Viziblezone Wants Cars to Spot Pedestrians By Tracking Their Smartphones

The next big thing, or a privacy nightmare?

Viziblezone

Even as it works to get past unprecedented current challenges, the global automotive industry is still undertaking the most difficult transformation it has ever faced: developing cars that can drive themselves. But making autonomous vehicles operate merely as well as a human driver, as difficult a task as that would be already, won't suffice. 

They'll have to drive better, more reliably, more predictably, more efficiently, and above all, more safely than a human driver ever could. And that starts with the ability to “see” better than the as-yet unsurpassed combination of the organic human eye and brain.

Fortunately, some of the best minds are working on it. And one of the most intriguing projects I’ve come across yet is Viziblezone. The Israeli startup is taking an innovative approach to the challenge of pedestrian detection, a crucial piece to the autonomous-vehicle puzzle that will need to be solved if self-driving cars are to become a reality and share roadways with human beings. At the same time, Viziblezone's smartphone-based solution plunges headfirst into one of the most controversial privacy debates in all of tech: location tracking.

Next-Level Pedestrian Detection

Existing pedestrian-detection systems typically rely on line-of-sight technologies like cameras, radar, sonar, and lidar to “see” pedestrians and other road users. They detect, identify and process their presence, proximity, and trajectory in what essentially boils down to an artificial facsimile of how human drivers look out for potential hazards and obstacles. And some of them can work impressively well, like those on the latest Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Nissan Maxima, Subaru Outback and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. 

They all have their limits, though, like when a pedestrian or cyclist is on the other side of a larger object (like a parked car or truck) or in poor visibility conditions (like at nighttime or under heavy precipitation) that a human likely wouldn't be able to see.

The solution being developed by Viziblezone, however, can. So say the people behind the initiative. And the kicker is that it doesn't require any new hardware to do it—just your phone.

Viziblezone's technology essentially aims to turn smartphones into beacons, transmitting the location of pedestrians directly to nearby vehicles and alerting their drivers if someone they can't necessarily even see is, for example, about to step out onto the road and into the vehicle's path.

Straight out of Silicon Wadi

The recently launched startup is one of hundreds of firms in Israel working on new mobility technologies, including dozens specializing in autonomous-vehicle solutions and advanced driver-assistance systems. Though the country has no domestic automotive industry to speak of, it has quickly developed into a veritable mecca (with apologies to its southeastern neighbor down the Red Sea coast) for emerging smart-mobility tech. 

Google cast a spotlight on what's become known as the “Silicon Wadi” (using an Arabic term for “valley”) when it bought crowdsourcing navigation startup Waze (based in Ra'anana, just north of Tel Aviv) in 2013 for nearly $1 billion, and subsequently integrated many of Waze's advancements into its own Google Maps system. Intel went even further when it acquired Mobileye in 2017 for a landmark sum of over $15 billion, and transformed the Jerusalem-based firm into its global hub for autonomous-vehicle and advanced driver-assistance system development. 

More than a dozen of the world's largest automakers—including Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen to name just a few—have set up R&D centers and tech-accelerator programs in the Eastern Mediterranean enclave in recent years to give them more direct access to local talent and their innovations.

I caught up with Viziblezone's co-founder and COO Shmulik Barel at this year's OurCrowd Summit for tech investors in Jerusalem, where he gave me the inside scoop on how his company's technology works. The company was founded just a year ago, but it's already completed a first round of seed funding with $1.2 million from investors like Motorola Solutions and Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries through OurCrowd's incubator program.

Thinking Outside the Four-Wheeled Box

The system uses the wifi antennae on your phone to transmit a signal that can be picked up by other devices running Viziblezone’s system as far as 180 meters (590 feet) away—almost a full block in most American cities. It's also programmed to identify whether the user is driving a car, walking on foot, riding a bicycle, or using an electric scooter, and adapt accordingly. 

“One of the most exciting features” of the technology, Barel told me, “is that you can detect pedestrians behind obstacles when there is no line of sight, because we are not based on visual technology. We are [using] RF technology, and the bandwidth we are operating at allows us to bypass obstacles.” 

After showing the shocking footage from the now-infamous fatal autonomous Uber crash in Arizona two years ago, Barel showed this brief video demonstration below of Viziblezone's technology in use. He challenged the audience to spot the pedestrian before the system did. Not a single hand went up from the standing-room-only crowd of some 300 conference participants.

Of course, in order for the system to work on a scale large enough to be effective, Viziblezone's software would need to be installed on as widespread a basis as possible. The more devices are running the system, the more effective it will be.

To that end, it's taking a multi-pronged approach, offering other companies a software development kit to integrate the technology into popular apps, while simultaneously negotiating with hardware manufacturers and network operators to pre-install Viziblezone firmware on smartphones straight out of the box. 

Barel also said that several automakers have already expressed interest in integrating the technology into their vehicles, which wouldn't require them to fit any additional hardware, either. Because the system is based on smartphones, it could display warnings to the driver instead on the vehicle's infotainment display through smartphone-mirroring interfaces like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (as in the video clip above) or a Bluetooth connection.

“Eventually we will also integrate the system inside vehicles, but it's not a 'must' for us,” said Barel. “What we are building is sensing technology which allows all pedestrians, vehicles, [and] drivers to understand, to be more aware of the situation, so they are able to take better decisions. And for autonomous vehicles, we are going to trigger the alert, and the vehicle is going to decide what to do.”

Big Data or Big Brother?

Now if the idea of having your phone broadcast your location on an ongoing basis strikes you as a major potential privacy concern (or reminds you of The Dark Knight, where it wasn’t exactly a positive thing), you aren’t alone. That is perhaps the biggest hurdle Viziblezone faces—convincing people that location tracking can be secure, localized, and anonymized.

“We are taking privacy issues very seriously and as such are GDPR compliant,” said Barel, referring to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation. “Users' actual data is only stored on their mobile devices for real-time high-risk situation analysis. No specific user data is being stored externally.” And the only personal data required during the initiation process is a phone number to receive a verification code.

Barel told me that while data may be uploaded to Viziblezone's own cloud servers (hosted by Amazon Web Services) in order to “improve our prediction engine,” that data is fully anonymized and can't be connected with the user. “At the moment, we don't share the data with any third party. However, in the future, we might share anonymous and aggregated information with third-party road-safety systems only,” he added, such as smart traffic-light management systems.

There's no doubt this is still concerning to a lot of people. Keep in mind that your phone is already tracking your location in a number of ways—having yet another data bank to secure is a real concern, but the idea of this technology being hardwired into smartphones is as much a discussion about bloatware and data rates as it is about civil liberties.

Still, privacy issues remain the biggest question mark here, especially given the realtime nature of the data. Historic location information is one thing; a malefactor theoretically accessing the system and being able to see where someone is at a given moment is another. If Viziblezone can't onboard enough people voluntarily, or runs into other headwinds getting its tech baked into phones for widespread adoption, the concept will remain just another novel idea.

Down the Road

With that in mind, Viziblezone is also working to integrate its technology into smart cities—or at least, the smarter cities of today—and other areas with connected infrastructure to improve the safety of pedestrian and automobile traffic.

“For example, think of kids who are going to cross the road [at a] traffic light. There are cities that don't want kids to wait on the edge of the sidewalk. They just want to let them go. So in real-time, they can switch the traffic lights from red to green, like cars on the 'green wave',” explained Barel, in reference to the traffic-management method of coordinating traffic lights to reduce congestion. “We can provide them with this unique data in real-time.”

Beyond roads, Viziblezone is looking at applying its tech closed operational environments like airports, seaport freight terminals, warehouses, and college campuses. Rather than having to upgrade equipment like forklifts and airport push-back vehicles and autonomous shuttles, Barel claimed, these facilities could mandate its implementation to decrease the chance of a pedestrian getting hit.

Most of these goals seem pretty far off for a company that's only been around for a year with a million bucks in the bank. But Yakir Machluf, the director of business development for OurCrowd, told me the Viziblezone crew is one of the fastest-moving teams he's ever seen. No idle praise from a firm that helped launch firms like Argus Cyber Security (bought by Continental AG in 2017 for $430 million) and Jump Bikes (bought by Uber in 2018 for $200 million).

Of course, moving fast and breaking things doesn't fly when you're talking about automotive safety.

“Safety just can't be a ‘trial and error’ sort of thing. It has to be perfect, otherwise, regulators would never approve,” said Yuval Engelstein, chief mobility analyst at Start-Up Nation Central, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering ties between Israeli tech firms and international business, government, and NGO leaders. “That is why solutions that enhance safety in general and pedestrian safety specifically are so valuable.”

“I believe that there are two main strengths of Viziblezone's solution,” Engelstein added. “First, it leverages the most common device that most of us possess and use 24/7: the smartphone. Second, it is a retrofit solution with a fast and easy deployment that also works to enhance safety in today's world and not just as a complementary one in the autonomous, driverless future. Hence, Viziblezone's offering provides a long business horizon that can evolve and adapt to the evolving market.”

Viziblezone is currently in the process of raising Series A financing, and has already launched a pilot project in northern Europe. Another pilot is “soon to launch” in the United States, with yet another in South Korea to take part in the country's national Smart City project, where it hopes to garner attention from local tech giants like Samsung and LG and automakers like Hyundai and Kia.

“We see the traction, said Barel. “We have managed many technological achievements. Now it's time to go and make our product operational.”

Noah Joseph is a veteran automotive journalist based in Jerusalem and focusing on Israel's fast-growing smart-mobility tech scene. His work has appeared in print and online publications including Autoblog, Car and Driver, The New York Times, and his own site IsraelAutoTech.com.