If we have any chance at weaning ourselves off of the dead dinosaur juice that fuels our planet, sustainable transportation, like bicycles, are going to have to be part of the solution. In fact, cities like Copenhagen have already toward a model in which bikes, not cars, rule the road; on the bike highways there, 68% of adults ride their bikes at least once a week and 55% of children cycle to school on a regular basis. The latter statistic is particularly heartening. But as bikes become an increasingly integral part of our green future, bike safety must be considered as well. A biking revolution invites us to think about a correlated upheaval: a revolutionary bike helmet.
That’s one way to think of the Hövding, which isn’t a helmet so much as a wearable airbag for your melon. We featured the Hövding in 2010 when it was in the concept stage, but unlike many of the too-wacky-for-the-real-world industrial design concepts you see on the Internet, this one is now something you can actually buy.
To recap: Hövding was conceived in 2005 as a masters thesis project by two students at the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University in Sweden. Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, two women who say they "wouldn’t be seen dead in a polystyrene helmet," surveyed their friends for qualities they desired in a futuristic bike helmet, and when one acquaintance said he yearned for "invisible" protection, the lightbulb went off and the Hövding was born. The idea was that an air bag could be built into a collar to be worn inconspicuously around a cyclist’s neck, like a scarf. It would be fitted with sensors that could detect when an accident was taking place and inflate the collar in time to prevent damage to the head and spine.
Haupt and Alstin’s concept garnered a good deal attention, and in 2006 it won the Venture Cup startup competition—along with a cash prize to help facilitate its production as a real product. Then came the hard stuff: figuring out how to make sure it could save lives.
Ulf Björnstig, a professor and surgeon at Sweden’s Umeå University Hospital and an expert in cycling-related injuries, was enlisted to head the effort. His team compiled an encyclopedic database of the types of accidents cyclists face and then re-enacted those collisions with dummies and stunt riders from the Swedish Stunt Group. Alva Sweden, an airbag manufacturer, was charged with the development of the inflatable device itself.
The finished product uses a series of accelerometers and gyrometers to distinguish between "normal movements" and "abnormal movements"—basically whether the wearer is getting sideswiped by a car or is just bending over to roll up their pant leg. In the event of an accident, a small inflator positioned on the back of the rider’s neck pumps helium into a nylon hood, built to withstand contact with the asphalt or other surfaces. After detecting abnormal movement, it takes the Hövding just a tenth of a second to inflate.
Now, after seven years of development, the Hövding 1.0 is available to protect your own noggin. The Technical Research Institute of Sweden ran all the requisite safety tests on the inflatable helmet, and in October of last year it was officially awarded its CE certification, marking its compliance with a number of safety and performance standards required for all helmets sold in the European Union. Earlier this year, a limited run of the helmet was subject to a recall after a flaw was found with the collar’s zipper, but the team addressed the issue, and this summer an independent safety test found the helmet to be among the safest available, in terms of the g-forces a rider experiences during a collision (Co.Design waited to run this news on the helmet’s wide release until we confirmed the zipper issue had been solved).
The Hövding comes in two sizes, Small and Medium, and sells for 3998 SEK—around $600. Extra shells can be purchased for $75 and swapped in to give the collar a different look. The whole setup runs off an on-board battery, and charging is taken care of via a micro USB port. The Hövding team says the collar works fine with ponytails, bobs, baseball caps, headphones, and a good deal of other cuts and accessories. Heavy dreadlocks, however, have been deemed incompatible. One salient detail: The airbag cannot be re-inflated in the event of an accident—each Hövding is only good for one collision.
Is a $600 one-time-use inflatable bicycle helmet for everyone? Definitely not. But bikes are good, and bike safety is good, and while I don’t mind my $12 Supercut getting mussed a bit by a regular old hard-shell helmet, if this saves one well-coiffed Scandinavian cyclist’s life, then it’s a good idea. As Haupt and Alstin say, "a helmet that just sits on the shelf is no good to anyone."