There aren’t a lot of people out there who would tell you that they love wearing helmets; just the thought of them can discourage some cyclists from hitting the road at all. So when Sweden passed a new round of bicycle laws in 2005 mandating that all children under 15 years of age wear helmets while cycling, adults worried that they might be next.
The panic prompted then-industrial design graduate students Terese Alstin and Anna Haupt to explore for their thesis at Lund University why exactly people, in a country that boasts both one of the largest populations of cyclists and one of the highest numbers of bicycle-related deaths per year, were so averse to donning the protective gear. The pair found that, aside from helmet head, people thought traditional helmets were unsightly and uncomfortable. Not to mention, it’s hard to find a smooth way to walk into a meeting or bar with a hard, clunky helmet in tow. Given these responses, Alstin and Haupt set out to design head gear that people would wear whether they were forced to or not.
“There was one person who actually said, ‘I think it would have to be invisible for me to want to wear it,'” says Alstin. “It was great motivation for us because we began to think, well, maybe helmets aren’t supposed to be worn on your head.”
Seven years later, the duo had developed a prototype of Hövding, a helmet worn around the neck as opposed to atop the head. They gave the product a Swedish name to honor its roots. "Hövding," meaning chief, leader or role model, seemed like a good fit, considering that wearers of the helmet are certainly in the vanguard. Known as the “invisible helmet" to most, the device’s motion sensors—the same kind used in Wii-style devices—detect when the body is moving abnormally. In circumstances when cyclists are in an accident, or begin to fall, the helmet, using airbag technology, deploys an inflatable nylon hood around the cyclist’s head.
A cold gas inflator, positioned in the helmet’s back collar, pumps the hood with helium when the sensors are triggered. The helmet stays inflated for several seconds, so that it can absorb the shock of multiple hits in the same accident, before releasing the gas, and slowly deflating.
“It recognizes that your body movement is having an abnormal movement that you can't have unless your body is positioned radically different than how it’s supposed to be,” Alstin says. “In a way, it’s technology that has existed before, but used together in a new way.”
But what if your bike catches a rock in its tire, or you swerve to avoid a car and then manage to correct your path? Will the helmet deploy?
That’s one of the concerns Alstin hears most often about the product. But so far, it hasn’t happened. The reason, she says, is this: The sensors are programmed with years worth of data on bicycle accidents. She and Haupt recreated “nearly every kind of incident”—from slipping on a patch of ice to taking hits from multiple vehicles—and tracked with high speed cameras and computer programs how stunt riders and crash dummies moved in response to them. They also collected data from hours and hours of safe cycling. Together, this information powers an algorithm that separates normal and abnormal movements. The helmet uses the algorithm to recognize the difference.
“We had an enormous number of different prototypes in order to tune the algorithm and the trigger function and make the airbag inflate correctly around the head,” Alstin says.
Once a prototype was in place, it had to be certified by the Swedish Technological Institute, which tests all bicycle helmets for safety before they can be sold in Europe. The helmet was released on the market in November 2011 in Sweden; in early 2013, it launched across Europe. More than 250 retailers sell the product, and thousands of cyclists across the continent are using them, Alstin says. It’s too soon to say when the helmets might be available in other countries, like the U.S. and Canada.
Still, the helmet has had its critics. At around $540, the hood, which comes in several designs, is much more expensive than most cyclists would normally spend on a helmet. On top of that, they can use it only once; it’s useless after the first time the hood is activated.
In defense, Alstin says traditional helmets also have to be replaced after they take a hit. The Hövding claims other benefits too, from the ability to take multiple hits in a single accident to providing more coverage than a typical helmet. The shock absorbency is also three times as great as the traditional helmet, the creator says.
In Sweden, retailers often offer a 50 percent discount on new helmets for those who have been in accidents. Helmets are also covered by home insurance, which means the full cost of a new helmet usually isn’t out of pocket, according to Alstin.
“It’s expensive to produce,” she says, “but what you get is a superior product.”
The technology Hövding uses could soon give rise to other applications, though Alstin says she doesn’t recommend using the helmet for anything other than cycling, Hövding has been “continuously approached” since its launch by people with epilepsy who are looking for a way to protect themselves from seizures. They have even heard accounts of people who say the helmets have protected them while they were seizing. The group recently won the Epilepsy Innovation Seal of Excellence from the Epilepsy Foundation, which came with a $25,000 grant to motivate a development of an airbag for people with epilepsy
“We’re hoping to enter new areas of usage and develop the technology further into new applications [so we can] save people in other ways,” she says. “There's a lot to be done—we're definitely not short of ideas.”