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How Direct Line Imagined the Pedestrian Crossing of the Future

The insurance brand, Saatchi & Saatchi and urban design experts Umbrellium create a smarter, safer way to cross the road, writes Alex Reeves

How Direct Line Imagined the Pedestrian Crossing of the Future

Where’s the safest place to cross the road? You might imagine a pedestrian crossing is, trusting that it’s been placed in the best place to ensure your safety, but that’s not always the case. According to the Transport Research Laboratory 7,000 annual road traffic accidents take place at crossings due to a lack of visibility for cars, cyclists and pedestrians – that’s about 20 every day. 

“Direct Line are the fixers,” says Will John, Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi. “While most insurance companies are there to pick up the pieces when everything falls apart, they’re going one step back and stopping those pieces from falling apart in the first place.”

That’s why they launched The Smart Crossing in October. This week they launched a 40” film exclusively for cinemas, explaining how their partnership with Saatchi & Saatchi and urban design experts Umbrellium created the prototype for a safer way to cross the street.

Building on last year’s Fleetlights campaign, which was the first activation in the insurance company’s mission to promote road safety, the Smart Crossing represents how a brand can make an impact through real life innovation.

“In a world of ad blockers and streaming, we need to reach people in different ways,” says Will. “I think creating real-world solutions to real-world problems is a powerful way to create additional meaning for consumers and to reach them in different ways.” 

Road crossings haven’t changed for over 60 years, but the way that we use those roads clearly has changed. Surely technology could update the way crossings work.

The agency turned to urban designers Umbrellium to work out how this would work - an urban design company with a history of road safety designs. “They are very much experts in their field,” says Will. “It’s a process that’s built on trust in each other’s capabilities. Our expertise is to create the idea, the comms around it and the design of the crossing. Their expertise is in creating the infrastructure and technology behind it.”

Imagining how the city of the future might function lends itself to sci-fi dreaming.
“It’s a bit like Blade Runner or Tron,” says Will. But this impulse had to be resisted to make sure the innovation put safety first. “There’s a tendency when you make something like this to make it really high-tech. But this is a safety solution so when we’ve designed it we’ve been very sensitive of how it looks. It’s a road crossing and it needs to look like a road crossing. We needed to keep that visual language similar to what everyday road users know and understand. In some instances we might have pushed it too far and then we’ve had to reel it back in because it’s very much about that visual road language that we all know.”

Usman Haque, Founder of Umbrellium was instrumental in building a prototype that actually worked. “All my work is about designing technology for the built environment and looking at how people relate to each other in spaces,” he says. “We tried to figure out what we need for 21st century crossing, which is dealing with a different kind of city. People interact with the city in different ways. There are more vehicles on the street. People are distracted with technology.”

Usman goes on to explain the various improvements they’ve made to the traditional design of a crossing. It combines computer vision technology to “see” exactly what’s happening around it and an LED road surface that can adapt its markings and signals dynamically in real-time to keep its users safe, without manual input.

Two cameras, one on each side of the crossing, monitor the scene around the crossing, merging the images and classifying all objects in the scene - pedestrians, cyclists, cars - and everything they’re doing This uses an open-source machine learning library that helps it classify what it can see. “In principle it could start to learn what is the safest location for the crossing,” says Usman. “What if the safest location’s actually in a diagonal line? That adaptive behaviour is pretty straightforward.” And the more data it’s fed with, the safer it can make the roads.

“We’re actually learning from ants there,” enthuses Usman. “You know when ants go foraging for food? They lay down pheromones that signal to other ants to take that same path. The more ants that take the path, the more pheromones there are. They’ve learnt the best path to take for what they need.”

Using the in-built LEDs, the crossing signals clearly when to wait as a pedestrian approaches, signals to cars to stop and then turns green when it’s safe. The pedestrian crosses and when they’re clear it signals to vehicles so they can continue.

Another feature is its mass crossing setting. Picture the scene, as Usman describes it: “It’s late at night, the pub’s just closed or the football’s just let out and there’s loads of people crossing.” The crossing senses there are lots of pedestrians and widens the crossing to accommodate.

If a pedestrian isn’t paying complete attention to the road and strays onto it without looking properly, the system can adapt and quickly deliver a crossing path for them based on where they’re heading, alerting road users to the hazard clearly.

Finally, it can address the issue of high-sided vehicles (such as HGVs and buses) which can obscure the view of the pedestrian who is crossing by lighting a 1m radius around pedestrians walking across the road. This will ensure they are not ‘hidden’ by these types of vehicles which can often cause a blind spot for other road users.

“It’s taking a fairly simple concept: monitoring people’s locations and dynamically changing the patterns,” says Usman. “But turning it into something that supports the weight of the car, that deals with sun and rain, people running in from different directions - that’s where the hard work is, figuring out what it should be and putting it into this real-world conditions so we can test it.”

The key component is the panel that the new roads would incorporate, with an LED layer, high-impact plastic and a structure that bolts together. “One of the most difficult things is to make sure, with the wear and tear of vehicles rattling back and forth, is that it stays cohesive and all the cabling doesn’t come unplugged,” he says.

With the prototype built, the key was to show it off in a way that’s clear and attention-grabbing - back into Saatchi & Saatchi’s expertise. “You don’t want it to be a dry, road safety ad. You want to wow people,” says Will.

In the demonstration film they set up a complex accident that’s about to to occur and switch to slow motion. “The crossing may respond to an incident in 0.67 seconds,” says Will, “but that is stretched out to six seconds to really show what the crossing is doing while you have all of these different moving parts and protagonists - cars, pedestrians and cyclists - converging at one point.”

Other than highlighting Direct Line’s awareness of road safety issues, what do they hope to come from this demonstration of innovation and new technology?

“We’re trying to show that this is actually something we can pretty straightforwardly build now,” says Usman. “It works. The technology’s there. It’s actually not space-age. It’s a relatively simple idea that has to exist in a very messy condition, which is the city and the different ways we interact with each other. Beyond that it’s not that complex.”

And even just building an testing a prototype has delivered a lot of findings. “We’re learning lots about the logistics of deploying it, the psychology of people’s perception,” says Usman. “Things like the speed of animations. We have to make things appear quickly for emergency conditions, but we have to make sure they don’t feel so quick that you feel distracted. If the task is to make people feel confident in their use of the crossing then things like the timing of an animation sequence is really important. It’s about what makes somebody feel in control of the situation.” 

Rachael Lynch, ‎Brand Activation Marketing Manager at Direct Line explains their hopes for the project. “This type of activation is very preventative,” she says. “To demonstrate that we understand modern life and the problems that come with that. Although we think crossings are a safe place and many of them do a job, we still think they can do a better job.”

Direct Line also hope it will end up being applied to real life. “With Fleetlights we open-sourced the code, and that sped up the opportunity of the project,” says Rachael. “We’re open-sourcing this code on in the hope that people develop it and take it on and we might see something like this in the future. There’s nothing to stop, one day, a council or city setting up their own version of this and we’ve got the code to offer them. We’re hoping that people will see it and work out how to make it happen. We hope to engage MPs to campaign for it. It’d be really exciting to see it developed to be used in real life.”