RRFBs: Time for Co-opetition

The US Federal Highway Administration has withdrawn its interim approval of  Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs) because a company which makes them has patented them. This is a serious public-policy error. The RRFB has proved effective at increasing compliance of drivers to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks.  This is most important at mid-block crosswalks and at the entrances and exits to roundabouts, where no other traffic signal is likely to be present, and the RRFB can be actuated only when a pedestrian is about to cross, minimizing delay.

While it might be possible to patent some refinement to the RRFB, the basic concept is as old as the Belt Beacon, flashing traffic signal, or railroad-crossing beacon. Patenting requires that a device be novel, useful and non-obvious, and I can’t imagine that it would be hard to get around RRFB patents, or invalidate them. But does anyone have the resources to fight these patents? And if that succeeds, it’s a Pyrrhic victory, as it also opens up the market to other competitors. Is the market for RRFBs large enough to get a company to pony up the money for a challenge, in the light of this situation? The patent and FHWA policy have killed the market too, at least in the USA, and where does that leave everyone, not least of all the patent holders? The process is broken.

What can we do to help fix this? An inventor or licensee deserves to profit from the invention, but not only does the FHWA policy prohibit use of this particular device, it also kills innovation generally. Patents are good for 20 years. Is it really acceptable for signals technology to be 20 years behind innovation, which also is stymied by lack of a market?

There has to be a better way, which rewards innovation while preventing one company from cornering the market. I’d be for some form of mandatory cross-licensing of products which are required by statute or regulation. Cross-licensing has worked in industry: prime example: in the 1950s, Ampex developed the quadraplex videotape recorder, and RCA held the patents on color TV technology. Ampex and RCA engaged in “co-opetition”, cross-licensing these technologies, and both were able to market color videotape recorders. This is what is called in highly technical language a “win-win”.But changing the rules probably requires Congressional action.

While we’re at it: a demonstration of co-opetition: the oldest known surviving color videotape recording: President Eisenhower speaks at the dedication of NBC’s new studio in Washington, D.C., May 22, 1958. The show goes into color at 14:50 and the President speaks at 16:30.

3 responses to “RRFBs: Time for Co-opetition

  1. The dispute apparently involves three patents (8081087; 9120540; 9129540). These concern hardware and associated hard-wired software that control the pattern and timing of the flash that makes each diode appear brighter than it really is to the human eye. The application is not limited to pedestrian signs. The description refers to any energy-restricted (i.e. battery powered) need for a high-output diode array. There are suits in several states and Canada.

    There are other systems that are non-infringing. (For example, the frequently seen system that creates a border around the sign is not included.) It appears the protected system is intended to get more visibility out of solar-recharged battery systems. The patents are fairly narrow and are professionally prepared.

    The interim approval was not withdrawn because of the litigation, but because it is the policy of the FHWA and the MUTCD’s controlling committee not to include any device that is not in the public domain. (Now, how they managed to include 3M ultra-reflective films for yellow and red signs and the first LED stoplights during the years they were patent-protected leaves me scratching my head, but there you are.)

    In any event, there are several alternatives available, especially if you have access to 110 volt ground or overhead power.

  2. I’ve not had good luck with either the RRFBs or the flashing-sign outline. My experience has been that drivers interpret it as “do not yield to the crosswalk unless flashing.” Combined with “don’t yield unless the pedestrian is in the street and moving further out,” they interpret me stopping (or detouring) to press the button as yielding right-of-way…and I stand there with the lights flashing while traffic continues to flow on by. Plain vanilla signs or a HAWK seem to be the only things that work…and having watched people blow straight through the HAWK, I’m not terribly convinced, either.

  3. Quite a while ago – this must have been the mid-1990s – a significant minority of the pedestrian committee at the Transportation Research Board advocated a MUTCD policy that pedestrian pavement markings (crosswalks) should only be used in two situations: 1) at controlled (stop signs or signals) intersections; 2) other locations where the crosswalk was protected by actuated (push-button) green-yellow-red signals. It was opposed by a thin majority who thought enforcement could make mid-block unsignalized crosswalks effective, but the upstarts were backed up by some some good logic and a decent amount of data, given that they were shut out of the funding process. The evidence mostly suggested that MV drivers simply did not respond to mid-block crosswalks without a signal or stop sign.

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