Rise of the Machines: Smart helmets coming into their own

Every time I publish an article about so-called “smart helmet” technology, I brace myself for the inevitable complaints. But it’s pointless to whine: with the amount of interest in smart helmets, they’re going to be widespread, whether you like it or not.

(Just to clarify, the term smart helmet describes a helmet or helmet accessory system that includes hands-free communication capabilities, some sort of GPS compatibility, a heads-up display (HUD), or viewscreen, and a camera. Some smart helmet designs offer far more capability than this, a few offer less, but these four features tend to be typical of most of the designs.

Smart helmets aren’t widely available yet, and the ones you can buy are mostly available through direct order from the manufacturers.)

A quick history

First off, some quick review: smart helmets have been in the headlines for the past five years or so, ever since the rise of smartphones made compact computing and communication components much more affordable. This parallels what we see in advances in motorcycle stability control systems, which have dropped drastically in price thanks to smartphones causing the price of accelerometers to drop.

By far, the most notorious smart helmet system has been the Skully AR-1, which was supposed to hit the market back in 2015. Instead of becoming the smash hit predicted by tech magazines, who were falling over themselves in a mad rush to laud the prototype, the AR-1 never made it to market in significant numbers, and most riders who’d deposited funds for a Skully lost their money. The fallout was spectacular, with accusations that management had wasted company funds on Italian sports cars and strippers; catch up on the whole sordid saga here.

The Skully saga caught more attention than all other smart helmets put together, in good ways and bad.
Where we’re at now

Since Skully crashed and burned, many industry insiders have been very skeptical of the smart helmet concept. That’s a mistake, because despite Skully’s flame-out, many other developers have been working on similar products. Some of these projects are being pulled off by smaller companies that may or may not succeed, but some are being run by major corporations with a history of getting the job done.

Consider the following news bits from the last couple of years:

(January, 2015) Nand Logic put together a smart helmet with not just the standard communications integration, but an LED headlight, taillight and turn signals, and with an ambient light sensor that controls their output. The helmet also has HD cameras front and rear that can warn of impending collisions and provide blind spot warnings. The helmet also has temperature and humidity sensors. In the years since it was first announced, Nand has continued to develop the helmet, and is currently enrolling beta testers.

(October, 2015) Sena is developing a “noise-canceling” helmet, which takes the concept of a quiet helmet to its ultimate conclusion by integrating active noise suppression technology. Lest this sound like a silly sci-fi gadget, you should know similar systems have been in use in the aviation sector for a long time.

Of the many companies working on smart helmet technology, BMW is the largest, and probably the best-suited to make the technology succeed. BMW buyers are also the most likely customers for this technology.

(January, 2016) BMW is working on a smart helmet with HUD. BMW unveiled its concept at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show; its design integrates some sort of real-time navigation system that includes road hazard warnings, as well as potential integration to its vehicle-to-vehicle crash prediction system. This helmet also has removable batteries, so riders on tour can swap fresh batteries in for longer time in the saddle, which works around a major problem with most of these helmet systems.

(January, 2016) New version of the Bell Star will have a 360-degree HD camera, plus collision warnings. Also announced at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, this version of the Bell Star will not only record your ride in 360-degree video (with altimeter and GPS data, if you need that), but the cameras will also be configured to work as a collision warning system. Presumably, other tricks will also be included on the final configuration of this helmet.

(June, 2017) Zona offers universal rear-view camera, with integrated helmet unit. This unit only provides a rear-view camera, with no GPS or other capabilities, but offers another glimpse of the possibilities in the industry today. The Zona camera is mounted to your motorcycle, but the viewscreen mounts to your helmet, allowing for universal fit.

(July, 2017) NUVIZ helmet accessories are now shipping. The NUVIZ units are designed to be a universal fit, attaching to many different helmets, instead of offering integration to a single helmet, like Skully. They’re more akin to the current communications systems offered by Cardo, Sena and others, but NUVIZ offers far more capability, including viewscreen and onboard camera.

In the last week, two new press releases have crossed my desk talking about new smart helmets. The LiveMap HUD helmet will offer GPS/communications integration, voice-activated controls, speed alerts, and a forward-facing 4K camera.

The Reyedr HUD V2 protoype takes the other approach, offering a universal helmet-mounted device with integrated HUD sharing information like speed alerts and navigation instructions. The Reyedr device is designed to integrate into a smartphone app and provide a social networking service, as well as crash alerts. This device is in the design-for-manufacture stage of development, and we’d presume the final version will include more features.

Instead of a one-piece smart helmet unit, NUVIZ offers an attachable accessory that brings similar performance to any helmet with compatible dimensions.
The problems

So, if companies have been working on smart helmets for the past few years, why aren’t they more widespread? Most of these products aren’t really on the market yet, but some are. Why don’t we see more of them?

The first problem is that self-contained smart helmets have a reputation for low quality. Most of these smart helmets are integrated into low-grade shells. That was one of the major complaints about Skully’s helmet: It commanded a high price, but many buyers distrusted the actual helmet that housed all the electronics, due to its Chinese origin and lack of high-quality materials. Obviously, this isn’t a problem for the universal units that attach to your helmet’s exterior.

Another big problem is that while smart helmets are feasibly possible, the technology hasn’t been proven. How does rain affect an externally-mounted HUD? Will the voice command systems be as frustrating to use as those included on smartphones, which are designed and implemented by companies with far more R&D capability than many of these small-time outfits building smart helmets? Is battery life for these helmets going to be sufficient for a full day’s ride? Will the speakers be audible over wind blast?

None of these problems are insurmountable, but they all work together to discourage sales until solutions are proven.

The biggest problem of all is cost. Many riders might be tempted to take a chance on a smart helmet if the buy-in was cheaper, but with pricing seeming to start around $600-$700 for the more advanced units, that’s a pricey gamble.

The smart helmets of the future will probably all share very similar features, and prices will be more or less the same.
The future

There aren’t many smart helmets on the street yet, but we’ve seen that there are several manufacturers working on developing either complete helmets or universal helmet-mounted units. And we’ve seen plenty of demand in the comments section online. But we’ve also seen plenty of naysayers sniping at the technology, saying it’s a waste of money, and why would you ever want smartphone integration on your motorcycle?

The reality is that it’s really only a small segment of the get-off-my-lawn crowd in North America that doesn’t want this technology. In the rest of the world, where motorcycles are viewed as a legit form of transportation, many would be happy to listen to the radio or use their phone on the bike. Even here in North America, commuters stuck in gridlock or rolling down the superslab, as well as long-distance tourers, would understand the point of having music or phone integration with their helmets. Existing helmet communication systems from Cardo, Scala, etc. already sell well.

But I think it’s the other advantages of the smart helmet that will make the technology widespread in the future — in particular, the collision warning systems that several are developing. We live in a safety-obsessed world, with a preoccupation with insurances of all kind, including vehicle insurance.

Now consider the rise of the autonomous car: All the major manufacturers have a skunk works department somewhere that’s tinkering with this technology, and in a few years, our public roads will be overrun with them. Autonomous cars, we’re told, will be safer than cars with human drivers. So, what’s going to happen to car insurance for human drivers? It would be shocking to see a decrease in pricing. And what about motorcycle insurance? Hint: It’s not going to go down. In fact, it’s plausible that insurers could demand the inclusion of more safety devices, such as a collision-detecting helmet, in order to gain insurance. After all, it’s just one more hoop for the insurance companies to goad us through.

But there’s good news for all the grumpy readers who still want nothing to do with smart helmets: By the time they’ve become widespread, you’ll probably be too old to ride anyway. You’ll be arguing about smart wheelchairs instead.

The smart helmet market is still in its infancy. Buying one of the current products may make you a ground-breaker, but expect this tech to go through a trajectory similar to action cameras. In the first few years, several makers will likely vie for supremacy, but eventually, two or three brands will likely rise above the rest, and at least one of them will be a major brand that entered the market a bit later, after waiting for other manufacturers to make mistakes (see also: Sony vs. GoPro action cameras).

If this is technology you really want to possess, you might be well-served to wait a little longer until the scene settles from its current Wild West status.

6 thoughts on “Rise of the Machines: Smart helmets coming into their own”

  1. Ya know what? I’m a cruiser rider who normally wears a half helmet, belting out the classic rock through my batwing speakers so I hear it, (everyone else does too). During crappy weather I wear a full face. When Skully came out I was really interested and was hesitating on pulling the trigger on pre-order to line up for one. Glad I did. Now however, I’m even more interested and I have pulled the trigger on pre-ordering a helmet from i-CH, (Intelligent Cranium Helmets). I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t get screwed and they come through because they are promising great things. The faithful are even getting good updates on the product and we have even seen our first actual functionality video of the helmet. Not a concept video but an actual test video of some of the features. There are more and more news reports of fatal bike and cager accidents everyday and if someone out there gets me a product that improves my chances of getting home to my family safe and sound I’m all for it. I’m surprised that these guys, (i-CH) wasn’t picked up in your article.

  2. After 35 years of motorcycling, I bought an entry level communicator system. Yeah, I know all the jeers from the purists. “Spoils the ride,” they say. I always thought the same. But, not anymore.

    Beyond the obvious rider-to-passenger and bike-to-bike communication, it plays radio and MP3 files, and provides hands-free telephone use. Note: I find it works best if I wear earplugs to drown out the ambient noise then adjust the volume to suit. A trick I learned on airplanes watching the free movies.

    Best of all is the navigation. It works with WAZE from my GPS cell phone (held in a Ram mount so I can see the map). I can get lost riding awesome back roads knowing I have a tech solution to find my way home.

    I say, Bring it On, for smart helmets. My entry level system has improved my riding experience dramatically. Smart helmets will make riding all the better.

    Keep in mind, there’s always the off button when you want to ride uninterrupted on your favourite winding road.

  3. A well-made helmet with an integrated noise cancelling system (which can also be used to pipe in audio) would interest me. I’ve tried in-ear plug type speakers, but found their noise reduction lacking compared to earplugs. Maybe I just haven’t tried the right ones. And listening to helmet speakers through earplugs is not what I want. As for the rest of the stuff, I could take it or leave it. When an Arai already costs $600+, how much more would loading it with HUD and such add to the price?

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