Are you ready for the 'invisible' bicycle helmet?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: You've probably seen this next item making the rounds on the internet. It's an invention that could change the way you and I ride a bike. An invisible bike helmet. Terese Alstin came up with the idea as part of her master's thesis in Sweden. Terese, how can a bike helmet, first of all, actually be invisible?

Terese Alstin: Yeah, that was a tricky part to solve.

Werman: I'll bet.

Alstin: It started out with us talking to a lot of cyclists about why they are not using conventional cycle helmets, and they were all asking for something really discrete and something preferably invisible, and something that would not destroy their personal style, or hair for that matter. So that's how we started thinking about, "Is it possible to develop a cycle helmet that is not placed on your head at all, but instead it would be around your neck?"

Werman: Right. So what'd you come up with?

Alstin: The invention is a collar with an airbag system inside. The airbag is folded up inside the collar, so you don't actually have anything on top of your head until you end up in accident, and then the airbag is triggered to inflate in a tenth of a second around your head.

Werman: So you wear this collar, and the helmet airbag thing is kind of stuffed into it. How does the collar attach to your clothes?

Alstin: No, it's not attached to your clothes. You put the collar around your neck, and then there's a zip at the front of the collar that you zip it up, and then there's also an on/off button that you need to activate the system with. So you push the on/off button and then you will hear a sound signal that says, "doodle do dit," and then you know that it's on.

Werman: Have you personally tested the airbag helmet, and crashed with it, to see what it's like?

Alstin: I've tested it many, many times, of course. I've actually not crashed it myself, although my cofounder, Anna Haupt, was in a crash just a few weeks ago and had the collar on, and it inflated.

Werman: What was that like?

Alstin: Well, most people who are in crashes, it's really a scary situation to be in. You get really scared. It happens so very quickly, so they don't really realize until after the accident that the airbag is inflated around their head. But to describe how it feels... it goes so, so quickly. It's up in a tenth of a second, and when the pressure is on, it's stiff like a football almost. So it just goes really quickly and suddenly it's there, around your head, and after the accident it slowly starts to deflate again.

Werman: So anyone, here in the US, who’s got a bicycle and a bicycle helmet, knows that inside the helmet there's that Department of Transportation Approved sticker. Has the Swedish government approved this?

Alstin: Yes. In order to sell a bicycle helmet within Europe, you need a CE marking. So it has gone through a massive testing procedure.

Werman: Will you be marketing this in the US, and have you started to go through the approval process here?

Alstin: No, we have not started with the US introduction. That is a bit further down the road. I think, for now, we have enough to handle with the European market. We just need to take everything one step at a time, and coming up next is actually the Japanese market.

Werman: Alright so, Terese, here comes the real bitter pill. How much does this invisible helmet cost?

Alstin: It costs 399 Euros.

Werman: So about 500 dollars.

Alstin: Yeah, that's right. Of course it's more expensive than conventional helmets because it's airbag technology, it's very advanced technology. It's not easy and cheap to produce, so that's why there needs to be a higher price. And of course you always have the possibility to choose a conventional helmet, if that's what you prefer.

Werman: What if you hit a bump or something, is there any accidental way the helmet could be deployed?

Alstin: Oh, when it's not supposed to?

Werman: Yeah?

Alstin: No, that is what we have been working so hard... I mean, the biggest challenge, technically, for us in the development, was to get it right. To get the trigger function right. Completely accurate in when to inflate and when not to inflate. And in order to get that right, we have been using test cyclists who have been wearing the collar in their everyday life, collecting data on how their body moves. We've had to simulate all known cycling accidents, then develop a mathematical method to... that can distinguish those two, separate those two categories of body movements.

Werman: That's impressing. Are you wearing your own product, are you wearing this invisible helmet now?

Alstin: Oh yeah, I would never go cycling anywhere without it. I know too much about what can go wrong in cycling accidents, so I know everything about how you can get seriously injured from just a minor crash. And yeah, I would not wear any other protection.

Werman: Designer Terese Alstin in Malmo, Sweden. Thanks very much, and best of luck with this new invention.

Alstin: Thank you so much! Bye bye.