Safety From Sweden: An Inflatable Bike Helmet
Jan. 13, 2014 8:49 p.m. ET
The bicycle helmet has hardly evolved since its introduction in the 1970s. But now Sweden's Hövding has invented an airbag collar for adults who are reluctant to wear helmets they consider uncool and ungainly.
Eva Lindsjö Lindell, a 50-year-old physiotherapist, was cycling to her job in a college town north of Stockholm early one morning in November and took a spill. The frigid Scandinavian weather had made the pavement icy. As her bike accelerated down a slope, it slipped and she hurtled toward the ground.
Ms. Lindell wasn't wearing a helmet, but she escaped with just bruises and scratches. A moment before hitting the pavement, her scarf inflated into a helmet-shaped air bag, cocooning her head against any potential blows, like "landing on air," she says.
The bicycle helmet—often a sturdy piece of Styrofoam in plastic casing—is getting a makeover from Hövding. The Swedish company has invented an air bag collar for adults aware of the dangers of cycling but reluctant to wear helmets that are uncool and ungainly.
This style of safety comes at a hefty price. At a retail price of €400 ($546), the scarf costs more than many bikes. This is because of expensive parts and fabrics and the costly development effort, company executives said. Their ambition is to lower prices as volume increases.
The company expanded from Scandinavia to several European countries last year and soon plans to introduce the product in Japan. The U.S. market is also on the horizon once the company submits it for certification there.
Terese Alstin and Anna Haupt, both industrial designers, invented in 2005 a nylon scarf that hides a miniature air bag. The technology is similar to what is found in automobiles, which often house a network of safety gizmos that use electronics to respond to crisis situations.
The question for the Hövding air bag: Will riders believe in it?
The founders say a major issue for the company is building trust with customers, who need confidence the collar will indeed inflate upon a crash.
The Hövding's sensors are powered by lithium-ion polymer batteries, the same kind found in a cellphone. So users also need to worry about charging the scarf. (A single charge lasts 18 hours of use, and riders will be alerted an hour before the battery dies.)
"An ordinary bicycle helmet is just there, and you don't have to worry about stuff like battery," Ms. Alstin said. "I'd say our product is similar to a smoke detector. You just have to trust that it works and charge it every now and then."
She says it is worth the hassle: The Hövding air bag is advertised as safer than traditional helmets. The air bag covers a larger part of the head and is better at cushioning a shock than a plastic helmet, Ms. Alstin said, adding that the shock absorption capacity of the Hövding is up to five times that of an ordinary helmet.
A study by Folksam, one of Sweden's main insurance companies, backs this claim. In a comparison with 12 traditional bike and skate helmets, the Hövding collar was found to be "far superior" at absorbing straight impacts. (Folksam was unable to conduct a side-impact test of the Hövding, saying it would have required a different test method.)
Two sensors—a gyroscope that tracks angular shifts and an accelerometer that notes sudden changes in the cyclist's speed—detect movements indicating that a crash is imminent.
If an accident is detected, the device inflates with helium in a fraction of a second.
In the U.S., helmets are mandated in 21 states for riders 18 and younger, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 677 bicyclist deaths, or 2% of all traffic fatalities, in 2011, the latest year available.
In some European Union countries, safety campaigns aimed at children encourage them to think of helmets as cool.
"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," Ms. Alstin said. The pair first met as university students in Lund, Sweden.
Constructing a trigger mechanism for a neck-worn bicycle air bag proved to be the most challenging aspect of developing the Hövding scarf. More than $15 million in venture capital funding and seven years of research, including many simulations of different cycling accidents, resulted in a set of algorithms that govern the device.
The solution is tailor-made for cyclists. Ms. Alstin advises against using it for other purposes, "like skiing or stage diving."
If the helmet inflates, users need to purchase a new one, even though in some countries, including Sweden, a replacement can be covered at least partly by insurance. The company says it has sold thousands of Hövding air bags, since setting up shop in late 2011.
The company urges users to report back if they suffer accidents so that it can analyze data gathered by the collar's black box.
To date, the company has gotten reports of some 70 customers who have suffered accidents where the air bag has inflated. Ms. Alstin said she isn't aware of any malfunctions.
Write to Sven Grundberg at email@example.com