Of the world’s best designs, the early 19th century “running machine” invented by German Baron Karl von Drais endures as the most efficient engine of biomechanical movement, a masterpiece of locomotion and joy--known today as a bicycle.

Nearly two centuries later, the bicycle serves as a cheap and practical means of transportation around the world, though many hesitate to wear today’s bulky helmets, for fear of looking uncool or ruining a "hair day." In response to a new Swedish law requiring safety helmets for all children 15 and younger, a pair of Swedish graduate students sought to bring new engineering to an old problem.

“Bicycle helmets have always been the same,” says Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin in a video describing their invention. “They’re so bulky, like a hard mushroom on your head.”

'Invisible Helmet' Offers Fashionable Protection
With the invisible helmet, the European cyclist gets a pass from the fashion police, as Swiss engineers improve on the old. CC By 2.0

Over several years, the former Lund University students developed Hövding, an “invisible” bicycle helmet worn like a scarf around the neck, zipping fashionably into place. As described on their website, the pair wanted to invent a helmet “people would be happy to wear — whether they had to or not.”

In the event of a mishap, the scarf-like device deploys a nylon airbag protecting the cyclist’s head from impact. During those years, Haupt and Alstin staged numerous bicycle crashes to study the movement of man and machine, developing an algorithm that would allow natural movement while reacting instantaneously to sudden danger, like a sideways collision with a bread truck or the downward arc of falling on slippery pavement.

On the website, Haput and Alstin warn the USB-rechargeable helmet fails to protect the user from only the most unlikely of dangers: an object dropped from above or, presumably, sniper fire in a war zone. However, the helmet should protect the user from most bicycle-related dangers, save a cycling trip through Sarajevo circa 1992 or along the anvil-prone canyons where the cartoon characters Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote duel eternally.

Today, the engineering duo operates a company with 17 employees, manufacturing helmets presently available for sale only in Europe but soon to meet wider distribution worldwide. “We’re going to be millionaires,” Haupt and Alstin smile in the video. With retailers in Scandinavia and Germany, the product — with durable nylon shells, interchangeable for fashion — is available by mail-order throughout Europe.

Although retailing for approximately $532 USD, many European insurers would cover the cost of replacement in the event of an accident. No word yet on when the helmet would be available for mail order in the United States, where 89 percent of children in bicycle accidents do not wear helmets.

Below is a video describing the product: