Monday 24 February 2014

Safer, comfortable cycling doesn't require invisible helmets

Summary: The Hövding is a Swedish innovation that replaces conventional helmets with an airbag concealed in a stylish collar. It has captured a lot of interest but much fewer sales. It's also been called revolutionary but real progress lies in making helmets unnecessary most of the time and in proven ways to improve safety and comfort. This post argues urban cyclists should avoid expensive fads like airbag helmets and focus on the simpler, practical steps that can make cycling safer and more convenient.


Related Posts:
When should urban cyclists wear a helmet?

1. The Hövding invisible helmet has clearly captured a lot of interest
- The Hövding cyclist airbag is best understood through their website and the Hövding YouTube videos. The Vimeo video has had 12 million views. The engineering is brilliant.

- The Hövding has been widely promoted as an innovative solution to the challenge of making helmets cool, comfortable and convenient. See: > Vimeo Focus Forward Films, > GE Focus Forward Films, > Safety From Sweden: An Inflatable Bike Helmet (WSJ) and also the hundreds of articles listed on the press section of their site.

2. Hövding will fail as a substitute because it isn't affordable or significantly superior overall compared to the alternatives
- Hövding will fail to achieve significant sales for many reasons; I've listed several obvious ones below. The Hövding FAQ is so limited and evasive on these issues it doesn't appear to take them seriously.

- Hövding has had $13 million in venture capital. I haven't found any sales figures online. It's primary focus appears to be marketing and media buzz rather than addressing the reasons which might prevent potential customers buying their product.

Note: As of March 5, 2014, the price was reduced from 400 euros to 300 euros. I suspect this isn't because Hövding is so profitable due to sales that it can reduce the price but because sales are poor and the high price is seen as the biggest barrier. However, even if a Hövding cost 100 euros I expect sales would still be poor for the reasons provided below.

FactorHövdingConventional Helmets
Initial costReduced to 300 euros (still more than the cost of a quality bike)15-40 euros
Single use cost- Once it deploys you must buy another or have it restored. Hövding advises your insurance may pay. But you must pay for suitable insurance and then the excess. Typically only replaced after significant damage and the replacement cost is low.
Convenience- Concern about accidentally triggering it (sudden braking or rough riding) is high.
- Requires charging, turning on/off and possible rearranging of clothing.
- Must be worn or carried; can't be locked with bike.
- No issues with how you ride
- Easy to use
- Can lock with bike

Reliability- Battery life is 18hrs of use before recharge. Must be switched on and off.
- If you need to replace will be a hassle
- Always on
- Easy to replace
Activation- Based on electronic trigger scenarios for rider (see How Hövding works)Always on
Undesirable activation- Will likely deploy in any accident despite most bike accidents not resulting in head impact. This will be costly and inconvenient.Only comes into play when head is impacted
Lifespan- FAQ says "when collar fabric wears out". No mention of likely/recommended lifespan or battery replacement.At least several years.
Trust level- Is not always on so cyclist must trust it to fire correctly and protect at least as well in all scenarios
- In several scenarios it isn't guaranteed to protect like a normal helmet (see FAQ)
- Some concern about being injured by deployment
Always on and any limitations are clear.
Comfort- Collar can get hot. Is not something you would wear unless cycling.
- Weighs 700g which may be uncomfortable
- Can lock with bike
- Can be light and have good air flow
Robustness- Even a broken zip requires a return (see FAQ)Very robust. Cheap replacement
Any hairstyle?- Rigid or bulk hairstyles may impede the product (see FAQ)Yes but can get messed up!
Scarves, Earrings, etc?- Anything that may get in the way can't be freely worn (see FAQ)Yes
Suitable for children?- No, has a lower age limit of 15Yes
Cool factor- Possibly better than a stylish helmet but not obviously so. The collar is large, bulky and strange looking.
- The deployed airbag is definitely weird looking.
Sports helmets are uncool. Stylish helmets can be cool enough.
Head protection- Higher in certain circumstances it is designed for but lower in others.Consistent as is always on
Useful where mandatory?- Not unless specific approval has been granted. E.g. Aust/NZ which requires mandatory helmets does not currently accept HövdingYes in all countries

3. What about an affordable, reliable, widely-certified Hövding 5.0?
- Let's say that this is just the first step toward a "helmet revolution" and imagine in the future a Hövding is available that is much lower-cost initially, has cheap and efficient replacement, has a reasonable lifespan, has been proven to trigger reliably, is very comfortable, is certified in most countries and considered very cool. Will it catch on and significantly replace conventional helmets or convince riders who don't use helmets to buy one?

- The above scenario is theoretically possible only if there is a realistic pathway to the required economies of scale and needed evolutionary progress. Based on the existing gaps and likely sales, no realistic pathway seems probable. The issues of cost, replacement, trust and accidental/undesirable triggering are very problematic to solve. See: > Meet The Girls Who Want To Sell You An Invisible Helmet

4. No significant cycling audience has an unmet need for something like Hövding
- According to the Hövding About page: "Anna and Terese saw their master’s thesis as an opportunity to find out whether it would be possible to develop a cycle helmet that people would be happy to wear – whether they had to or not." And again: "To people like us, who wouldn’t be seen dead in a polystyrene helmet, the thought that we might be forced to wear one by law was cause for concern. Producing a bicycle helmet that people would be happy to put on looked like a much better way to go than legislation forcing people to wear one or else." (Forbes).

- Based on that, their target market is either (a) to produce a more desirable helmet for people who are forced to wear bike helmets by law and/or (b) people who want to feel safer riding but would only use a helmet that was stylish and didn't mess up their hair.

- Regarding (a), bike helmets shouldn't be mandatory so this is an artificial problem best addressed by eliminating mandatory helmet laws (MHL). Even where MHL persists (Australia, NZ, some parts of the U.S. and Canada), the Hövding is unlikely to be certified as a compliant protective device. Consequently, it won't capture market share in these places, even if the other issues noted in the table didn't matter.

- Regarding (b), helmets are near the bottom of the things an urban cyclist seeking better safety should pursue (see point #6 below). Indeed, typical cyclists concerned about their hair and stylishness do not ride fast or in dangerous conditions and thus have little to gain from head protection. Indeed, the inventors themselves are correctly unconcerned about protecting their heads from crashes which is why they haven't worn helmets themselves or stopped riding till something like a Hövding was invented: "Anna and I have biked all our lives, neither of us wearing helmets, so in some respect this whole project sprang out of self-interest." (WSJ). See also: > When should urban cyclists wear a helmet?

5. Urban cyclists want to be safer without a helmet or airbag collar; Sports cyclists want proven, "always on" protection
- Despite what simplistic polls might indicate, I'd argue most urban cyclists don't actually want to wear any protective head device (helmets or airbags) to ride a bike around cities. The "invisible" they are chasing is the freedom not to have to worry about significant risks of crashing or hurting their heads.

The bike helmet that's invisible

- Conversely, sports cyclists who ride faster, take more risks and do have a significant chance of being involved in serious crashes and hitting their heads want proven protection that is always on and not subject to uncertainty about whether it will always trigger correctly and in time. Sports cyclists are happy to wear traditional helmets, look uncool, have their hair messed up and get a bit sweaty - so the Hövding is not going to be adopted by them

6. Real, simple solutions to address safety, convenience and comfort
- There are many ways you can make urban cycling safer without resorting to expensive, flawed fads like invisible helmets. After all, avoiding serious crashes should be your first priority. It is entirely possible for urban cyclists to ride safely their entire lives and never have a serious accident or hit their head.
> Solutions to common barriers to cycling
The most important tips on how to ride safely
Characteristics of safe cycling routes

ProblemBetter solutions than expensive, high-tech bike helmets
Local urban cycling is dangerousMove to a more cycling-friendly area or change where you work or study.
Speed and volume of traffic is dangerousUse protected routes or those where the speed differential between yourself and cars is lowest.
Feel unsafe cycling on shared roadsDo some training with experienced friends on riding safely on roads.
Lack confidence to ride on some roads- Find safer routes that are off-road, separated, have bike lanes or slower and limited traffic.
- Ride routes popular with other cyclists at the same time and stick with other riders.
Don't need a helmet and don't want to wear one- If helmets are not legally required or you can avoid getting fined, just don't wear one and protect your safety in better ways
Helmets are required but unnecessary and undesired- Shop around for a minimalist, comfortable, hat-type helmet that technically meets the requirements
Helmets are sweaty or uncomfortable- Shop around for a helmet with good air flow and comfort
Helmets are uncool- Shop around for a stylish helmet you don't mind wearing
Helmets mess up your hair- Don't wear a helmet if you don't need to. Or fix your hair when you get to your destination.
You ride at speeds that risk head injury in crashes- Slow down in risky situations and improve your skills and judgement for faster riding.
Dooring or other accident risks are concerning- Learn how to minimise or eliminate these accident risks by improving your skills and the way you ride.
Helmets are inconvenient to carry or store- Lock them to your bike when you park. E.g. Use a U-lock that fits through the helmet.
Concern about head injuries- For urban cyclists riding safely, the actual risk of hitting your head is very low. Research the 

7. Improvements to safety gear for cyclists who need it
- Traditional helmets (certified to national standards) are widely considered to offer significant protection, however, the certification testing is limited to only a few scenarios and common helmet design doesn't seem to evolve significantly with safety as the key driver. Hence, there is definite potential for better testing driving a grading system that puts pressure on helmet manufacturers to genuinely optimise safety for cyclists.

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