Smarter bikes may prove too distracting for riders

We've long had GPS and other fancy digital features in our cars. And coming soon, you may start to see some of those features on your bicycle. But not everyone agrees so-called smart bikes are a smart idea.

GPS tracking, pothole detection, and other features coming to e-bikes

This photo, taken from a YouTube video posted by Ford, shows the company's newest e-bike design, which comes with enhanced safety features and a 'no sweat' mode. (FordVideo1/YouTube)

We've long had GPS and other so-called smart digital features in our cars. And coming soon, you may start to see some of those features on your bicycle. But not everyone agrees smart bikes are a smart idea.
Last week, the car company Ford unveiled a prototype for what it calls the MoDe: Flex e-bike. The company says it's an electric-assisted bicycle that comes apart, and also offers dozens of features that turn it into a "smart bike." 

For example, sensors on the bike's handlebars could warn a cyclist about a car approaching from behind. And the bicycle connects to a smartphone to provide directions, as well as warnings about dangers such as potholes.

It even offers what Ford calls a "no sweat mode," where the electric assistance kicks in when a rider's heart rate gets too high.

The bike has caught the eye of Yvonne Bambrick. She's a long time Canadian cycling advocate and the author of The Urban Cycling Survival Guide.

"It feels a little gimmicky," Bambrick says. "I think it's a great idea that a car company is seeing the value of bicycle transportation, of multi-modal transportation, and is trying to expand what they deliver to their customers, because their customers are obviously riding bikes too, and so they're trying to get in on the market."

Bambrick says Ford's entry into that market is significant, because it shows the company sees bicycles as an increasing threat to their automobile business.

But Ford isn't the only company to make such a move. Daimler's Smart division also produces an e-bike, literally branded "Smart" like the Smart cars.

A promotional image for the Connected Cycle Pedal, which provides GPS and bike activity tracking. (
And others are also trying to find ways to combine new technologies with bicycles. A company called Connected Cycle recently completed a successful Indiegogo campaign to raise money to produce a "smart" pedal, which will attach to any bike to provide GPS and bike activity tracking.

But Bambrick has concerns about the increasing prevalence of smart technology on bikes.

"The idea of having my smartphone attached to my handlebars, and possibly also connected to my smartwatch, that's distracting me with information about my heart rate or my distance or my whatever, it's taking my attention off of the roadway," she says.

"And whether that's on a bike or in a car, that's not good for anybody else around you, or for yourself personally."

Bambrick says she isn't anti-digital and is just as addicted to her smartphone as anyone else. But when it comes to cycling, she says it's important to minimize distractions -- and some smart bike features could be major distractions.

But she also thinks anything new that gets people excited about cycling is positive.

"If having a digital interface is one more thing that makes you jazzed about riding, then that's great. But I stand by what I said earlier about the distraction being so bad. I mean, being distracted on a bike is just basically the worst thing you can do."