For most of history, motorcycle helmets did nothing but protect your head. Different designs came and went, aerodynamic testing and other manufacturing processes made them lighter or more streamlined, but they were ultimately just a brain bucket.
In the past few years, that’s changed, with the rollout of many smart helmet designs. These helmets don’t just keep you safe, they also have integrated electronics. What’s the deal? Are these a good idea, just another fad, or a scam?
The point of smart helmets
Smart helmets are designed to do several things. Using the built-in gadgetry, they’re supposed to help you navigate, help you stay aware of your surroundings, help you stay in touch with other people, entertain you, and record your ride.
If you really want to narrow it down, you could say smart helmets are designed to do two things: keep you safe, and let you do other things besides simply control the motorcycle while you’re riding.
How do they do all this?
That’s a lot of functionality for one piece of motorcycle gear. Smart helmets are able to do a lot because the price and size of electronic components has dropped drastically in recent years, mostly thanks to the mobile device revolution. It’s cheaper to include high-tech gadgets, and much easier.
Not all smart helmets offer the same features, but generally speaking, most have an integrated high-definition video cam that records forward-facing footage, and some have a second camera for rear-facing footage. Smart helmets are designed to connect to mobile devices by a Bluetooth connection, allowing you to play music or take calls, the same as any other Bluetooth headset. More advanced smart helmets use a heads-up display, with ride data (speed, temperature, even GPS navigation) shown on the inside of the visor.
All these helmets are powered by a battery, the same as the current communicator headsets from Sena, Cardo, UClear, etc., that many riders are already using.
What are the downsides of smart helmets?
The first downside is obvious: distraction. It seems hypocritical for motorcyclists, who constantly complain about car drivers distracted by their phones, to then go out and do the same thing themselves. Some smart helmets, not all, allow the rider to diddle around with their music playlists, or talk to friends, or otherwise grab their attention away from the very important task of keeping alive on a motorcycle.
The second downside is price. Take the cost of a motorcycle helmet, add in the cost of the added technology, and you’ll end up with a smart helmet that often costs $1,000 or more. That’s expensive.
The third downside is more speculative, but it’s worth raising. It’s possible many riders will rob themselves of some of the experience of riding a motorcycle if they use a smart helmet to disconnect from riding, and instead connect to entertainment or the outside world.
The fourth downside is that so far, most of the companies hawking smart helmets have been unknown start-ups, and they haven’t been able to actually bring their product to market. The most extreme example is Skully, which burst onto the scene in 2013 and raised all sorts of money, then flamed out amid tales of Silicon Valley excess. Several other companies have done the same thing, although they didn’t grab the same headlines. Given the number of companies asking for big deposits on future to-be-delivered product, it’s likely more of them will face the same failure to launch.
On a similar note, most smart helmets are not built by established high-end helmet makers; you could be paying a lot for a helmet that might not have the same fit, finish, comfort level and safety as something from a respected manufacturer. You could be paying carbon-fibre money for a plastic helmet.
Who makes the best smart helmet?
Ah, that’s a bit of a trick question, because although there are many helmets you can pre-order through sites like Indiegogo, when it comes to actual physical product, there aren’t many products you can order and have delivered in a matter of days. Despite six years of hype, almost nobody’s delivered yet. Some companies (Jarvish, in particular) have sold a few helmets in overseas markets, but they haven’t hit North America in significant numbers.
When it comes to companies with an actual industry track record, Sena is basically the first to sell a smart helmet. Sena’s line of Momentum helmets doesn’t offer anything close to the Heads-Up Display (HUD) and other glitzy bells and whistles that are hyped by the more aggressive start-ups. However, you can buy a Momentum, and along with integrated comm systems, the Momentum INC model offers active noise cancellation, which is a huge benefit to riders who are tired of wearing earplugs. We’ve tested the Momentum, but not the INC, so we can’t vouch for it yet.
While Sena is known for its comm systems and uses an unrevealed Chinese maker for manufacturing its helmets, it’s pretty much the only game in town right now.
Interesting models to come
Several companies are finally on the verge of offering smart helmets.
The most notable model is the Shoei IT-HT. Shoei debuted its design last year, and says it plans to build it. If you order a Shoei, you can have confidence the company will actually deliver the product. If you’re looking for a smart helmet with more functionality than current Sena models, but also the reliability of a proven brand name, then you should wait for the IT-HT to hit market. This helmet features a HUD that’s built with auto electronics company NS West. It’s supposed to be available in 2020, so you won’t have to wait long.
Another interesting design that’s supposedly just around the corner is the Forcite Mk. 1, currently under development in Australia. Forcite is a relatively unknown company in the motorcycle world, but it’s taking a somewhat unique approach to smart helmet design, one that might get it to market more quickly.
Part of the problem with smart helmets featuring HUD is that it’s tricky technology to get right, and sometimes transportation organizations raise safety concerns. Forcite gets around some of those concerns by integrating LED light strips inside the helmet. Orange lights warn you of hazards, red/blue lights warn you of potential speeding ticket danger, and green lights indicate a turn, if you’re letting the helmet’s smart systems navigate for you. There’s a Sony action cam embedded, so you can take hi-def on-bike video.
The Forcite Mk. 1 is controlled by handlebar switches, which has some disadvantages (it could make it more difficult to switch bikes), but it also gets around some of the problems with unit-mounted switchgear. For more details, check out this YouTube presentation by the company’s founder.
Then there’s the Jarvish X smart helmet. The Jarvish X has seen some limited use in Asian markets, but it’s not had a widespread release. The official line is that the company is trying to make sure it’s in line with safety standards before release, and we should expect it in October.
According to the Jarvish Kickstarter page, the X model will have a lot of cool tech built in: A 2K video camera, active noise cancellation, wireless charging, voice command (including Alexa voice recognition), and a carbon-fibre shell. But perhaps the price is the most significant feature. Right now, it’s listed for $449 US for early adopters, which is considerably less than its competitors. There’s a more expensive version of the helmet as well, if you want tech that’s more edgy, but neither version of the helmet will prove worthwhile if Jarvish misses production deadlines. Jarvish is one of the few companies that’s actually delivered helmets to market (Hong Kong police purchased one of the company’s earlier models), so there’s hope here.
Finally, there’s the Argon Transform. This isn’t a smart helmet: it’s a modular piece of add-on technology that can turn any helmet into a smart helmet. Or at least that’s the pitch. It’s sort of like the existing communication systems from companies like Sena and UClear, but instead of just audio connection with Bluetooth-enabled devices, the Transform offers up a heads-up display, forward and backward video recording, a GPS system, and handlebar controller. Argon’s founders are currently looking for funds on Indiegogo, and have actually eclipsed their funding goal. After the campaign is ended (in about a week from now), we’ll see how long it takes this to make it to market, or if it will ever make production.