is hiring, because it's all about having the best people. Aside from downtown Royal Oaks being super cool, it also is centralized. So we've got employees that live in downtown Royal Oak, we've got employees from Ferndale, we've got an employee in Fenton, we've got an employee further up by It's just a good location, and I think that you can get that same level of cool factor in a lot of cities in southeastern Michigan.

We consider Detroit downtown, but for a lot of our employees today, commuting from where they live to Royal Oak is 45 minutes, which is doable on the long side. But going to Detroit would make it a non-starter. We think that having that access to Royal Oak is a lot better.

Now if at some point in time there's a commuter rail that comes in, which I would love to see, then yeah, that would definitely change things up a little bit. But until that day happens I think that if you're looking at recruiting people and you want to get the widest area, I think that Royal Oak and Birmingham, Ferndale, Southfield, geographically are all those areas where it doesn't really matter where you live, you can get to. From that mix I feel like Royal Oak is the best poised. And not to mention just the massive amount of growth and the tech factor we're seeing in downtown Royal Oak.

So Detroit gets just about all the headlines. I'm hoping we'll get a little bit of love for Royal Oak at this point.
 
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