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Roads are getting safer thanks to wearables for motorcyclists

By Brian S Hall / August 14, 2014


Roads are getting safer thanks to wearables for motorcyclists

I just don’t want to die.

That’s a primal, recurrent thought many motorcyclists have while winding their way through rush-hour traffic; all those darting, speeding cars (or “cages”) rushing forward, veering side-to-side; distracted drivers talking on their iPhones, busy moms sneakily responding to their children’s texts. Bikers know they must stay vigilant if they are to stay safe.

While motorcycle fatalities actually dropped in 2013, sadly, this is only the second time since 1997 that’s been the case. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA), approximately 5,000 people will die this year from riding a motorcycle.

While there have been a number of safety improvements over the years, motorcycles produce six times more fatalities per registered vehicle than cars and trucks. That may be about to change, however, as heads-up digital displays and other wearables for motorcyclists are going mainstream, their goal to make biking safer and better.

Technology to the rescue

To be sure, there’s already a good deal of tech inside today’s bikes: ABS, on-the-fly suspension adjustments, GPS optimized for bikers, communication links with nearby riders, and more is on the way. Both startups and established companies are developing cool new tech which integrates sensors, Google Glass-like displays, and smartphone functions.

Before looking at some of these offerings, it’s important to first memorize a cardinal rule: “A rider cannot afford to be distracted.”

That’s the sage advice given to me from Shawn King, long-time biker, techie, and host of the popular Your Mac Life show. When it comes to building connected tech for bikers, King is emphatic: “anything that distracts is bad.”

King is cautiously excited about the potential of the new safety gear and wearables that are now making their way from the labs and racing circuits to everyday bikers. “Anything that offers the driver more info can be good.” Note, however, that he did not say “is good” – rather, “can be” good. A heads-up display on your helmet can be good as long as it enhances rather than diminishes the driver’s focus.

Heads-Up Displays

According to the NHSTA, “by far, helmets are the single most effective way to prevent serious injury and death in the event of a motorcycle crash.”

Not all states require helmets, not all riders wear helmets. Perhaps some of the newer helmets, like the the Skully “badass helmet” (yes, they really call it that), will get these riders to change their mind.
Skully is a California start-up whose badass helmet, more formally a “Synapse Integrated Heads-Up Display (HUD)” beams navigation cues, blind spot data, and a rear-view camera directly onto the display. This allows the biker to “stay focused on the most important part of your ride – the road.”

Some of the Skully specs are impressive:

  • 180 degree rear-view camera
  • Visual GPS with augmented reality
  • Smartphone integration for hands-free talk, text, notifications and music

Skully refers to such capabiliites as “situational awareness.”

This isn’t the only such heads-up display for bikers, perhaps not even the most impressive. Start-up Fusar Technologies has created its own smart helmet called the Guardian. Fusar’s “Guardian” incorporates Android and smart glass technology to provide riders with a widescreen perspective of the road before them, behind them and to either side. It then adds in real-time traffic and weather data.

The Fusar helmet can even sense an accident involving the rider. If it does, helmet sensors notify the company’s “Guardian Angel” remote assistance service. Fusar contacts emergency responders, including in their call the location of the accident and, if the biker logged it, existing medical information such as blood type and any pre-existing conditions.

Information At Your Fingertips

Helmets are obviously of paramount importance, but the budding wearables revolution is also infusing biker gear. These carbon fiber, touch-activated BearTek Gloves enable the rider to control calls, music, even video with a few touches of their fingers.

BearTek-Gloves1

At a cost of about $400, BearTek Gloves allow remote access and control of various Bluetooth-connected devices; like smartphones and GoPro cameras, for example. The controls are equally simplistic (touch thumb and forefinger to play your music, touch thumb and index finger to activate your camera).

A word of caution: as much as we want to remain connected to our friends, family, followers, and our devices while cruising down the open road, we must not allow convenience to trump safety.

No Bumpy Ride

Not quite yet ready for the average biker, but advancing rapidly, are the high-tech suits that protect some Moto3 racers. Dainese offers a wearable airbag that protects riders against potentially deadly impacts. The suit’s many sensors can instantly detect a collision and soften the wearer’s blow.

Relying on sensors and gas-filled bags, such suits offer superior protections for the arm, neck, shoulders and chest. In motorcycle accidents, chest injuries are the second most severe, following head injuries. The company plans to sell these air-suits to riders by next year.

There’s a catch, however. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission must approve all the electronics (including electronics inside an air-suit) before general sale is legal.

Biking is not the same as driving a car, and wearables for motorcyclists must reflect that. The NHSTA report on motorcycle fatalities noted that 2013 was an especially good year, with a 7% drop in rider deaths. The report also noted, however, that “motorcyclist safety has not improved in fifteen years.” Some of the latest tech appears set to correct this imbalance.

Learn more about the future of wearables by reading our Helpful Wearables Trend Report.