Each year I go to the bicycle industry’s annual US trade show in Las Vegas (known as Interbike), I’m always looking for the next technological innovation that will truly stick. There are always many new products unveiled at the show but all too often they don’t become widely adopted. Sometimes these new products try to solve a problem that doesn’t exist – at least in the minds of most consumers. Take for example the BP4 handlebar design presented at the 2014 show. Sure, there may be legitimate data supporting the design, but for some reason, I don’t see these becoming mainstream. But hey, I could be wrong!
Other products are ahead of their time. For instance, Mavic came out with the first electronic groupset known as Zap in the mid-nineties. It took nearly two more decades before Shimano’s electronic Dura-Ace Di2 became commonplace in the market. Last year SRAM took it up a notch by introducing their wireless electronic shifting groupset known as eTap. Electronic shifting hasn’t supplanted mechanical, but it’s definitely here to stay.
For the longest time, electric bikes were hyped at Interbike, but I hardly saw any on the road. After several years, they are finally starting to catch on – but still at only a fraction of the entire US bicycle market. In the road market, it seems like even proven technology takes a while to be accepted. After years of being fully embraced in mountain biking, the benefits of tubeless tire technology and disk brakes now appear to be gaining some real momentum in road cycling. Will there come a day when most road bikes come spec’d with tubeless tires and disk brakes, like carbon frames and integrated brake & shift levers? Time will tell.
One technology that I found intriguing at Interbike this year was something called the smart helmet. It seems like everything is becoming “smart” these days with our rapidly evolving wireless computing technology. The ubiquitous smartphone has allowed us to connect to almost anything–wirelessly! In cycling, think heart rate monitors, power meters, cadence sensors, not to mention our location on the globe. Well, why not the helmet? It makes sense. Obviously, the primary function of a helmet is safety. These new smart helmets feature technology that can sense a major impact. If this happens, the associated app automatically sends a message to your designated emergency contact. That’s pretty nifty technology.
But here’s where it gets a bit more controversial. How about built in speakers and mics for listening to music without earbuds or talking on your cell phone? Let’s take cell phone communication first. One of the reasons I ride is to disconnect from the electronic world! Of course, I keep a phone in my jersey pocket in case of emergency, but I don’t take calls while on a ride. So now I have a smart helmet and all I have to do is push a button on my handlebar to take an incoming call – is this a good thing? We’ve all heard of distracted driving. What about distracted cycling? My guess is that talking on the cell phone while cycling will not become a trend, even as this technology evolves. However, I suppose it is nice to have the option. And a “walkie-talkie” function, another feature of these helmets, could really come in handy on group rides.
I think the most fascinating feature of these smart helmets is the ability to listen to music without earbuds. Many states, including California, have laws against cyclists wearing two earbuds – one is okay. But I know there are many who would argue that from a safety standpoint, no music is best. The chief selling point of the helmet makers is that you get the best of both worlds – music to BOTH ears while still being able to hear the ambient traffic noise around you. I do like listening to music while working out but I rarely do it while cycling. Music coming through one earbud just isn’t that good, and I’ve always had trouble with keeping earbuds in place! So I was eager to try one of these new smart helmets.
I came home from Interbike with one of the new Livall BH-60 road helmet models. It was pretty easy to sync up to my iPhone, and before I knew it, I was listening to my playlist while riding with no earbuds! I have to say, it was pretty cool and put a little pep in my ride. The audio quality was solid, and I could still hear the ambient traffic noise around me – but no doubt that was compromised somewhat. So I kept thinking that despite enjoying the music, wearing this helmet wasn’t the “smart” thing to do. Then there is the fact that I have to charge not only my cycle computer and lights but now my helmet! And there is always the occasional glitch like the playlist repeating the same song over and over again in the middle of a ride! Do I really want to stop and have to fiddle with my iPhone to fix those things? And finally, there is the aesthetic factor. Let’s face it, who wants to wear an ugly bulbous helmet, especially us roadies? The Livall helmet isn’t exactly sleek, but it could be a lot worse. And surprisingly, with the built-in technology including a rear light, it’s not that heavy at only 280 grams. Another helmet coming to market soon by Coros looks a bit more aero (similar to the shape of the Specialized Evade), and I look forward to trying that one out in a month or two.
I’d like to hear your opinion. What is your take on these smart helmets? In 5-10 years will everyone be wearing some sort of smart cycling helmet? Would you like to see these helmets at the shop?