x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Crash, bang, wallop what a future

Sometimes innovation comes from misfortune, and it was from a bike accident that one industrial designer stumbled upon the idea for a better bicycle helmet.

Toyota debuted a sensor-equipped vehicle last month through its Lexus division that it says will help to create new technology that will improve driver awareness of their surroundings. Courtesy Toyota
Toyota debuted a sensor-equipped vehicle last month through its Lexus division that it says will help to create new technology that will improve driver awareness of their surroundings. Courtesy Toyota

Anirudha Surabhi was in his final year of studies at the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom when he was tasked with finding a problem - and the perfect innovation for solving it.

Inspiration hit him in the head, literally.

"Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had a bicycle accident, which involved me falling off my bike at a low speed," Mr Surabhi says in a video that he recently posted to YouTube.

"Even though I walked away from that accident it was only the next day I realised I had a concussion and had to be hospitalised for a few days," he adds, noting that his helmet had cracked open upon impact. "This made me wonder why my helmet didn't work."

Like some of his fellow industrial designers, Mr Surabhi is trying to improve the safety of bicycle helmets. Together with engineers in the automotive sector, these professionals are tinkering with new technologies that could provide a safer ride, whether on a bike or in a car.

In Mr Surabhi's case, he crafted a new kind of helmet modelled after one of the only creatures in the world that regularly experiences severe head impact: the woodpecker.

Corrugated cartilage in the bird absorbs each jackhammer-like vibration and Mr Surabhi has manipulated the liners of his Kranium bicycle helmets to mimic that same formation via "dual-density honeycomb board".

In other words, his helmet is constructed from tightly packed, recycled paper.

The honeycomb cells essentially function like small air cushions-or miniature airbags, as Mr Surabhi calls them. While the Kranium helmet has passed some safety tests and claims to be both lighter and more energy-absorbent than conventional competitors in the market, it has yet to be sold to individuals.

That is not the case with Hövding's "the invisible bicycle helmet".

This €399 (Dh1,939) head protector looks like, well, garb that might be worn by Björk in one of the singer's music videos. It features a collar made of waterproof and dirt-resistant fabric, as well as a shell made of washable fabric that includes two zippers designed to assist fashionistas "vary the look of your Hövding from one day to the next", the manufacturer says.

Yet the Hövding's biggest selling point involves safety. Specifically, it claims to take just 0.1 seconds to fully inflate an airbag around the head. (Sensors known as accelerometers and gyros track a bicyclist's relative position and activate the airbag during "abnormal movements", and it is supposed to inflate before the head hits the pavement.)

Avid cyclists are not the only ones on the go who are seeing innovative leaps in the safety department. Car enthusiasts have also seen more behaviour-monitoring technologies that are aimed at boosting safe driving on the road infiltrating their vehicles.

More safety-related features have been popping up in vehicles, including technologies that help a driver stick within a specific lane, monitor blind spots and avoid crashes with pre-collision warnings. All told, factory-installed safety and security telematics are forecasted to be included in more than 15 per cent of new cars globally this year, up from less than 5 per cent in 2008, according to market data from ABI Research.

"The in-car environment is set for a major evolution over the next five years," says Patrick Connolly, the senior analyst for navigation and telematics at ABI Research.

Some automotive executives say the industry has already gone through a big shift in recent years.

Ford has been working to advance its accident avoidance-and-driver-assist technologies. The Detroit-based company hopes to one day eliminate vehicle fatalities entirely, as some European governments have made commitments toward.

One area of interest: changing a vehicle's suspension and chassis so that if a lorry is crashing into a car it can fall or rise just before effect.

This, of course, would require different vehicles to be able to wirelessly communicate with each other - a concept that is currently being tested on roads in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

"This should be the focus in the future," says Saeed Barbat, the executive technical leader for safety at Ford's research and advanced engineering division. "To drive towards zero fatalities, you need to avoid the crash in the very first place."

At Toyota, the company's luxury Lexus division debuted its so-called advanced active safety research vehicle last month at the International Consumer Electronics Show. The tricked-out car includes various sensors, high-definition colour cameras and a 360-degree laser for detecting objects on its roof and near its frontbumper.

This vehicle, Toyota says, will be a testing platform to help create new systems that would boost a driver's perceptions of their environment, help with their decision-making and improve their overall driving ability.

"We're always researching and developing high-level safety features and seldom do we talk much about them until they're close to coming to the market," says Brian Lyons, the safety and quality communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales in the United States.