New wave of safety gear: How bike-mounted airbag systems could help to keep you safe in a crash

Autoliv airbag crash test
Autoliv airbag crash test

The idea of mounting an airbag on a motorcycle is nothing new but the technology has never really caught on. Now that could be about to change as one of the world’s leading makers of automotive safety systems, Autoliv, brings a simple, cost-effective ‘bag-on-bike’ airbag to the mass market for 2025.

Autoliv might not be a household name but they are the world’s leading player in automotive safety systems, supplying kit like seatbelts and airbags to every major car manufacturer, and after years of development the company’s on-bike airbag system is approaching mass production.

Autoliv reckon their products currently save 35,000 lives every year but want to increase that figure to 100,000 by 2030.

Autoliv scooter airbag

Motorcycle airbags could be the answer, and particularly ones that are cost-efficient enough for mass-market bikes in Asia and India – where large numbers of urban crashes occur between cars and bikes, with riders often wearing little in the way of protective kit.

Technically, the Autoliv motorcycle airbag is similar to the systems already fitted to cars. There’s a gas generator that uses an electrical signal to spark a chemical reaction, creating a rush of inert gas that rapidly fills the airbag, which is positioned in front of the rider, either just behind the bars of a motorcycle or inside the front fairing of a scooter.

The bag itself is designed to create a sort of padded wall in front of you, and the typical ‘sorry mate, I didn’t see you’ crash, where a car pulls out of a side road into a motorcycle’s path, is where it’s at its most effective. Autoliv’s figures show the Head Injury Criterion score (HIC), based on forces experienced during this sort of crash, is 6794 without an airbag, against a target of just 500. With the airbag, the HIC figure drops to a much more survivable 118. There are similar improvements in reducing the forces that cause serious neck injuries.

Airoh airbag helmet on display at Eicma 2022

Although the front airbag is only effective in certain types of crash, it’s the one Autoliv has started with as it has the most potential to save lives, in the same way that the first car airbags were in steering wheels.

Atsushi Ishii, Autoliv’s Head of Technology for Mobility Safety Solutions (and a motorcyclist himself) said: “We always start with the thing that we know can save lives. So we go through the accident data and look at how many lives we can save with a technical solution.

“Why a frontal airbag? We know from the accident statistics that if you have a frontal airbag it saves the most lives.”

Atsushi Ishii

The initial target will be bikes that are most likely to be involved in urban crashes – scooters and commuter machines. In 2021 Autoliv signed a deal with Piaggio to pursue airbag tech, and an airbag-equipped MP3 scooter was shown at the Eicma trade show in Milan last November, suggesting that might be the first model to get the system.

Autoliv believe it will take around five years for mass adoption of the system following its launch in 2025, and Ishii says most bikes could be fitted with the airbags with the possible exception of sportsbikes, at least at the moment. That is because their forward-biased riding position literally puts the rider closer to the point of impact, leaving too little time for the system to register the crash and inflate the airbag – a problem Ishii is confident will be solved in time.

What about the Honda system?

The only production bike with an on-bike airbag – Honda’s Gold Wing – has been available with its take on the idea since 2006, but even before that both Honda and Yamaha showed ‘ASV’ (Advanced Safety Vehicle) prototypes with airbags as far back as the 1990s.

Honda’s next-gen production airbag was expected to debut on the VFR1200T tourer – a proposed replacement for the Pan European that was scheduled for around 2010 – but was cancelled late in its development.

Today, the connection between airbags and bikes is more closely associated with clothing, with airbag leathers mandatory in many classes of racing and clearly proving their worth.

Honda Gold Wing airbag

Away from Autoliv’s system, Honda patents show the company have been working on a clever seat-mounted motorcycle airbag which extends upwards to wrap around the rider’s torso when activated. It then detaches, so the cushioned cocoon still protects the rider even after they have come off the bike.

The Autoliv airbag in detail

  • Cost cutters: The main components are much the same as a car airbag system, helping keep costs down. The first is a front-mounted crash sensor that registers the initial impact and sends a signal to alert the system.
  • Gassed up: The airbag itself is a module containing the electronically-triggered gas generator and the folded bag itself. Once triggered, the bag inflates in a fraction of a second, creating a soft wall in front of the rider.
  • Crash detection: In a crash a signal goes to the airbag system’s standalone electronic control unit, which is also fed with other information from the bike’s own systems to help it decide whether the airbag needs to be triggered.
  • Wearable tech: Autoliv are also working on airbag vests, airbag helmets (with Airoh), and an airbag backpack, but the on-bike system has the advantage that it’s always there, even if the rider doesn’t choose to protect themselves – a useful selling point for bikes fitted with the bags.
  • Distance to impact: The difficulty comes from how close you, the rider, are to the point of impact. Cars have long bonnets and bumpers between the crash sensors and the airbag, giving lots of time (relatively) for the system to react and the airbags to inflate. Advances in electronics have cut this reaction time to make affordable bike airbags viable.
Ben Purvis

By Ben Purvis