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Ford develops virtual reality tool to build empathy between cyclists and drivers

Patrick McDonnell
30 May 2018


A virtual reality tool to promote safer interaction between drivers and cyclists has been launched by Ford Motor Company.

The ‘Wheelswap’ tool will help bring about behaviour change, making urban areas safer and helping to reduce pollution and congestion, said Ford.

The tool is designed to show motorists and cyclists how inconsiderate driving and riding can be potentially fatal. Initial studies show that after undergoing the experience, nearly all participants said they would change their behaviour, said Ford.

The car giant’s mobility strategy is to deliver a broad suite of products and services that enhance all layers of the transportation system – vehicles, infrastructure, connectivity and digital services. This includes pilot schemes such as: a car sharing and bike sharing collaboration between Ford of Germany and Deutsche Bahn Connect GmbH, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn AG; the Chariot commuter shuttle services designed for city dwellers who live in areas where public transport is not easily accessible; and smart benches that help pedestrians stay connected on the move with mobile charging and Wi-Fi.

More than 1,200 people took part in the initial research across five European countries, and 70% of those who experienced ‘WheelSwap’ showed greater empathy to their driving and cycling counterparts after watching the film, compared with those who had not. Furthermore, 91% planned to change their on-road habits. Two weeks after experiencing ‘WheelSwap’, 60% had changed their behaviour on their day-to-day travels, said Ford. 

In the UK, 80% of drivers who tried Ford’s ‘WheelSwap’ changed their behaviour within two weeks – the highest of any country European country tested. Of those who participated; motorists had shouted at some 63% of cyclists in the past, higher than the 51% European average. Similarly, 45% of participating UK motorists had been shouted at by cyclists on the road, again higher than the European average figure of 33%. 

Ford is integrating the virtual reality experience into its free driver-training programme for 17 to 24-year-olds, Ford Driving Skills for Life. 

The company said it has invested nearly $20m (£15m) into the programme since 2013 for free, hands-on classes that also cover hazard recognition, vehicle handling, and speed and space management. Ford is also making the ‘WheelSwap’ experiences available on YouTube, along with tips for how to stay safe on the road.

In April, Ford launched its new Focus hatchback with technology that can detect cyclists in, or near, the road ahead, or who may cross the vehicle’s path. Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection automatically applies the brakes if it detects a potential collision and the driver does not respond to warnings, said Ford.

Behavioural scientist Dan Berry, who helped devise the experiment, said: “There is no more effective means of appreciating someone else’s point of view than stepping into their shoes, or in this case, on to their pedals. Empathy is an immensely powerful emotion.”

Steven Armstrong, president and CEO, Ford of Europe, Middle East & Africa, added: “As someone who frequently travels on both two wheels and four wheels, I have experienced first-hand many of the frustrations – and dangers – that drivers and cyclists encounter on our roads today. The safe integration of increasingly diverse modes of transportation is key to how we make our cities safer and easier for everyone to get about in, now and in the future.”

The campaign has won the support of Sir David Brailsford, who heads up the multi-Tour de France winning Team Sky cycle team. “This is a very timely initiative by Ford. Europe is home to some of the world’s largest cycling communities and the increased pressure on road space is raising safety ever higher up the agenda,” he said.

“This campaign is not just about introducing new technology but also highlighting the need for equal respect and responsibility. If both cyclists and motorists took a little bit more time to understand each other’s needs, we would quickly see a change in attitudes and behaviour, which can ultimately improve road safety for everybody. Ford’s leadership role can play an important part in helping make that happen.”

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