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Garmin acquires Backtracker bike radar system (and company iKubu)

Garmin Backtracker Marriage

This morning Garmin has announced the acquisition of iKubu.  Of course, nobody knows the name iKubu, but many of you likely remember them by their product name – Backtracker.

I took a look at this product back in July during their crowd funding attempt.  While they failed to reach their goal, they appear to have done one better: Get acquired.

An Overview of what Backtracker is:

The product was a two part system that used a small radar pod on the back of your bike to warn you of traffic that was overtaking you.  It did this by separating out cars from general environmental noise and was then able to track the car as it overtook you on the bicycle (hopefully without running you over).

As you might remember, the rear portion of the system had this illuminated light bar that acted as a warning to drivers.  The closer the car got to you, the more quickly it flashed.  This is where the radar component of the system was located (which was safe for humans).

Garmin with Backtracker Rear Light Pod

Meanwhile, up front it had this little pod that showed one little light dot for each car approaching along a light bar.  Multiple dots, multiple cars.  The ‘top’ of the bar was you, so you could judge when cars were approaching.

Below, you can see how this looks on the small handlebar mount.  The system worked fairly well in that it was in your peripheral vision so you didn’t need to take your eyes off the road.

Garmin with Backtracker Front Light Pod

Here’s a video clip where I walk (err…ride) you through the different things occurring on the system back in July.  The rundown of what you’ll see:

1) First you’ll watch as a light-dot (car) slowly comes up and passes me.  The car takes approximately forever to pass me. (0:00-0:13)

2) Next, you’ll see another car enter the edge of the radar range (light at bottom), I then pan back to show you how far away the car (van) is still (0:14-0:22)

3) Then, I place the camera in view to show you the blinking light, which will slowly increase as the van comes by. (0:22-0:35).

4) Right as the van passes me at the 0:35 marker, you’ll see the light reduces blinking frequency before increasing it again as more cars pass.

5) Next, around the 0:53 marker I pan back up to show you the display again as duel cars come up behind me, and then even more cars – each time you’ll see the white dots progress to the top of the display before a car appears on my left.

6) After a series of cars passes, the light finally goes green (1:20) – indicating no further cars are approaching me.

Here’s the clip:

Got all that?  Good.  As you can see, it’s pretty simple.

In my hour-long ride full of traffic like this I only saw it ‘miss’ a single car on my display, which, is pretty darn impressive.  I suspect it missed it because the car’s speed nearly identically matched mine, so it was sorta in no-man’s land of approaching nor not approaching.

Still for where it was back in July some 6+ months ago on a prototype unit, that’s a very solid track record.

What I think Garmin Plans:

Backtracker with Garmin Edge 1000

Now of course, many might be wondering what Garmin plans here.  I think the answer is as obvious though as one of the photos in my original post: Combining the Backtracker system with the Garmin Edge units.

The original Backtracker project did include plans for an API, which would have enabled 3rd parties (even Garmin) to integrate with the radar portion at the back.  For a company like Garmin, the radar portion is what they were after.  The front piece was effectively ‘duplication’ in the system and thus throwaway.

With the Edge they could easily remove the need for that front pod.  But, in many ways this could apply to other Garmin divisions as well. For example they could even pull this into their automotive lineup for inclusion in systems most applicable to motorcycles.  But we’ll focus on bikes for now.

So now if we throw away the front pod we’re left with the back radar portion.  Many commented that Backtracker’s implementation was fairly bulky, which is true.

Backtracker System Parts

That bulk though is likely due to the inability for a start-up company like iKubu to have the manufacturing muscle to get smaller components at lower prices.  Additionally, iKubu would have had to have gone through 3rd party manufacturing facilities – again increasing the cost of the device.  Finally, a 3rd party facility would have likely impacted some design decisions depending on the manufacturing facility.

But with Garmin, they own all their own manufacturing facilities in Taiwan.  That’s a rarity in the technology world with very few companies having that luxury (only the absolute biggest in the world).  This enables them to quickly scale as needed within the factory to manage production across all their product lines.  It also enables them to leverage components across product lines, reducing costs by significantly increasing volume.

Of course, I don’t think they just want it as a bike radar system.  While interesting, the market there is somewhat small today (perhaps due to lack of a major player getting involved).  Instead, if you look at things commonly attached to bikes, it’s much more likely Garmin would combine it with a bike light system (just as many suggested Backtracker do originally).

One could see Garmin getting into that market with relative ease.  They’ve got distribution in every bike shop in the world already, and then on top of that they have the manufacturing capabilities to develop mid to high-end bike lighting systems easily that could potentially be integrated into their bike computers and be ‘smarter’.

Of course, that’s just a guess.

Still, definitely an interesting acquisition for sure, and one that I suspect we’ll see manifest itself in a product by the traditional bike announcement timeframes such as Eurobike (last week of August) or Interbike (mid-September).

Thanks for reading!

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45 Comments

  1. Don

    > “That bulk though is likely due to the inability for a start-up company like iKubu to have the manufacturing muscle to get smaller components at lower prices.”

    possible but when they bought MetriGear and made the Vector power meter, their final design was bigger and bulkier than what they bought.

    the original MetriGear version had the whole thing inside the pedal. The Vector has those additional pods attached

    • With the design, I suspect some of that was making is sustainable from a support and pricing standpoint. Sometimes startups do things that don’t really work at scale of production when you’re looking at breakage/etc… I do think we’ll eventually see those pods disappear though.

    • Theo

      MetriGear may have conceived of a podless design as an eventual goal, but their technology at the time that they were acquired by Garmin consisted of pedals, with external pods, transmitting to a central data collector that was housed in a waterbottle. And, as Ray notes, there is a big difference between what one can do as a startup trying to prove a concept, and what one needs to do to make a repeatably manufacturable product at a sustainable cost.

  2. Ukexpat

    Interesting stuff. These kinds of deals are always fun to work on.

  3. Greg

    I think this is great technology! Especially with all of the crappy mirrors on the road today. Before Shimano changed their shifter design, some of the old mirrors would fit right on the top of them in a perfect location. Now I have a bar end mirror which is dicey at best.

    I would be a huge customer if they can figure out a way to give warnings when cars and big ass trucks in a no shoulder road are riding up my ass.

  4. Chris

    I would love love looove to have a light that increased in flashing frequency (and/or intensity) as a car approached. Based on no evidence whatsoever, I feel strongly that this sort of subtle change could greatly improve driver attentiveness. So I hope Garmin actually brings this to market!

    A notification or gauge on my head unit is something I’m much less interested in, even though I already have an 810.

    Thanks for the post, and all of the other good ones!

    • I have the See.Sense Rear light that does just that, although it responds to changes in light levels to trigger changes in frequency (headlight hits it: flashes faster, ride into tunnel: flashes faster).

      Having approaching vehicles picked up by radar as a trigger would be cool, though active radar would use a lot more power than a passive light sensor (plus I can’t really see Garmin getting into the lighting business).

  5. Eric Lofgren

    I’m a pretty casual bicyclist – you talk about a lot of things on this site that I have no interest in, at least at the price (e.g. basically any power meter). But this is something I would buy, as an add-on to a future Edge computer. I think the market is pretty big for this – if the hardware were small enough, “serious” bicyclists would have it for training rides, but casual riders like me, touring riders, and commuters would all find it interesting as well.

    You addressed this briefly in a comment to the original article, but it still needs to be seen how the technology handles another bicyclist overtaking you, or in a touring (or training) situation, another bicycle maintaining position behind you.

  6. R

    Interesting.

    But I wonder what Garmin is actually buying beyond IP. Does iKubu have a load of patents? Or was the purchase more of an acqu-hire for their talent? Garmin surely has radar experience (marine/aviation) so you’d think they’d be able to develop all of this in house.

  7. George Doyle

    Not too sure I’d like to be riding around with a radar that close to my nether regions for 10+ hours a week.

    link to articles.dailypress.com

    • Ukexpat

      You don’t ride with a tinfoil chamois?

    • Greg

      Better safe than dead safe!

    • I would suspect that a fair chunk of the negotiation process may have indeed been around safety concerns. As a company, Garmin is relatively conservative, and likely would steer far away from anything that might land them a class action lawsuit down the line.

    • MattB

      Sorry to say, but the article linked is typical ‘non-science’ – sure, if the policeman kept the trigger depressed continually while driving he *might* be exposed to some microwave radiation (presumably there is shielding around the emitter to prevent this however), but the unit just sitting in his lap is doing no more than act as a distraction if he brakes. If significantly more traffic police that kept radar guns in their laps got testicular cancer than other regular drivers, whilst still not proving causation, then it might be worth investigating. A more pertinent question would be was he a regular flier – as Ray is no doubt aware, the level of (much more damaging) radiation received while on long haul flights is far higher than nearly any other source unless you live in a radon area. I wonder if the police health ‘expert’ comparing this pseudo-science to the proven causal link between smoking & lung cancer, or “like putting your head in the microwave every time you use it” has in fact done the latter. I can guarantee he wouldn’t need to worry about cancer – cooking his brain on the other hand….

  8. Scott E

    I remember the DCR post, and also how wet the ride was while recording the video with an extension pole – one crazy move.

    It would be great to have an integrated system that provides feedback via the head unit. Yet it would be totally awesome to have a combination tail light, proximity detector and camera recording unit. Given Garmin’s Virb experience, such an all in one combo unit would be possible. Only downside is figuring out where to put the tool pouch…

  9. Nicolas

    They could also use the radar to pilot a Virb and automatically record footage of approaching cars.

  10. Grzeg1

    @Ray are the Polar news still coming?

  11. Rick

    Nice find, Ray.

    One other extension of this technology that might be awesome, and might be awesome…use the back sensor to detect ‘unsafe’ conditions; for instance, a car closing too quickly, collision probable, etc. In the 3 or 4 seconds before (potential) impact, have the unit burst record video PLUS track stats on the closing vehicle (absolute speed, position, etc).

    That would end the ‘bike swerved into me’ and ‘I was going the speed limit in my lane’ excuses cars have when they steamroll a rider. Seems pretty straightforward too, just take a mini-VIRB, controls for the sensors, voila. I don’t know a cyclist that wouldn’t buy one.

  12. Rick

    Sorry Nicolas. Missed your comment when I posted the one above. +1 for good thoughts. :)

  13. heatwave23

    Since Garmin has already entered the action cam space with Virb it is feasible that they will add this functionality to something like the Fly6 camera.?.? Or at least one can hope

  14. Chris Koboldt

    Backtracker + Virb + Edge functionality, kind of a a smart Fly6 with traffic indication on the head unit, is quite intriguing. Both for cycling and motorcycling alike I’d think.

  15. Ken P

    I would definitely buy the radar-based flasher (increasing intensity) at the back to warn drivers.

    New feature request for Garmin: when a car approaches range of my bike / radar unit, disable texting ability on driver’s cellphone.

  16. wai

    Not sure if I would ride with a distraction on the handlebar. This unit would be most helpful to auto drivers as a warning to how close they are to cyclist? My next purchase is a going to the continuous video recorder ala “Black Box” for the cyclist.

    Thanks for all your reviews…

  17. Larry

    Will be interesting to see where this goes. The original Backtracker didn’t support ANT+, so I’d guess that will probably change. I’d also be curious what workable additional interface could be designed into Garmin watches using vibration as an alert so you’re not dependent on only noticing a display (this would leverage a current day advantage of ANT+). The aspect of integration with lighting is interesting. Don’t know if it was a self serving comment, but once spoke with Dinotte Lighting about the idea being used in Backtracker. They didn’t think adaptive lighting makes sense as they believe the value in daylight visible lighting is when drivers see the light starting at a long distance from the cyclist and from the side.

  18. Scott Buchanan

    Sorry but I simply can’t see any benefit to this system other than a 3 second warning that your going to be mown down.

    • Adam

      I agree. Whilst the technology looks great and I’m sure there’s some good use for it out there, I just can’t see it being useful as a cyclist.

      In a typical 60-100 mile ride I get passed by many hundreds of cars, I don’t see how this device will help me avoid the one or two that might be passing too close. I can hear when there’s a big truck or some moron in a BMW screaming past at 100 mph and change my riding accordingly. I don’t see how this device would change that.

  19. Dave

    I also don’t see the benefit. What are you supposed to do when you’re warned a car is behind? Jump off the road?

    Good roadcraft would be simply to keep your position on the road and not swerve to the gutter because a car is coming.

    I do have a tiny mirror on my bike, I use it to ensure following riders are not losing contact, or to see if someone’s about to scalp me ;-) But the mirror also does everything this gadget can do, it doesn’t require batteries, and it has a 100% record of seeing everything behind me.

  20. sygyzy

    I hope they can add support for this product in the existing Edge 500 series, rather than requiring one of the larger/more expensive computers.

    • PaulinPortland

      Unicorns and rainbows…… Guess how Garmin are going to recoup the money they just paid out.

    • Adam

      No chance.

      I think it’s much more likely that they’ll release a new 500 (I’m not recognising the 510 as a worthy successor) that could include this and any future major product developments, perhaps in the form of Connect IQ apps if they decide to bring it to the Edge series.

  21. Greg in Madison WI

    I would like radar connected to a camera to record cars in the event of a hit for post hit and run events. They could keep the last 5-10 radar events for post crash analysis at very high FPS and resolution to get license plate and event information.

  22. Greg in Madison WI

    Also, a button on the edge 500/800 unit to save the last 30 seconds-5mins to record events of aggressive drivers/rage/ using their cars to swerve and danger cyclist. This would prove what happened before the actual swerving, by the driver and would be VERY useful to show police.

  23. maarten

    The article only emphasizes on measuring/detecting things around the bike/athlete. What if with radar you would be able to measure speed, cadence, movement of body…. That would take out the need for all the battery using black pieces of plastic we hang on our bikes or bodies.
    Given that radar would be a viable solution for this, wouldn’t this be more logical?

  24. For the High end market we will see a Radar that detects attacks from fellow bike riders in the Tour de France.
    Just matter of time that this will happen and in the future it won’t be an old fashion radar system but a tiny camera with some big computing power analysing every move.

  25. John

    I just want a device that records video and flashes a progressively blinding rear light when something approaches me from behind aggressively.

    Why? Because of instances like this guy, who was actually given a $24 ticket for being run into from behind by an inattentive driver on an otherwise empty road:

    link to velonews.competitor.com

  26. chasd

    I want one so I can make 802.11ac WiFi routers jump off the DFS band as I ride by.

  27. Ron

    I’m looking for a device that makes an audible tone when a cyclist comes up from behind, before he passes me with with no warning and poor clearance. I need to hear the alert, not look at colored LED’s. thanks!

  28. Armando

    Any update on this product, now that garmin bought them? I would defenitly get one when available. Thanks DC

    • Nuttin. When Garmin acquired Metrigear for Vector, it was quite years before a Garmin product popped out. In the case of Backtracker, it appeared to be far closer to production-ready than Metrigear, thus, I wouldn’t be surprised to see something hit the market sooner.