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The Invisible Made Visible

November 10, 2013

Looks cool, but what about in July?

After making the rounds about one year ago, the “Invisible Bike Helmet” began popping up in my social media feeds again after Jalopnik featured it late last week:

You know what kind of sucks about riding a bike? Other than all that pedaling? Bike helmets. Sure, they keep that overrated “brain” from getting splattered, but they take a lot of the open-air-joy out of things, and they’re not comfortable. A pair of Swedish women have developed a remarkable solution: the invisible bike helmet.

I was skeptical of this “helmet” and its chances for success for a variety of reasons when I first heard about it last year, and the fact that it doesn’t seem to have penetrated the market for protective head gear very much since then confirms my initial skepticism.  Here’s why:

1. It still looks uncomfortable. It’s true that bike helmets, even well-ventilated ones, can be hot to wear and that people often forego the helmet for that wind-through-the-hair feeling.  So imagine going helmet-less but instead wearing the equivalent of a heavy winter scarf every time you ride.  Now imagine it in New York.  In July.

2. It doesn’t allow for spontaneity. If one feels the need to always wear a helmet while riding, then one needs to always carry a helmet in case one wants to ride. (This is why bike share systems in cities with mandatory helmet laws tend to see low ridership.) The invisible bike helmet may pack in to a bag more easily than a plastic helmet, but it still must be carried, rendering it useless the moment it is accidentally left at home or at the office.

3. It’s expensive. It costs about $600.  As Todd Edelman wrote, “If you really think a helmet can help, then buy five 60 dollar helmets for friends and give 300 dollars to your local bicycle coalition or another org. fighting desperately to keep streets safe and collisions from happening in the first place.”

4. It’s single-use.  Much like the car airbag from which it was clearly derived, the invisible helmet must be reset after it deploys, adding a significant cost to an already significant cost.  Regular helmets must be replaced after any type of collision, but at a much lower expense to the consumer.  (See #3, above.)

5. It’s battery-powered. According to Fast Company, “The whole setup runs off an on-board battery, and charging is taken care of via a micro USB port.” Sounds cool. But what if the charge runs out?  And what if you don’t realize it?

6. It distracts from the real danger. The fact that so many of my non-cycling friends sent me this link speaks to the opportunity cost of focusing on this arguably cool invention.  It sends a message that cycling is inherently dangerous and that only technology and consumerism can save cyclists from distracted or reckless drivers.

Design, of course, is inarguably important in the ongoing quest to improve cyclist safety, but design should be focused on roads, not fancy gadgets.  As the Dutch and the Danes learned a long time ago, the goal is to build a city where no one feels that a helmet is necessary.

  1. November 13, 2013 8:20 am

    Until we are the Dutch, and I hope one day we get there, wear a helmet. Not for you but for those that might depend on or perhaps love you.

    • November 13, 2013 9:44 am

      Jay, thanks for your comment.

      This post really isn’t about whether or not to wear a helmet. That’s a discussion I tend to avoid and leave to the individual to decide for him or herself.

      The point is that if you wear a helmet and find it uncomfortable or inconvenient, this particular piece of technology, while cool and interesting, doesn’t really solve that problem.

  2. Bonnie Friedman permalink
    November 13, 2013 8:30 am

    Even the Dutch and Danish have accidents, just maybe less often. Saw a pretty bad accident of a cyclist & a car in Copenhagen just in front of the bike store where we were renting bikes. Absolutely wore my helmet there, just like I do in the States.

  3. November 13, 2013 11:43 am

    Honestly, one can read, that you never tried the Hovding. Well, it’s difficult as it’s not available in the us. I now had accidents with normal helmet and with Hovding, ( and none at all). Never ever would I wear a normal one again. And about running out of power, what else than an indicator light and a tone do you need to recognize the charging status? Give him a try at one point and btw. you replace him after an accident as well and the costs are only 50%. I really don’t have much money, but this piece is much safer and more protecting in case of…than anything before.

    • November 13, 2013 11:55 am

      Thanks for the comment. So the cost of replacement is around $300? Still sounds very expensive.

      As for the indicator light and tone, what happens if you’re about to go for a bike ride and notice that the Hovding needs to be recharged? Do you plug it in and wait before you go? Still sounds like a standard $50 bicycle helmet is going to be more of a help in this situation. You just grab it and go. It would be like the difference between a rechargeable heated sweater and a down jacket.

      The Hovding is an undeniably cool piece of technology and the video is certainly sexy, but I’m not convinced it solves anything.

  4. Stephanie Woerfel permalink
    November 14, 2013 11:18 am

    I hate arriving at work with”helmet hair” to meet the public. If the price came down, I would buy this. It is like anything new. It will not appeal to everyone but I think it is brilliant.

  5. jamie bronson permalink
    November 18, 2013 6:38 pm

    The video is a little deceiving: The women are all wearing color/pattern coordinated air bags that match their clothing. They are actually quite ugly when not coordinated: See photo above of young man. Your points about the heat in NYC ring true. But the cost? Oy vey, and even the recharge cost seems exorbitant. What are you to do while your “helmet” is being recharged? Not ride your bike? Have two of these “helmets?” The whole thing seems poorly thought out for use in the real world. Buying 6 helmets and giving $300 to a local bicycle coalition seems like a much better idea.

  6. goetzendaemmerung permalink
    November 19, 2013 2:57 pm

    All the photographs of people I’ve seen wearing these “inconspicuously” show people dressed for such cold, damp weather that wearing an ordinary helmet would be quite bearable. I happily went helmetless for the last few months after failing to stuff my helmet into an overflowing suitcase and leaving it in my parents’ house, but I ordered a new one today because the weather is starting to turn nasty. Nasty enough for me to want helmet straps to help me keep my under-helmet hat on, a helmet visor to keep snow off my glasses, and perhaps even the insulation offered by a silly polystrene hat.


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