The offices of Seattle-based design consultancy Artefact is located near a corner on Second Avenue where two white bicycles are perpetually chained. The white bicycles each denote a death: on this corner, two cyclists have been struck and killed by a car in the last few years. A cyclist himself, Artefact designer Tucker Spofford bikes past this corner every day, and wonders how better design can prevent needless deaths like this. Which is why he created the BrakePack, a cycling backpack with integrated turn signals and brake lights.
As envisioned by Spofford and fellow Artefact designers Nick Alto, Sam Baker, and Benoit Collette, the BrakePack aims to make cyclists more visible and understandable to drivers. A dumb backpack when it isn't in use, the BrakePack automatically powers on when you buckle the chest strap, and thanks to a series of integrated LEDs becomes a way for cyclists to not only make themselves more easily seen on the road, but to signal their intentions.
According to Spofford, the biggest threat to bicyclist safety is the fact that car drivers just don't really understand what their intentions are. Are they turning? Are they braking? Sure, many cyclists use hand signals, but "the truth is that while hand signals are a vernacular everyone is supposed to understand, many drivers don't," argues Spofford. A bike doesn't act like a car, which is enough to confuse a lot of drivers ... and that confusion often turns fatal.
BrakePack isn't the first LED-equipped cyclist backpack we've seen, but it is the best thought out. Though it's currently just a proof-of-concept prototype, you wouldn't need to attach anything to your bike, and wouldn't need a smartphone for the BrakePack to work: an accelerometer built into the backpack can automatically detect when a cyclist brakes, while switches in the BrakePack's straps can be tapped to signal which direction a cyclist wants to turn. But if you do choose to pair the BrakePack to your smartphone, the backpack can not only signal your turns automatically (provided you've plotted your route on the accompanying BrakePack app), but it can even give you directions by flashing lights in the periphery of your vision, showing which way to turn.
Asked why a backpack is a better form factor for bike signals than a jacket or smart handlebars, Spofford argues that a backpack is self-contained. With the BrakePack, there's no need to install anything, it's easy to put on, and the backpack form factor allows the device to carry a bigger battery, which can go a week or longer without being recharged. "A backpack makes the most sense," he says. "It just fits in with the urban commuter persona, because it's an accessory most cyclists have with them anyway."
Having been successfully incubated from concept to finished design, Artefact is now talking to potential partners for a way to bring the BrakePack to the world. Whether the BrakePack becomes a Kickstarter or takes some other path to product, Spofford's not sure, but the one thing he does know is he wants to get the BrakePack out there. There's too many white bicycles on the street corners of Seattle as is.