They've been working on it for eight years, but a revolutionary “invisible” bicycle helmet by Swedish industrial designers Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin is finally gaining traction around the world.
Haupt says the seed was planted when the pair was studying at Sweden's prestigious University of Lund. The introduction of a local law making it mandatory for children up to the age of 15 to wear a helmet sparked debate as to whether adults should be made to wear them, too.
“We saw this law as a threat to adult bicyclists, because many people in Sweden and in the rest of the world are really bad at using conventional helmets because they don't think they are good enough,” Haupt says.
“And we don't like, as designers, to have this attitude that it's people who need to change, instead of the product that needs to change. And that's why we decided to see if we could improve them.”
Canvassing participants with the aim of finding the root of resistance to traditional safety helmets, Haupt and Alstin discovered aesthetics plays a major role. While “everyone who buys this product says it's because of the safety reasons” their anonymous questionnaires told a different story.
“It's a lot about vanity,” explains Haupt. “They feel geeky, it distorts their hair, they are bulky to bring and so on. And so we understood that we needed to really think new if we wanted to solve the problem.”
The answer, it turns out, was to have no discernible helmet at all. Drawing on airbag technology, Haupt and Alstin created the Hövding, a product worn around the neck like a scarf.
Inside its removable shell — which is available in different styles and colours to better match with one's outfit — is sturdy nylon fabric that inflates by way of a helium canister when an in-built sensor detects that the wearer has been struck or is falling off their bike. It inflates within one-tenth of a second and immediately records movement pattern data to its black box.
“Airbag technology absorbs the shock from an impact in a much more efficient way than conventional helmets can do,” Haupt says.
“That's the biggest advantage that you have, an efficient shock absorbent capacity so that your skull and brain becomes much more protected in an impact … you can have multiple hits in one accident and the Hövding can handle them all because it stays inflated for a few seconds and it protects much larger areas of the head than conventional helmets can do.”
With a price tag of 399 Euros ($577), it's certainly an investment. But while the helmet can't be reused if it has activated, its creators are ensuring that national distributors have enough insurance to provide replacements free of charge.
The Hövding is currently only available throughout Europe and Japan due to differences in safety certification procedures, though the company hopes to apply for certification in Australia and the US once it starts generating more sales.
“Yes, for sure,” says Haupt when asked if she planned to bring the design Down Under. “Definitely.”