It’s pretty rare that I get to blog about both cycling and networking. Hard to see how those two topics share any common ground. That’s about to change as SRAM, the American bicycle component maker, appear to have a wireless gear shifting system in advanced testing.
The system was seen at the Tour of California earlier this year, though disguised with decoy wires to make it seem like a wired, electronic system. It was also spotted recently at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, now without the decoy wires.
You may ask, why on earth would bicycles need radio-controlled gear shifting? Which is a good question. One benefit seems to be that the wireless shifting weighs slightly less than either a conventional mechanically actuated system, or even a wired electrical one. However, that benefit surely will be very marginal. The lack of cabling may make installation and maintenance easier too. Perhaps. Another possibility is that SRAM were behind Shimano and Campagnolo in delivering an electronically controlled shifting system, and SRAM decided that going wireless would help differentiate their product from the other two. Who knows!
As someone who specialises in network protocols, I’m curious to know how it might work in terms of the messages sent, logical layers of the radio protocol, and how the different components communicate to co-ordinate shifting.
There are obvious questions: Is it secure? Are there any limitations? Will it be reliable? The brief answers to which are, yes it should be secure; yes, there seem to be some limitations over traditional shifting systems; and probably it should be quite reliable, however when it isn’t there could be quite strange behaviour.
The rest of this blog will go into the details of how this system works at a network protocol level, as gleaned from SRAMs’ patent on electronic shifting. It will look at the ramifications of the design decisions made, and also how this could affect the operation of the system in extreme circumstances where messages are lost due to, e.g., radio noise.
The quick summary:
The SRAM system, at least as described in their patent, has a number of limitations that are a consequence of the network protocol:
- It can not support more than two front chain rings
- It can not support intentional simultaneous shifting of front and rear dérailleurs
While radio noise is unlikely to be a significant problem, outside of deliberate interference or some unusual locations, should the system be affected by continued noise it may manifest itself as:
- Missed rear shifts followed by an overshift of the rear
- Overshifting rear shift, after an apparently normal front shift
- Combined unintentional shift of both dérailleurs, on an intended front shift
The system should though be relatively robust against interference, due to its use of a low-bitrate network layer. It should be secure, due to use of strong encryption, so that only those with physical access to the bicycle (e.g. the rider) can control the gear system.
The system that goes into production may differ from the system described in SRAMs’ patent, and some or all of of these limitations may not apply to it. We won’t know till it is released.
Update 20150213: I’ve just noticed the very bottom of the SRAM patent mentions that the dérailleurs can transmit their current gear position. The patent mentions this might be used to allow the front mech to adjust its trim according to which gear the rear dérailleur is in. The patent does not mention this being used in the control protocol though, e.g. to have the dérailleurs ACK the shifter messages which could make the protocol more robust to missed messages. However, the hardware described in the patent is at least capable of this, and production systems could be enhanced this way. There may still be issues left in how the system appears to allow for shifting to be distributed over two shifters, I’d need to go back and re-check.