I'll level with you: I don't really like wearing helmets. Nobody does, right? But unless you're operating under your own wild safety standards, you wear one when cycling through city streets. It's dangerous out there.
But what if there was an alternative that didn't require wearing something on your head, and instead moved the protection to another part of the body?
That's where Hövding, a wearable airbag that's aiming to revolutionise cycling safety, comes in.
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Since this is a new technology to the cycling space, however, there are questions to answer here. How does it feel in use, and should you seriously think about ditching the helmet in favour of this singular-use airbag solution?
Well, though I haven't (yet) experienced the device deploying, here are some thoughts on Hövding's wearable for cyclists.
How it works and getting set up
In truth, there's very little setup required with this wearable. There's no companion app you need to furiously try and pair with, and there's no assembly required; all you need to do is make sure you have a size that feels comfortable (something that's best to check in a cycling shop, since Hövding's sizes tend to run a little big) and you're ready to go.
Well, that's after you charge things up through the included micro-USB, a process which takes around two or three hours, depending where you're charging from. You'll know when things are fully juiced up when the five LEDs on the front light up without flashing, and you can check the battery level by holding down the button beneath the zip holder for a couple of seconds.
Once the cables, sensors and processors are confirmed to be in working order (you'll hear a long beeping noise if they're not), the device begins tracking your movement 200 times per second for any abnormalities. If one is spotted – say, you fall sharply from your bike – the airbag will deploy. And luckily, Hövding's algorithm is able to tell the difference between you mounting a curb and, well, getting hit by a car.
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We're told that the functionality of the airbag deployment isn't affected by how loosely the device sits around your neck, though as I mentioned up top, I haven't been able to experience the airbag pop for myself just yet. That's because Hövding is a one-time deployment deal. For those who have experienced the airbag, the company runs a scheme whereby your next device is replaced for less than half price, and for free in the case of accidental inflation due to an aggressive movement.
As you can imagine, I didn't fancy arbitrarily sabotaging it. But after seeing a demonstration of its capabilities outside a London bike shop, I was confident that if I was to get knocked while on the bike, the Hövding's algorithmic magic would kick in, recognise the abnormal movement and saving me from any harm.
And in fact, I got quite the surprise when it did actually deploy in the demo. It may seem like a novel concept on the surface, but the loud bang and tattered post-deployment state of the airbag was a swift reminder that this is a serious bit of safety kit. Initially the airbag itself will feel like a brick to touch, though this deflates over the ensuing minutes.
With the device undergoing its own internal check every time you turn it on and continually running these self-diagnostics throughout, this just feels like a more thought out approach to cycling safety than your everyday helmet.
On the road again
Everything was zipped up and I was safe in the knowledge that the Hövding was ready to help me out in the event of a tumble, so it was time to start commuting with the techie snood.
The first thing I noticed once I was on my bike was that lifting my head up was slightly more difficult than usual. The back of the hood sticks out slightly, meaning those who are using road bikes, or just aren't sitting upright, may find it uncomfortable.
You get used to it, and this is no real hindrance on your ability to keep your head on a swivel on a busy road, but it's certainly a factor to be aware of. Aside from that, though, Hövding generally just feels like you're wearing a scarf around your neck – something which has admittedly been welcome during the cold winter months.
Speaking of winter wear, you may have to leave the woolly bobble hat at home if you want it to deploy properly, despite the company stating most 'extreme' hairstyles and headgear shouldn't impede inflation.
And despite my commute only lasting 20 minutes (providing I don't get caught in a never-ending stream of traffic lights), it has proved itself more than capable of handling a bit of rain thanks to the detachable, luminous yellow cover.
As I touched upon earlier with its lack of a companion app, it's also refreshing to use a piece of kit that doesn't require too much faffing around. You simply put it on every morning, clip on the zip, press the button and then stick it in your bag once you're done. It's easier to lug around than a helmet, and, in my view, looks markedly better.
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Battery life is a strong suit, too. I've used the device on and off for the past couple of months and have only had to charge it up once. And while I've been using it for its intended purpose, urban cycling, it's also accompanied me on a couple of longer rides outside the city.
If you are wearing it for a prolonged period, though, the issue of comfort does become more apparent. You're not going to be aching the next day, but you'll be relieved to have full functionality of your neck again once you do take it off.
On your bike…
A cycling helmet replacement?
The biggest compliment I can pay Hövding is that I'll continue to wear it even after testing it out. I trust the technology and safety applications as much as I would a regular helmet, and the fact that it offers a one-time inflation doesn't put me off too much – they say that helmets, too, should be replaced after being involved in one fall.
And, yes, it's hard to recommend something too highly when you haven't experienced its true potential, but to me this sits in the same area as self-driving cars: it'll cause outrage when it fails, but the statistics and odds suggest you're better off for trusting the tech. According to a study conducted by Stanford University in 2016, you're eight times less likely to receive a concussion with Hövding than with a standard helmet, and the possibility of a skull fracture is eliminated almost entirely.
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It's not perfect, of course. While the design is, to me, an upgrade on the traditional helmet, it would also be nice to have the form slim down to give your neck a bit more freedom. And though its lack of connectivity with your army of devices is something I personally enjoy, it does also have untapped potential as an SOS device if you, for example, were to fall off your bike with nobody around to help.
There's also the issue of price. While helmets themselves don't come cheap – particularly if you're entertaining a smart variant – there's no hiding from the fact that €299 is a lot of money to fork out. Considering this is a new technology, though, the tag isn't all that surprising, and we expect it to come down as time goes on.
Perhaps the bigger obstacle you'll have to overcome is placing your faith in the tech, but it's one we expect many cyclists will be managing with Hövding over the next few years.
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