Road crashes are the leading cause of death in the United States for people under the age of 54. There are a staggering 12.4 deaths per 100,000 people (that’s 36,500 fatalities) annually, with a total of 4.5 million people injured enough to need medical attention.
All this comes at a grave economic cost: $340 billion in 2019, including some $30 billion in direct taxpayer costs. And 2021 was even worse, with 42,915 people killed on American roads, the highest in a single year since 2005.
One major contributing factor to this tragic story is poor lines-of-sight, which are notoriously hard to envision when planning a new road or highway.
Natan Elsberg was working as a civil engineer for transportation in the United States when he decided in 1993 to emigrate to Israel. He started out doing roadway design in the Jerusalem area, eventually establishing his own consulting firm, RDV Systems (RDV stands for “rapid design visualization”) in 2005.
Originally a 3D design visualization firm specializing in planning highways and infrastructure, RDV is now focusing on road safety.
“We didn’t have market dominance in 3D design,” Elsberg explains. “There are many other companies out there. We had negotiations with the leaders in CAD [computer aided design] and were almost bought out. That’s when we realized that we were the only people doing 3D for safety matters. Safety is a very different kind of proposition. You can’t do it with just a couple of still frames.”
A virtual alternative
Elsberg recalls how transportation planning has changed over the years.
“We used to go into a meeting with engineering plans on paper,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “People didn’t get it. Paper doesn’t do well communicating, both to the public and to internal stakeholders. It was a waste of time and money.”
The solution in the early 90s: “Bring more and more papers, put it all up on a wall and eventually people will understand. But they didn’t.”
Elsberg and RDV Systems set out to build a virtual alternative “before Google Earth or all the stuff we have on our phones existed.”
Elsberg and his team at RDV worked on projects in Israel (the Highway 1 upgrade from Sha’ar Hagai to the entrance of Jerusalem, the new downtown of Modi’in, the high-speed train from Tel Aviv to the capital), as well as projects in the US.
In recent years, RDV Systems has focused exclusively on North America. The US has more crash deaths than any high-income country, about 50% more than similar countries in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan.
Elsberg says RDV has now worked with around 20 state departments of transportation, including the Connecticut DOT where RDV worked on the $4 billion 1-84 expansion near Hartford.
RDV has also worked on projects in Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, Nevada, Michigan and Utah. (Those are just the published projects; there are many more Elsberg wasn’t able to share publicly yet.)
Down to the centimeter
3D visualization is now “accurate down to the centimeter,” Elsberg claims.
“But there’s one area of road engineering that remains unaddressed. It’s the bastard son of safety: sight distance. It’s a simple concept. If you want to drive down a road at 100 km/hour, for example, you need to see an object 192 meters in front of you. There might be a fallen tree, a stalled car, a rock.” Bridges, glare and drainage can all be problematic.
Put another way, if you’re on a road with a speed limit of 60 miles an hour, “you need close to 600 feet to safely see, comprehend, decide to hit the brakes and bring the vehicle to a safe stop.”
RDV’s software simulates line-of-sight issues that could not have been seen using other software programs – and certainly not using paper and pen.
What kinds of problems can RDV pick up? Guard rails as you turn the corner is a big one. “If someone is stopped there and is sticking out, I won’t be able to stop in time,” Elsberg points out.
RDV’s software can save a department of transportation a significant amount of its budget.
“We put our software to use on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway,” Elsberg notes. “We found six deficiencies in the design. We were able to fix these before construction even started. Normally, these flaws would be built, then it would take 10 to 20 years to analyze why we’re having an abnormal number of crashes at that point.”
To view an RDV simulation, you can watch a normal 2D video with no special software or hardware required, or don a pair of virtual reality goggles.
“It’s not a dedicated app. You just scan a QR code and open your browser,” Elsberg says.
The market is ready
The road to RDV’s pivot to line-of-sight technology began in 2007, “but the market wasn’t ready for us to be doing 3D,” Elsberg says.
The breakthrough came when RDV was working on a new interchange in Utah.
“’We have 3D virtual models of every road because we scan them all with lidar,’ they told us,” Elsberg recalls. “’Can you do your analysis on our existing network?’ they asked. We decided at that point we’ll throw our chips in that direction and go all-in on safety.”
Elsberg emphasizes that RDV doesn’t do the scanning – they rely on their clients. Several DOTs in the US have already done this, while the rest are “on the way to team up with companies that do lidar scanning. We also have partnerships with companies that collect lidar scans not for DOT work but other types of mapping.”
Google and Apple, Elsberg notes, often rely on third-party vendors. These vendors, in turn, “have millions of miles of lidar data they’re willing to sell.”
Another benefit: the DOTs talk to each other, which leads to a network effect for RDV’s sales funnel. “We don’t have to sell to all 50 state DOTs,” Elsberg notes, “just five or six of them with critical mass.”
For the lifetime of the project
In its 15 years of existence, RDV has raised a bit less than $5 million. Most of the company’s budget comes from project revenue.
RDV sells its services directly to clients but there’s another source of income.
“When we publish our models on the cloud, that becomes recurring revenue,” Elsberg tells ISRAEL21c. “Customers will pay to be able to see online in real time what the latest version of their project is. With a subscription, team members can log on, store files, put on VR glasses, make virtual tours and their own videos. DOTs will often keep this service live for the lifetime of the project, from the design phase and early planning to final construction.”
Sometimes a client comes in the backdoor. One project in Arizona was intended just to show the public what the DOT was working on.
“We told them that, for another $30,000, we can do a safety overlay for you. You’ve already invested in the project, now for just a bit more money, we can show you a critical analysis that can save lives using the same 3D models,” Elsberg explains.
Adding a safety analysis for another 15% of the total project price is almost a no-brainer.
We asked Elsberg if the self-driving future could obviate some of RDV’s value proposition.
“From a safety perspective, Level 5 [fully] autonomous vehicles would kill less people,” Elsberg says. “But to get there will take decades. We can’t get people to give up their guns in the US. So how are we going to get them to give up driving?”
Want to learn more about how to keep our lines-of-sight safe? Visit the RDV website.