Should Bicyclists Bring Smartphones?

A bicycle handlebar with three phones mounted on it.
Should Bicyclists Bring Smartphones Along for the Ride?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I just got a high-end, aluminum frame bicycle and plan to do more local cycling by myself, and also with a club. I am conflicted about whether bicyclists should bring smartphones on the trip. I can easily store the phone in a saddle-bag under the seat, but should I take a phone with me at all? Isn’t the whole point of cycling to get outdoors and be free?  Corbin, San Rafael

Dear Corbin: As people spend more time working from home and on computers, they are discovering, like you, the flip side: the need to turn off and get outside.  A bicycle trek seems like the perfect antidote for these digital times.

I see three reasons why you might want to pack that phone in the saddle-bag, but read on to the end. 

First, you mentioned that you will be cycling with a club. Often club members like to check in on each other’s adventures, and announce their milestones through an app like Strava. If that is you, then you need your phone to record the trip distance, elevation, speed and time. Although that brings an element of competition to the sport, it can also be motivational. Alternatively, you could do a handlebar mount with a wireless receiver that is compatible with apps and smart trainers, so a phone is not the only option. If  this is what makes you cycle better and longer, go for it!

PICTURE THIS!

A second reason to carry the phone is so that you don’t miss that special moment when you yearn for a picture. Occasionally you will discover a picture-perfect “Kodak Moment.”  That image could be as tiny as a lizard sunning on the road, or as panoramic as the sun rising on San Pablo Bay. The point is that you have the camera on your smartphone poised, ready to preserve that memory. 

The final reason the phone might be useful, God forbid, is if you encounter someone in an accident or if you are in one yourself. From my transportation background: in 2018 854 bicyclists were killed in collisions with motor vehicles, and there has been a 38 percent increase since the low point in 2010 and the highest number of fatalities in 30 years. By the way, pedestrian fatalities have increased 46 percent over the same period and people outside of motor vehicles now account for a fifth of all traffic deaths.  So, while carrying the phone might make you feel better prepared, you must keep the device out of sight and out of your hands. 

If you have a connected wrist watch, like the Apple watch  with cellular service, then you would not need to bring the phone. However, that forfeits the picture- taking ability. Moreover, it tips towards distraction. That small screen is constantly updating the time, and depending on the settings,  updates for  calls, texts, and chat. 

TRIP ENDS

Until recently, say 2008, we did not have wireless smartphones that accompanied us on  outdoor trips. I am not counting the Blackberry, which emerged circa 2000, because it was essentially a tool for business email, not recreational purposes. Until the last decade, bikers and hikers taking short day treks managed to ramble without being tethered to a phone. We tend to overestimate our personal chances of encountering an emergency, and underestimate that others are nearby to help.  And, we have forgotten that a sketch book and diary are alternatives to the photo image, even if we cannot post it on social media.

But one final note: In my hometown bikers seem to pack their phones out-of-sight but pull them out as soon as they finish their ride. They culminate their hilly up and down trip by congregating at a foody hangout for a deserved snack and iced drink. And, how do they pay? With Google Pay or Apple Wallet, naturally.

Vaccination Record on Phone?

“Don’t Leave Home Without It?”…..does that apply to the vaccination card?

Three screenshots from a smartphone showing how to use NY state's Excelsior Vaccine Record for Phones.
Should we put a vaccine record on the phone? Credit: verywellhealth.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  We are planning Fall travel to the East Coast and can’t decide whether to put our vaccination record on the phone. Unlike a piece of paper that everyone can read, will select people know my family’s details? Will we need to have cellular service or wifi  to show proof?  And, what if the technology does not work in places we go?  Perhaps I am overthinking this. Hector, Corte Madera

Dear Hector:

There are lots of things we store on our phones these days when we travel: a pass like the ‘Clipper Card’ for the bus or train, our plane ticket, hotel keys, and, of course, the holiday photos. So, should we add the proof that we got a Covid vaccine to the smartphone mix?  I am going to give you the high tech solution first and then the low tech one. 

If you already store your airplane tickets on a digital wallet, you will find the vaccine information, aka the vaccine passport, to be similar. In one case, it’s the airline and the TSA that verify your information. Now it’s a  health authority or their proxy. Is that proxy secure? In an earlier Dearsmartphone I weighed the issues and note a date breach at TSA from a trusted third party.

But, that said, there has been a literal race to develop these vaccine passports, alongside the race to develop the vaccine itself. China and Israel were the first countries to implement digital passports. Israel now seem to be ramping up to reinstate a Green Pass (think ‘green’ traffic light). In the U.S., there are multiple data credential centers springing up and no one knows if they will be able to keep your health information safe, secure, and locked down.

HIGH TECH-QR:

If your upcoming trip takes you to New York, there is a first-mover experiment taking place there. The former Governor Cuomo (remember him), IBM, and the department of Public Health have teamed up to offer an ‘ Excelsior Pass’.  People vaccinated in NY have an option to upload basic information like the date they got the Covid vaccines, their birth date, zip code, and phone number. Next they receive a QR code for their phones. When they need to show proof, say at Yankee Stadium, they flash  a picture ID, alongside the QR code on their phones. A scanner to a distributed network verifies that the QR code is valid. The QR codes have to be renewed after six or nine months as the protection from the vaccination is believed to weaken.

But, to confuse matters further, the City of New York is developing a brand new app, also with IBM, so that visitors who live outside the state, like you, can show their credentials. Meanwhile, Walgreen, Sam’s Club, and others have issued their own proprietary apps for uploading digital  health data. It sounds like the NYC/IBM collaboration has more data protections than average but you must still agree to trust their encryption method based on blockchain technology.

LOW TECH-SCAN:

But if you want the low-tech solution before you travel, then either scan, or take pictures of the vaccine cards for your entire family and save them to your phone. Then, if you forget to take the cards, or worse, lose them, you will have a record. It’s not a huge advancement over the first vaccine record that public health officials instituted, in 1884! But it most certainly works. The downside is that people might fake them, making public exposure to the virus more likely. That said, digital records can be faked too, but with a higher level of effort. 

As those under age 12 wait for a vaccine, and other groups question whether they need it at all, those who are vaccinated ask whether it is safe to put the information on our phones.  New issues for new times. Perhaps that is why it was initially called the ‘Novel‘ Corona virus. Safe travels.

Phones Morphing into Cars?

Lowly Worm in an Apple Car of old. Will the future bring a phone morphing into a car?
Apple Car w/ Lowly Worm (Richard Scarry illustrator)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Are phones becoming cars or vice versa? My friend took me out for a ride in his new car and whipped out a phone when he wanted to unlock the doors and move it  forward a few feet. Then I read in the news this week that Apple, the company that makes my phone, says they plan to make a car. I don’t see a car company, like Ford or GM, hinting that they want to build phones. Please explain this topsy turvy! Bill, Fairfax.

Dear Bill: It’s a great questIion to begin the New Year. In an early DearSmartphone column (now archived) I note that Gen X and Gen Z car buyers seem more intent on how the vehicle will synch with phones and less interested to look under the hood or kick tires.

But, I don’t think it’s the prowess and performance of ApplePlay that makes people, like you, think that an Apple car might be roadworthy. I believe it is an issue of integrity and trust.

The Bread Crumb Trail:

Future vehicles will leave a bread-crumb trail wherever and whenever they travel ….from entering the roadway, logging miles, and an ever-present chatter with sensors and satellites. Think of it like being in an airplane that is never completely outside the range of the control tower.

So, future revenue may come less from selling cars and more in renting out this “car data.” Imagine that you are motoring near a big box store (assuming they still exist) and you are prompted with a flash-sale, if you’ll just alter your route and get there soon. Or, you have entered the coordinates to travel to a new destination, and the dashboard offers hotel and dining recommendations. More insidious is the dashboard recording how often you stopped for booze, even though you are technically underage.

People are worried about data privacy, about their interests and habits being bought and sold. Technically, this is happening today. Black boxes installed in cars collect data on the speed you are driving, whether you stop at signals and stop signs, and how heavy you are on the brakes. Insurance companies promise to reward good drivers and help teens but what else can they do with this information? Meanwhile, GPS routing, over our phones provides a very complete picture of where we have been. Ironically, one of the first legal cases about these privacy rights occurred when law enforcement officials attaching a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle.

In Apple We Trust?

So, a pivotal reason that people think Apple may make a better car might have less to do with engineering and more to do with the trust and integrity that people place in the Apple brand name. According to a 2019 presentation by CEO Tim Cook, Apple was differentiating itself from other Silicon Valley providers by valuing privacy and keeping more data local to the device. Today, in 2021, Apple is defending its policy of locked phones and secure passwords in a suit that could wend its way to the Supreme Court .

That said, there are also technological reasons to anticipate that Apple may be up to something ‘moving’.  It’s said that Steve Jobs considered building a car in 2008 and Apple has been making strategic hires in technology since 2014 .  Strategically, Apple is rumored to use a different battery chemistry, not the one favored by car-manufacturer Tesla in the U.S. A LFP, lithium iron phosphate battery is said to be less volatile, less likely to overheat, and its ‘monocell’ design would free up space inside the battery pack. This could reduce the cost of an Apple powered vehicle and give it more range.

Power Rangers:

Neither Apple nor it Silicon Valley rival, Google, have a natural advantage with tires and chassis. However, they do have a head-start with batteries, and batteries will power future vehicles. The people’s car might actually begin with the people’s smartphone. That said, it should be noted that Google/Waymo has been testing self-driving cars since 2009 and has logged more self-driving miles than any other company.

But, summing up, the Apple Car has always been first and foremost in my own household. Ever since my children read the book and crooned at the cartoon pictures by children’s author Richard Scarry (see image cartoon) they have been rooting for Lowly Worm in his Apple Car.