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Smart Helmets – Have the Manufacturers Outsmarted Themselves?

As a former motorcycle helmet importer, marketer, developer, start-up manufacturer and co-founding dealer-direct distributor, I can consider myself something of an official helmet geek. My past includes being an expert witness in helmet cases and being the Chair for the MIC Helmet Subcommittee when it was active. I even include the 1980s helmet public service announcement from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation “Get It On!” one of my past achievements while working there as a young man. Yes, it sounded better back then (a la the T.Rex anthem Bang A Gong), than it does now.

Things have changed since then… except for the DOT’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218 which applies to motorcycle helmets. FMVSS 218 has not changed, evolved, or progressed in decades. European standards on the other hand are moving ahead as technological advancements in head protection become better, which in turn has kept helmet manufacturers focused on continuous improvements. Innovation is a good thing…

But there is a parallel techy direction by non-specialized helmet manufacturers to use a newly designed or already available shell inside which to include more non-impact absorbing widgets: electronic communications devices, GPS trackers, impact detection systems, rearview and forward action cameras, voice command controls, environment adaptive visors, solar powered charging, noise-cancelling technology, friend-finders, head-up displays and emergency alert beacons, etc. They position tech as reasons to buy their newer, safer idea about what a motorcycle helmet should be.

The two parallel developments, however, are sometimes at odds with one another by attempting to blend safe energy management technologies to a plethora of battery-powered whizbangery. Several concerns can be affiliated with adding more non-impact related technology to your head piece:

· Extra weight from additional components.
· Extra protrusions from radios, trackers, antennas, battery boxes.
· Yet another battery to charge before riding.
· More EMFs (Electro Magnetic Fields) like a cell phone to your head all the time.
· Rider distractions from surprise noises, alerts, sirens in music, phone rings.
· Bluetooth hook-up hassles on start-up.
· False deployments of G-force alerts (dropped).
· Traffic noise suppression, sound directionality losses.

I am all for things like communications devices, Pinlock anti-fog technologies and the new triaxial-accelerometer triggered stop lights on the back of a helmet. One reason is they are customer-installed accessories — sold as an option rather than standard equipment which would bump up the MSRP of a helmet substantially. These innovations can increase communication between riders in a group, safety to vision and improved brake lighting respectively without adding additional liability (costs) to the manufacturer’s already expensive helmet policies.

Newer factory-installed anti-rotational acceleration technologies like Mips, Bell’s FlexFit and 6D’s Omni Directional Suspension are also welcomed as safer inclusions should a customer be aware of such innovations and be willing to pay for them. It is the battery-powered wacky widgets to which I have concerns. A car bumper has 2 simple jobs — absorb as much energy as possible and look good. Should a helmet be different? Hmmm, maybe because it covers from where we see, smell, and hear (yes, taste too).

Sure, Air Force pilots have everything under the sun in their helmets, but they are also trained heavily on how to use them. They also don’t need to sell their helmets in a store to make a profit — taxpayers pay for them and the associated specialized training.

It might seem logical to say I should have a G-sensitive emergency beacon with geo-locator in my helmet along with a head-up display showing me arrows to my destination just like a fighter jet or a new C-8 Corvette has. But all this moto-technology comes together inside a very tight space in front of our ears, eyes, and face… at a very high price point. Because more than a few “smart helmet” manufacturers have come and gone in recent years, it leads me to believe they failed to understand the complicated marketplace other than the few alpha-buyers who are always out there.

My experience in the marketplace indicates helmets have to be more than just an energy-management device:

1. Helmets are a fashion statement unto themselves.
2. Helmets sometimes need to match the owner’s outfit or bike… or both.
3. Helmets are only mandatory in only 18 out of 50 states.
4. Helmets are available in at least 6 different sizes (XSXXXL).
5. Helmets are available in many shapes/configurations (half, ¾, full, race, snow, moto, off-road, touring).
6. Helmets are available in 100s of different colors and graphics.
7. Helmet customers are very selective about head (liner) shape, comfort, sizing.
8. Major helmet brands advertise heavily and sponsor successful racers.
9. Helmet customers want to touch and “try-on” their helmet before buying.

All this makes it a complicated path to market for a smart helmet company which “seeks to improve your safety.” Is this smart? The vision statement may be powerful, but the “mission” is to navigate a very complicated path to the end user who may not want to make a techy-buy B2C just because it is a high-tech product from a relatively unknown entity in an awfully small collection of styles.

Then comes the “SKU count” consideration to offer a $1500 helmet in all the sizes, styles, configurations, colors… and in a variety of cool graphics. All of these factors represent a huge amount of space for inventory and an even larger capital outlay for any manufacturer, distributor, e-comm giant or local dealer attempting to sell them. Nobody wants to hear “We can order it for you” when they are considering dropping a week’s wages on a helmet, so a retailer better stock more than 1. The customer can order it themselves, but why would they if they have never heard of the new, digitally driven, start-up company who makes wild claims about being the safety marvel of the 21st century.

How many years have the smart helmet companies made just plain, old energy-absorbing moto-helmets… before the widgetery and whizbangery came on the scene? Buying the techy stuff ahead of a good quality energy-management device in a great fitting, well-known brand name helmet with an awesome color scheme doesn’t sound all that smart of an investment to me… unless your market is very geeky… and small.

When Is Enough… Enough?

· Electronic communications devices
· GPS trackers
· Impact detection systems
· Rearview and front action cameras
· Voice command controls
· Environment-adaptive visors
· Solar powered charging
· Noise-cancelling technology
· Friend-finders
· Head-up displays
· Emergency alert beacons

How do you jam all the “tech” into a helmet and still keep it cost effective with a manageable number of SKUs at the dealer level? Is there such a thing as a premium quality, safety proven, good looking, comfortable fitting helmet in an outstandingly attractive color and current graphic that a customer really wants that is “in stock” now for less than $1500+
MSRP? Then how do you protect your newfound smart helmet company and retail partners from “additional lawsuits” related to distracted driving or riding?

Sure, modern cars have similar OnStar, radio, GPS, cell phone connectivity, navigation and voice command solutions, but it’s not all literally squished “in front of your face” or controlled by unseen buttons to be searched for by gloved hands. Car wizardry also has defaults prohibiting fiddling while the vehicle is moving — smart helmets do not!

The solution will come eventually, but it will also take a few more decades to re-train and behaviorally modify the way customers and dealers think about using their helmets. Can smart helmet manufacturers wait that long to really change the market… and make a profit? Maybe we should ask FUSAR, Skully, NuViz and the others who were on the bleeding edge of technology?

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