Motorcycle riding with a technological edge

Motorcycling is an exhilarating experience, fueling thrill-seekers around the world. The coastal and interior highways of BC, in particular, offer some of the most inspiring settings for touring enthusiasts, while a handful of local tracks offer the adrenaline rush that racers crave. Pursuing these thrills on two wheels, however, comes with significant risk and accidents are alarmingly common.

Provincial insurer ICBC has reported that on average in the last five years there have been over 2,400 incidents involving motorcycles in BC, including 1,500 injuries, and tragically more than 30 fatalities. ICBC has equally launched a motorcycle safety campaign, encouraging riders to wear “all the gear, all the time”, and rightfully so.  Now, more than ever, rider safety is in the spotlight.

Owing to the lack of restraining mechanisms, riders who lose control, or who are struck by another vehicle, can easily find themselves slammed to the ground and skidding helplessly along the pavement. Given the average coefficient of friction for a road surface, a rider can face significant abrasions and skeletal damage in a fall. As speed increases above 6okm/h, so too does the potential for damage, with shearing of skin and tissue increasing at a rate of 1mm in depth for every 2 km/h increase in collision speed. For road contact occurring at speeds of 100 km/h, the total depth of tissue damage can exceed 25mm and the risk of shearing into bones becomes possible.

As such, the safety gear worn by motorcyclists is vitally important when it comes to mitigating potential injuries. Helmets are required for all motorcyclists in BC, and law changes brought about in 2012 have mandated the use of helmets meeting stringent international safety specifications. In addition, riders generally wear a heavy fabric or leather jacket, leather gloves, abrasion resistant pants with kneepads, and over the ankle boots. While the protection offered by this wearable safety equipment seems limited at first glance, science and engineering know-how are being applied to the current generation of safety gear in order to make it more effective than ever before.

Many helmets are now designed to absorb impact while diminishing the rate of head deceleration experienced by the wearer. One way this is achieved is by having several layers of precisely tailored Styrofoam densities glued into an outer shell of the helmet.  

Leading motorcycle gloves now feature built-in palm sliders, designed to decrease friction in a road contact situation while reducing abrasive forces on the rider’s hands. Racer, a major manufacturer of these garments, also includes reinforcement for the top of riders’ hands and knuckles.

Another important piece of safety gear worn by riders are boots, with effective models allowing for good grip and ankle support. With design cues taken from combat boots, the functional goal is to prevent feet from being crushed under the weight of the falling motorcycle or damaged by the impact.

The positive benefits of wearing adequate safety gear are perhaps best exemplified by Mark Marquez, a six-time MotoGP Champion, who this past year sustained 27 crashes in a single racing season.  Despite the frequency of incidents, Marquez remarkably walked away without any significant injuries, all while pushing the limits for fast, aggressive racing.

While casual observers of the sport might describe Marquez as reckless, avid fans have pointed to his use of cutting-edge wearable safety technology, including an airbag jacket, as a possible reason for his heightened confidence on the track.

The airbag vest was first conceived in the late 1990s, but the technology has been refined over the last twenty years with the result being more effective deployment and lower costs.

At the recent Vancouver Motorcycle Show in Abbotsford, it was announced that this technology would be made widely available in Canada for the first time.  Motorcycle technology development firm Alpinestar hopes that its new Tech-Air airbag system will become widely adopted by riders in BC and elsewhere.  

The airbag jacket is designed to inflate upon impact, not unlike a car’s airbag but with this design, the airbag is wrapped around the rider’s upper body.  The technology relies on a series of accelerometers and gyroscopes to monitor data constantly, while an internal ECU reads this data and can command the system to deploy. The system is fully independent, and requires no modifications to the motorcycle, tethering, or GPS sensor to operate. In the event of an emergency, the Tech-Air jacket automatically inflates in as little as 25 milliseconds, offering much needed protection to the rider’s shoulders, spine, torso and vital organs.

“When we started in 2001, the idea behind it was, how do we make driving a motorcycle as safe driving a car,“ said Garet Tomlinson of Alpinestar. “How do we envelope somebody in a new level of protection whether they are on the track or riding to work?”

The first iteration of the system was launched in 2009, and underwent many changes since that time as data on different crash scenarios were gathered and analyzed.

The current model has two versions: race and street.  The Race system is designed for use on the track while the Street system is best suited for touring and basic day-to-day riding.  Both systems offer the same amount of protection coverage but are programmed for optimum operation for their designated environments.  Riders can expect the lithium-ion battery system to provide about four hours of power.

Dave Chamberlain, district Sales Manager for Parts Canada, commented how important data gathering and analysis have been for the product’s manufacturer.

“I am still amazed that it boils down to a mathematical algorithm.”  Alpinestar started out as racing technology company and the algorithm was designed for that purpose. When they later ported it onto a street system, so many more scenarios needed to be considered to make the systems safe and a different algorithm was developed.”

Other manufacturers are also racing to take the lead in this niche market. Dainese, an Italian based firm, began active testing of their D-Air system over 10 years ago, and has been winning customers in both the motorsports and snowsports sectors. Dainese has not yet made their product widely available to Canadian consumers, although Canadian alpine ski racer Eric Guay boasted about their wearable airbag technology in a 2015 interview with CNN.

So what does the future look like for this exciting safety technology? Off-road and motor-cross applications are already being explored, while the technology is also making inroads in the equestrian community.

While safety gear is clearly an important factor in reducing the number of accidents and injuries sustained by motorcyclists, it cannot compensate for reckless riding.  Safety is as much a matter of remaining in control of the motorcycle as it is using technologically enhanced gear.