Manhattan —

The city’s congested streets may become a little safer thanks to Wi-Fi-enabled devices that can warn pedestrians and vehicles of traffic trouble ahead.

The New York City Department of Transportation is testing technology that will allow cars to send and receive alerts to one another to reduce the number of accidents and traffic-related deaths across the city. The program was made possible through a $21 million-dollar contribution from the federal Department of Transportation.

“I can only tell you there is a lot of optimism on the federal level,” said Mohamad Talas, program manager at the city Department of Transportation. “We are going to have a period for evaluation that will assess how much impact we have on the safety improvement.”

In September, the city’s transportation department installed devices on select roads and vehicles, and gave mobile devices to pedestrians in specified locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The devices exchange information through a Wi-Fi network and can send audio alerts to drivers and pedestrians regarding potential hazards on the road, including objects ahead or oncoming cars. The testing phase will last 20 months, after which point an evaluation – the last phase – will begin.

Why NYC Needs This

The federal government chose New York City as one of three locations across the country (along with the state of Wyoming and Tampa, Fla.) to pilot its Connected Vehicle Deployment Program. The initiative is designed to help each city use connected vehicle technology to solve a traffic need specific to their community.

The move builds on Mayor de Blasio’s 2014 Vision Zero initiative, which seeks to reduce crashes and pedestrian deaths on the city’s streets. According to data gathered by the NYPD, 193 deaths and 49,153 injuries were caused by traffic crashes through late 2016. Pedestrians on foot or bike made up 132 of the deaths. The city recently came under fire from advocacy group Transportation Alternatives for not doing enough to reduce traffic-related deaths.

Devices placed in cars can inform drivers of collisions ahead and send warnings about blind spots and oncoming cars at intersections. The installations on the road can regulate speed, identify law violators, and send emergency communication to drivers. Sensors on crosswalks can send warnings to vehicles if they are not slowing down when a pedestrian is about to cross, and the pedestrian devices can inform walkers when it is safe to turn a corner or cross the street.

So far, 350 devices have been installed on roads in midtown Manhattan, on Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive in Manhattan, and in central Brooklyn. The city installed the equipment on 8,000 taxis, buses, delivery trucks, and city-owned vehicles that regularly travel in these areas. Roughly 100 pedestrians have been given mobile devices, which will communicate with the 11 roadside devices designed specifically for them that are being placed around the city.

Data on the Move

The devices will also accumulate data on speed and travel patterns for the city’s transportation department to analyze during the evaluation phase. Some citizen-advocacy groups are concerned about the privacy implications of a program that allows devices to exchange an individual’s location and travel data.

“There are no overarching ‘car privacy’ laws,” said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit privacy watchdog group. Tien noted that some states’ laws protect against vehicle data-sharing devices.

The city’s program team said it already considered these points and employed a completely anonymous approach to recording the data.

“The vehicle speed and vehicle trajectory will be aggregated in groups to provide an idea on the average speed of connected vehicles traveling and their locations,” said Talas. “There is no personal information, because it will not be identifiable – it will reconfigure, and the original data cannot be kept or shared.”

Despite these assurances, skeptics noted that traffic patterns, even when anonymously transmitted, can be revealing and could potentially identify individuals.

“No one else in the world lives in Berkeley and drives to work at Electronic Frontier Foundation,” Tien said, using himself as an example. “I would assume (the data) is identifiable and trackable until they prove otherwise.”