Fashion

12.19.13

Helmet Haute Couture: The Invisible Helmet Revolutionizing Bike Safety

Biking is the perfect form of transportation, until you factor in clunky helmets that ruin your ’do. But a new fashionable—and largely invisible—helmet may be changing all that.

It’s only been eight years since Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin turned in their master’s thesis, but since then, the project’s subject matter has morphed into a 19-employee-strong company with distributors across Europe and expansion plans into the rest of the world. In bike-friendly Malmö, Sweden, the two 33-year-olds are selling a product poised to save countless lives—and hairdos: an invisible bike helmet.

Called “Hövding,” the simple-looking contraption takes its cue from car airbags. The helmet is designed to detonate on impact after an accident, wrapping the wearer’s head in an inflated plastic casing in the millisecond before hitting the ground. But the real key is what happens before a crash; Hövding resembles an unassumingly stylish scarf, encircling the biker’s neck in a colorful pattern. No bulky helmet to lug around or uncomfortable shell to ruin your hairstyle.

Does it sound too good to be true? Factor in the seven years Haupt and Alstin have spent consulting with scores of mathematicians, trauma specialists, bicyclists, and stunt people, and testing their product, which has already raked in a handful of awards, before actually putting it on the market.

As bicycle sharing programs, like New York City’s Citi Bike, take off in metropolis after metropolis, there is a renewed focus on safety while cycling. A 2009 report showed 90 percent of cyclists killed that year were helmet-less, and more recently, a 2013 study named biking as the top culprit for sports-related head injuries, even beating football.

But getting cyclists to don a hard-shelled helmet, which can lessen the risks of serious injury, has been a global challenge. Many cities and countries have implemented laws requiring all or some of its citizens to protect themselves. But, as critics note, writing helmets into the rule book often ends up deterring residents from riding and lowers the usage of bike-sharing programs.

In 2005, the same year Haupt and Alstin first conceived of Hövding, Sweden announced that all riders 15 and under were required to wear head protection. The controversy around the legislation caught the attention of the grad students, who, Alstin says, “never use conventional helmets.” So they got to work, interviewing cyclists about what they wanted in a helmet.

“We realized people want something more discreet,” Alstin says. “We thought, maybe we shouldn’t place this helmet on your head at all.”

“That was biggest tech challenge: to find a way to make the trigger function work. How can it know when you’re in accident?”

There are a few reasons this seemed to be an inspired solution: the first was vanity. Though it may be trivial, disliking the way helmets look and the destructive force they wreak on hair is a factor in many riders deciding to leave their head protection at home. The second was practicality and safety; the airbag-style method employed by Hövding has three to four times more shock absorption than a traditional helmet, according to Alstin. And, the third, she notes, was maintaining the freedom people associate with bicycling that helmets tend to inhibit. “People want to have the wind going through their hair.”

With a scholarship of roughly 10,000 euros, plus an estimated $10 million in venture capital that would trickle in later—the pair set about turning their idea, conceived while they were in the industrial design program at Sweden’s University of Lund, into a product. They spent the good part of a decade studying how bicyclists move during a normal ride, as well as other activities like going down stairs or leaning to pick up dropped keys. They also used stuntmen and women to recreate all types of accidents. All the while, the pair studied how bodies reacted in different situations and then crafted the data into algorithms that can detect an accident. “That was biggest tech challenge: to find a way to make the trigger function work. How can it know when you’re in accident?” Alstin says.

In 2010, the duo publicly announced their project, and “the world went completely bananas,” overwhelming the fledgling company with attention. A stylized video of their product sponsored by GE garnered thousands of views and likes when Hövdings began selling a year later. And now, Alstin says, they’re available in 250 stores across 10 European countries and are outfitting thousands of cyclists on the streets. They currently retail for 399 euros, or roughly $550, but Alstin hopes to lower that once production costs are streamlined.

In the spring of 2014, high-tech Japan will become the first off-continent distributor. Next up: hopefully countries like the United States, where bike-sharing programs have gained popularity, and Australia, where the law mandates helmet use.

But the product potential goes well beyond just cycling. There are many other risky activities that could benefit from an extra layer of inflated padding. Alstin says they are “longing to start new product development,” in areas where it’s needed most, potentially skiing and horseback riding. Recently, they received a call from a man who suffers from epilepsy and was saved after his Hövding inflated during a seizure.

For now, they don’t advise Hövding use for anything other than bicycling, but its potential to change that sport is huge. “Cycling is growing and especially urban cycling is growing; It’s becoming more and more of a lifestyle,” Alstin says. “I think timing couldn’t be better for us.”