We live in a world driven by tech. Over the past decade a bike’s electronics – and arguably the safety features they enable – have overtaken its mechanical attributes in the race to be the best. It used to be that weight and horsepower helped a bike top the sales charts, now it’s computing power.
A bike’s ability to connect to your smart phone, display your route on its TFT screen or enable you to play with its traction-control settings will help it sell more than its horsepower figures.
So it seems odd that in this age of technology – where bikes are now packed with microprocessors- we’re still mostly relying on a dead animal’s skin, moulded bits of foam and fibreglass to keep us alive if we do part ways with our bike.
That is, possibly, until now.
Table of Contents
The history of the airbag for motorcyclists
Motorcycle airbag technology has developed at a rapid rate. Over the past few years the number of airbag options available to bikers has risen dramatically.
So how come we’re not all wearing one?
In the early days, we were somewhat limited to basic airbags that used an elasticated lanyard attached to the bike. Just like the rip-cord on a parachute, the moment you left the bike, the airbag cable was yanked with sufficient force to open up the gas canister in the jacket and inflate the airbag.
These early models were basic, often heavy and fairly chunky but they did what they set out to do.
In every market where technology is front and centre, there’s a known curve of adoption. The Early Adopters dive right in because they see the benefit in the tech, they don’t care about the cost or the fact it isn’t perfect.
Thanks to these early adopters, manufacturers have the money, confidence and develop the ability to further improve the product so that it appeals to the mass market.
Airbags for bikes
Honda developed a working airbag prototype for their (as big as a small car) Honda Goldwing. Almost 20 years on and airbags on motorcycles just haven’t taken off, for many reasons. The Goldwing was offered with an airbag as an option and Honda have submitted patents for airbags on other models of motorcycles but never released them.
There are two main reasons we haven’t seen them on more bikes. Firstly, the demand just isn’t there and that’s partly due to the second factor, which is that motorcycle crashes are not as predictable as car-accidents. You’re less likely to benefit from an airbag in a motorcycle crash because you depart the bike in an unpredictable manner. It’s more effective on a Goldwing, due to the riding position and sheer size of bike that you’re likely to hit in the event of an accident.
The window for bike airbags was over a decade ago and it has been missed.
In the decade that followed the Goldwing’s first airbag prototype, basic rider-worn cable-operated airbags started to emerge.
Cable-based motorcycle airbag vests
Cable-based airbag systems have been around for years but don’t appeal to most bikers, possibly because they’re clunky, basic and visible.
They work by being connected to your bike via a strong steel cable or lanyard. When you depart the bike at speed, the force of the ‘tug’ on the cable deploys the airbag.
I had a Helite version and while I admired the simplicity, I more often than not left it hanging in my kit cupboard, opting instead to stick with my trusty back protector.
This might sound daft but I only wore it when I knew I was going out for a blast on my sports bike. That’s when I figured I might be the cause of a crash, rather than be involved in a collision with someone else.
While I liked the idea of the protection it offered, the Helite was big and bulky, I always knew I was wearing it but never got used to wearing it.
Friends have commented that they’d be worried they’d forget to remove it and end up deploying it at a standstill. I must admit, on more than one occasion I worried I’d forget to un-clip it and end up pulling my bike off its sidestand.
Enter the wireless versions
Then came the first wire-free versions. These were far more expensive but they used GPS and accelerometers built into the garment; you didn’t need to attach anything to the bike. The real pinch-point on these systems was the price. You might have wanted one but you probably couldn’t justify the circa £1,500 price tag of the early models.
Alpinestars’ first airbag, the Tech Air Street was launched in 2014 and was a real milestone of innovation. However, almost a decade, on their Tech Air 3 is – I would argue – a landmark in the firm’s 20-plus years of airbag development.
At a smidge under £500, the Tech Air 3 is affordable. It’s also packed with tech, it’s light and it can be worn underneath almost any jacket.
No longer are motorcycle airbag jackets the preserve of racers or the wealthy.
Airbags in racing
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that racing has any relevance to our road bikes. In the days of sportsbikes, you could trace a clear line from race wins to showroom sales but in this day of Adventure bikes and Sports Touring, it’s getting increasingly difficult to see the connection.
However when it comes to the airbags we can buy, the racing connection and the development environment is easy to see.
Top motorcycle brands Alpinestars and Dainese have been testing airbags in racing long before they become compulsory in MotoGP in 2018. The advantages of airbags are plain to see and are constantly being demonstrated – pretty much every session of every race weekend.
Check out the video below which shows how quickly the Alpinestars airbag deploys when Marc Marquez is thrown off the highside.
Former MotoGP rider Cal Crutchlow spent many track miles helping Alpinestars develop the airbag technology and algorithms that we benefit from today.
Here’s what he had to say about the airbags in 2018: “It used to be over the shoulder, top of the arm and down the ribs. Now we also have our hips and legs [protected]. The way it works is superb and it has definitely saved me and other riders from broken bones. I think there was only a 50% rate of people who crashed and escaped a broken collarbone, and with the airbag it went up to 90% because it deploys so well.”
So many, in Crutchlow’s opinion, that it’s had a few side effects: “I spoke to my shoulder surgeon, who I have used for many years like many cyclists and other riders. I asked him how business was going and whether he’d had many clients in recently and he joked he was pi**ed off that the airbag had come along!”
Airbags mandatory at this year’s Dakar
While speaking to PR manager Chris at Alpinestars HQ in Italy, he reminded me that airbags are now compulsory at the Dakar.
Alpinestars alone provided over 80 riders with their soon-to-ne-released Tech Air Off-Road. While 30 of these were provided to riders who are sponsored Alpinestars athletes, the remaining 50 were purchased by competitors who wanted to wear what they considered the best airbag protection available.
There’s more info on the Tech Air Off-Road in the table below. If you’re predominantly an off-road Adventure-bike rider or into trials, MX or Enduro, it could be a perfect option for you.
So it’s clear to see: airbags are used in all forms of bike racing, from the very top levels of MotoGP (where crash-magnet Marc Marquez had his airbag deploy at 209mph!) and the Dakar, right across to entry-level club racing. An airbag might not help you go faster but it’ll probably mean you can go to work the next day if you bin your bike at a trackday.
The Tech Air Range
The table below outlines the current Alpinestars Tech Airbag range. I’ve included the key features of each system to quickly show you how they differ. The Tech Air Off-Road isn’t yet on the market but it’s expected to be launched mid-2023.
Alpinestars have a few current airbag offerings in their range. There’s the Tech Air 3, Tech Air 5, Tech Air 10 and Tech Air Off-Road.
The Tech Air 5 and 10 are designed to be used on the road or on the track. However the Tech Air 3 is road only. You can also do light trail riding in all three.
The Tech Air Off-Road isn’t yet on the market but is has been much hyped. The Dakar Rally organisers made airbags mandatory for 2022 and Alpinestars provided severeal factory riders with their Tech Air Off-Road. We expect it’ll be launched in 2023 with a price tag of around £850. At that price, it’s not a bargain, however if you’re off to Norway on your £20k BMW GS Trophy, sporting £5k of kit and luggage, that £900 isn’t going to bankrupt you.
Tech 3 Air – airbag coverage
Use the slider above to reveal the coverage of the airbags when fully inflated. The airbag is located inside the jacket, so even though it looks like it’s on the outside in this shot, just imagine it’s an X-ray of the system when inflated.
As you can see, the airbag offers full coverage of the back and substantial coverage of the chest area. Importantly, it also offers coverage of the shoulder blades and collar bone.
Tech Air 3 Specifications
While the Tech Air 3 isn’t designed to be used on track (unlike the 5 and 10 which have a Road and Track setting), it uses the same crash detection control unit and algorithm as the pricier Tech Air 5.
One of the key benefits as far as I’m concerned is that it can be worn inside or outside your other clothing. So you could wear it under your all-weather textiles during your winter commute or over the top of your armoured hoodie if you’re riding over to the local pub to meet friends. Unlike some other airbag systems, it doesn’t tie you down to only wearing the same manufacturer’s kit. So buying a Tech 3 Air doesn’t mean you also have to renew your entire biking wardrobe. As far as I’m concerned that’s a really clever bit of design.
While the garment itself is water resistant and the electronics are all located in sealed waterproof housing, I don’t think I’d wear this on the outside through everything a UK winter has to offer. As far as I’m concerned it’s better worn inside my textile jacket, away from the elements.
Fully autonomous: put it on, turn it on, get going. It’s that easy. The system turns on when you zip it closed. Thanks to the clever magnetic zip-closure mechanism that triggers the system to arm when you zip it up. Sci-fi tech or what?!
Between the shoulders at the rear of the garment lies the ECU. Alpinestars call it the ECU Pro Second Generation. This nifty bit of kit contains 6 sensors (3 accelerometers and 3 gyroscopes) that provide reams of information to the ECU every millisecond. Let’s just zoom in on that for a moment. The ECU is taking readings 1,000 times every second and if you cross the threshold for any one of a number of programmed incidents, from an impact to a highside, the ECU will trigger the airbag to deploy within 50-milliseconds. That’s fully inflated in 0.05 of a second or, slightly faster than you or I can blink. Go on, blink! You’re protected.
Another area where the Tech 3 Air differs from the Tech 5 in that it doesn’t come with a built-in hard armour back protector (but there is a pocket to insert one). This makes the Tech 3 Air light and portable. It weighs just 1.7kg. If you’re doing a fly-and-ride trip for example, you can easily stash the Tech 3 Air in your kit bag, as it folds to around the size of a thick jumper.
There’s an app available and it does a few clever things. However it’s worth noting you don’t need an app or a smartphone to use the Tech Air 3. It works on its own. The app is used to show you the operation and battery status, plus it also logs your rides which it will show you in the MyRide section of the app (Yamaha also have a MyRide app but the two are, slightly confusingly, not related). The ride-logging plots your route on a map, displays your average speed and journey time.
The battery life is quoted at 40-hours and you can easily see (and feel) the battery status. When the battery is low it’ll show you via a flashing red and solid blue LED on the chest but it’ll also vibrate. It charges via a USB-C cable (included).
Male and Female versions
The Tech 3 Air is available in a male or female fit. The men’s version is produced in sizes ranging from XS to 4XL while the female version (known as Stella in Alpinestars’ nomenclature) is available in XS to XXL.
The women’s version has a different cut to the men’s, designed to better fit a typical female figure. Everything else is identical to the standard version.
Tech 3 airbag vest features in detail
[insert diagram of tech air 3]
The images above show the Tech 3 Air from the front and rear. The annotations below show you the main components of the system.
- Main zip with magnetic activation
- LED display
- Electronic Control Unit
- Intrnal USB charging port
Enabling the system
One of the smartest features of this airbag vest is how it turns on automatically. First you connect the internal popper which holds the front airbag housing in place.
The main front zip (which by the way, is a design I’ve never seen before and far easier to use than the zips we’ve all been using for years!) has a magnet in it. When you zip the zipper up, it glides past the left breast area where it triggers a magnetic switch on the unit which turns it on. That’s why Alpinestars refer to it as the ‘Activation Zip’.
The system turns on and you’ll feel a vibration to let you know it’s going through its start-up regime. While you sort out your lid and gloves and get ready to ride, the system should have activated. I’ll run through the process below.
The LED light and what it’s telling you
There’s just one LED, which keeps things simple. The LED is located on the front of the jacket around the left breast.
When you put the vest on and enable the system start-up you’ll first see a light flash and feel the unit vibrate for a second. The colour of the light signifies how much charge remains in the unit.
A red flashing light means you have under 4 hours charge remaining
A yellow flashing light means 4 to 8 hours
A green flashing light means 8+ hours
The unit then enters a system check mode which can last up to a minute but I’ve found mine is done after just a few seconds. The light will be pulsing yellow during this stage. It’ll then switch to blue and the unit will vibrate twice to let you know the system is active.
Charging the airbag system
It’s easy to charge the unit with the supplied USB cable. Just on the inside of the left breast area is where you insert a USB-C charging cable. There’s a Velcro tab over the charging unit (which is on the reverse side of the LED indicator). You don’t need to peel the tab back to insert the charging cable.
System charging time
You can charge it with pretty much any charger although Alpinestars recommend your charger has an output of 1-amp.
With the recommended charger you’ll need 4 hours to fully charge the unit from flat. If you’re in a hurry, you can plug it in for 40 minutes to get around 10 hours use.
If you’re really stuck for charge, you could plug your lead into the back of a PC. But what I can say is, unless your computer has a fast-charging USB output, they’re slow, roughly 400mah, and so it’ll take a lot longer to charge your Tech Air 3 from a laptop, etc.
Slightly confusingly, when you’re charging the unit the front LED signifies something slightly different when compared to the start-up LEDs.
The red light means under 8 hours run-time remaining
The yellow light means 8 to 18 hours run-time
The green light 18-30 hours
And the blue light means it’s fully charged.
Pretty simple really but all you need to know is that the unit is flashing when you’re charging to show you the battery level; it’s not trying to go through its start routine.
The smartphone app
Alpinestars have produced an app to accompany this airbag jacket but I must stress: you do not need the app for the airbag to work.
The app is complimentary to the jacket but not neccessary. It connects to your airbag unit via Bluetooth 5.0 and shows you things like the battery charge level and the firmware version. It gives you the ability to update the ECU firmware as and when Alpinestars release a new version.
The app also has a MyRide feature which is a basic, but handy, route-recording data-logger. It shows you your riding time, average speed, distance covered and plots your route on a map.
While the route data is a nice to have, it’s not an essential and I doubt it’s going to be the feature that makes you think: “…yes, I must have an airbag jacket.”
Although I have various route planning and recording apps on the phone, I rarely use them unless I’ve planned a set route for a biking holiday or ride-out.
So the fact this records your route could come in handy, if you come across a great road and want to add it to your route when planning another trip.
Tech 3 Air: Trail riding ready
The product description for the Tech 3 Air states it’s for Road use whereas the Tech 10 Air and Tech 5 Air can be switched between Road and Track.
So where does Trail riding sit? Is it Road or is it Track or is it Neither?
I spoke with the Alpinestars PR at Alpinestars HQ in Italy regarding the use of the Tech 3 Air vest while trail riding and what it’s capable of.
First of all, we had a little debate as to what constitutes Trail riding. A professional rider’s idea of a trail and my idea of a trail will differ somewhat.
My suggestion was that if it’s an unpaved road that you could take pretty much any bike down, that’s a light trail. As soon as it gets a bit gnarly, with big ruts, bumps, jumps and steep inclines it’s into off-road territory where you’ll do better on a bike with tall suspension and the right wheel sizes, plus a good dollop of ability!
However, take a look at the image above, to get an idea of the sort of trail we based our discussion on. That’s a Moto Guzzi V85TT, a tall-rounder or Adventure bike – depending on yor point of view. However it’s just the sort of bike and trail the average Adventure rider will happily take on, no matter what their ability.
In these conditions, the Tech 3 Air will work perfectly well. If you drop the bike doing a U-turn or at 50+mph, the airbag will fire.
Where it gets into a grey area is if you’re taking on big drops, ruts and jumps. Anything that pitches you out of the seat or causes a sudden change of forces might well activate the airbag.
Chris was keen to state that even an accidental activation in these conditions wouldn’t cause any issues in terms of your ability to control the bike. It would just be a bit annoying for it to go off, when you don’t want it to.
However for light trail riding, you’re in capable hands.
We all know motorcycles can be dangerous and we also know that they’re worth that risk. Without risk, some say, there is no reward. While this airbag vest isn’t a magic wand, it’s about as close to one as we can get right now. In my head that adds up as the same enjoyment but with less risk or, to put it another way, more enjoyment thanks to less risk.
As more and more riders switch to airbag tech, economies of scale kick in and this Tech 3 Air is the best demonstration of that in action.
The ECU is now smarter, smaller and lighter and faster. The weight of the jacket is significantly lighter and the coverage is larger. It’s also one-third of the price of the original.
At a touch under £500, top-level airbag technology is no longer the preserve of world-class racers or the mega wealthy.
It feels like now is the right time to embrace airbag technology.
You never know but a decade from now, we’ll probably all be riding around wearing airbags.
The funny thing is, we’ll probably be debating whether or not to buy an airbag helmet..
Motorcycle airbag FAQs
Can you re-pack the airbag once it has activated?
Every manufacturer differs. With Alpinestars, you need to get your vest checked over by an approved Alpinestars service center, who will check it and prepare it ready to be used again. For other airbags, the process differs. For most lanyard-activated airbags, you can deflate them with a valve and install a new gas cylinder. However it’s worth having your garment checked for damage if you’re involved in an accident.
How many charges do you get from an Alpinestars airbag?
This varies depending on u se. When I spoke to Alpinestars, they said the battery life is comparable to that of your smartphone. As you use it, the battery life will decrease, which will be apparent by the total time you get between charges. Even with a depleted battery the unit will still function without any issues. You can expect to get years of daily use from the battery before it’ll need replacing.
Will an airbag stop me from breaking my neck?
While an airbag is designed to reduce your chance of injury from a motorcycle accident, it is not a guarantee. Most airbags on the market don’t explicitly offer any protection to your neck but they do protect your check and back and can lessen the forces transferred to prone areas like your spine, therefore reducing the chance of a life-changing injury in some incidents.
Are airbag vests universal?
You need to check each product to understand how it’s designed to be worn. The Alpinestars Tech 3 is designed to be worn over the top of almost any motorcycling garment and it can be worn underneath pretty much any jacket, as long as there’s sufficient room for the airbag to expand when activated.
Will a wheelie or stoppie set the airbag off?
It could do. For a wired airbag it’s unlikely to, as the lanyard wouldn’t get yanked, unless you were sliding off the back of the bike. For the wireless systems, a wheelie is starting to give the system an idea that something’s not as it ought to be. However the change in angle and the sudden acceleration should fall within acceptable parameters. Chris at Alpinestars did say that it wasn’t guaranteed that a wheelie wouldn’t set off the airbag. There are things that can happen during a wheelie, like the bars slapping aggressively if you don’t land the front wheel exactly centered. These could cause the airbag to deploy. It all depends on how smooth your wheelies are, I guess.