Blog - Cycling Things

Wireless Debate Rages On

By: Julien Papon Special to the Toronto Star,  Fri Aug 07 2015

Did you know that in the final stretch of a Tour de France stage, sprinters often reach speeds in excess of 70 kilometres per hour to get on that day’s podium? At that speed and after close to 200 km of exhausting bike racing, any moment of inattention or bike problem is devastating; any missed or unintended gear change leads to a most certain crash.

So, reading about the recent troubles of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles made me fear the worst for those pro cyclists. Let me explain.

It was recently reported that two hackers were able to wirelessly take control of a Jeep Cherokee through its Uconnect system and crash it into a ditch by deactivating its brakes. While most of us would have experienced getting a patch from Microsoft or Apple to fix some type of system vulnerability at one time or another, wireless connectivity on four wheels takes the concept of Hack & Crash to an entirely different level. And if the security protocols are not nailed down right in the first place, it’s a sure recipe for disaster — “Sorry, you should have downloaded the latest update” just will not do it. Worse, one can easily argue that hackers are there to prove that system vulnerability is an inherent part of technology. The higher the stakes, the more resources will be put to work to find a way around the firewalls.

So, when you think that some of the bikes on the Tour de France have started to use wireless electronic gear-shifting mechanisms, it makes you wonder when the first stage win will have more to do with security patch downloads than leg power. I am not suggesting that a fellow sprinter would intentionally change gears on behalf of his competitor by the switch of a hidden button on his handlebar, but if a hacking job can happen to a Jeep, it can probably happen to a Focus — which are the bikes that used the pre-production SRAM wireless system at this year’s Tour de France.

It is one thing to have wireless devices on the bike gathering data, such as cadence, speed, heart rate, power, etc., that communicate back to a computer head to help the rider perform better. It is an entirely different thing to use wireless communication to actually control safety-critical power-train modules such as the bike’s gear-changing system.

Electronic shifting on road bikes is nothing new; I have been an early adopter and swear by it. But so far, the technology had been restricted to hard-wired systems. I wonder how quickly people will convert to wireless. Of course, most of us are no Tour de France sprinters, but the last thing one would want is to end up in the ditch because a software engineer forgot to ask to download the latest security patch.

It will be interesting to see if and how the hard learning of FCA will impact the commercialization of this new wireless bike gear control system.

Julien Papon is the president and founder of Vitess Bicycle Corporation. His column appears every two weeks during the summer.

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