Imagine a London where no one wears a cycle helmet – and not because vanity has hit the roof, or because the roads have been made so safe that helmets are redundant (though that would also be nice).
It’s because of a new invention: an airbag for cyclists. Created in Sweden in 2005 by Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, Hovding is the world’s first airbag bicycle helmet.
Instead of sitting on top of your head, the Hovding is worn as a collar, and – when a sophisticated algorithm detects an accident – the airbag inflates into a hood around your head in a fraction of a second. Your hair doesn’t get dishevelled and you no longer need to lug around a bulky helmet (the Hovding is made of soft material, so it can squeeze inside a bag).
But here’s the real game-changer: Hovding collars have been found to offer eight times more protection than a conventional helmet, almost completely eliminating the risk of fracturing your skull, according to research from Stanford University.
Raising the (handle)bar
“The traditional helmet industry has not changed for years – a cycle helmet from the 70s looks pretty much the same as now,” says Hovding chief executive Fredrik Carling.
Carling might be a Swede, but his English rolls off the tongue. He’s also armed with facts and figures – he tells me that Hovding collars are now being sold in 16 different countries in Europe (plus Japan), with over 1,100 retailers stocking the product.
Of course, much of the convincing happens when we see others in the street wearing Hovding collars. It’s the normalisation of this look which has really helped the company gather momentum since the product came to market in 2011.
And it’s not just helmet-wearers who are being converted to Hovdings.
Despite helmets being an obvious safety precaution, there is reluctance among some cyclists to wear them. Carling says the arguments are always the same: “It’s vanity and a sense that you lose some freedom by having headgear clogged on your head, or having to carry around a clumsy helmet.”
Some people have written letters thanking us for saving their lives
The concept of a cycling collar rather than an old-fashioned helmet changes the equation. The figures speak for themselves: a poll of 1,000 Hovding users found that a staggering 47 per cent had never worn any type of helmet before. So even with the Hovding’s £219 price tag, the company is managing to convert the helmet naysayers by encouraging people to protect their heads.
Given that lives are literally at stake, one of the challenges, of course, is getting people to trust that the airbag will work when they need it to.
When I ask Carling about this, he says more than 110,000 cyclists use Hovding, and of the 2,600 accidents registered since 2011, the airbag has activated and done its job every time.
“Hovding is no longer just a concept – it’s a product that’s been proven to work. Some people have written letters thanking us for saving their lives, and those are proof statements if you like. A couple of years ago we didn’t have that volume of data.”
Sweden has a reputation for being one of the most sensible nations in the world. It might not sound glamorous, but Carling tells me that Sweden has a strong tradition of entrepreneurship within traffic safety – pointing to Volvo, which invented the three-point seatbelt in the 50s and is also the country’s largest manufacturer of airbags in cars.
“People often regard Sweden as a responsible and caring country, and I think that is the way we look at our business as well – it certainly influences the way we develop a product.”
The Hovding boss also reckons that Sweden can be seen as a bit of an underdog in the global world of business – though it’s difficult to see why when disruptive giants like Ikea, Spotify, and Skype all root back to this country.
“Even in Sweden alone, our business could be seen as an underdog, because we are based in the country’s third largest city.”
And yet Malmo, where Hovding is headquartered, was recently ranked by the OECD as the fourth most inventive city in the world. As we know, the underdog can often take us by surprise.
“We are no longer this niche thing, we are part of the game,” says Carling. “Maybe that comes from the Swedish thing of clenching your fists and motoring on to make things happen.”
It’s not just road safety where Sweden is making its mark – the country is also Europe’s biggest innovator when it comes to developing clean energy technologies (it came first place in the EU Eco-Innovation Index 2017).
Getting people to make healthier choices – both for themselves and for the planet – usually starts with broadening the number of options available. And this is where Hovding comes in; simply by removing the relative inconvenience of a helmet, it encourages more people to cycle, which in turn cuts pollution levels in big cities like London.
“If you look at a very macro level – the world is becoming increasingly urbanised, cities are becoming more congested, and people are also becoming more conscious about how they spend their money,” says Carling.
But cyclists are ticking all of the boxes: contributing to a cleaner planet, while improving their own personal health and wealth in the process. “Those are values that really unite a lot of cyclists,” he adds. “Saving lives is a mission for us, but we want to simultaneously encourage more cycling. We are driven by both.”
I believe that in 20 years the entire helmet industry will be based on airbag technology
Pedal to the medal
When Carling joined Hovding in 2012, it was purely a team of engineers and designers, and – at the time – the business had been “born but not raised”, he says.
As any entrepreneur will know, it’s the commercial execution which can make or break a great idea. So this commercially-minded chief exec – who spent the best part of a decade as managing director for the likes of Levi and Diesel – has largely focused on steering the business in the right direction. And in 2015, the firm listed on the Nasdaq First North index in Stockholm.
He admits that he’s also picked up a lot from his team. “I now understand the basics of algorithms and airbag technology. You learn a lot, and bring in people who are in some ways better than you.”
Carling is hugely ambitious for the future of the company. “We’ve only scratched the surface. Now we are seeing some big numbers, but that’s only really a token of the potential.”
That potential goes beyond the parameters of cycling. He envisages the technology being used in other situations where people need head protection.
“I believe that in 20 years the entire helmet industry will be based on airbag technology. From Romans and Vikings to today’s construction workers – we have to remember that for over 2,000 years, we have always protected our heads by wearing helmets. We need to change that mindset.”