Track-level protection for the street

A couple of years ago about this time, I had a low speed slideout while making a left-hand turn onto another road. I hit an unseen patch of gravel that had washed out onto the road from a storm the previous day, and I hit it while leaning left to negotiate the turn. The Yamaha XR900 I was riding lost traction, and I went down pretty hard on my left side. The bike was fine, mostly, as the handlebar and a couple of left side frame sliders prevented any real damage. My HJC i10 Robust helmet took a knock on the left side, so I had no head or neck injuries. I rode the bike home with no problems. Over the next day or two however, my left side shoulder, ribs and hip became a little sore from the impact. It wasn’t long thereafter that I took an interest in the growing array of wearable airbag offerings on the market for motorcycle riders.

It’s often a stated maxim among motorcycle riders- “It’s not IF you’ll one day go down, but WHEN.” Another states, “Dress for the slide, not just the ride.” Both maxims are true, unfortunately. The older we get and the longer we ride, the more pertinent these two truths become. In our risk-management world of motorcycling, safety is paramount to truly enjoy the ride. After having been down a few times myself over the years, the value of safety is top-tier to me these days.

Over or under a jacket, wearable airbag systems are the latest innovation for rider safety. Photo (of me) by Yamaha Motor USA.

Alpinestars has been a pioneer in the advancement of airbag technology for the motorcycle world, introducing wearable airbag units to the road racing world in the early 2000s. As the tech has advanced in the years since, many more companies have developed and offer various innovative safety solutions, such as full suits, full shirts, vests, backpacks, even airbag pants. Yet with so many entering the airbag fray, Alpinestars still leads the industry with their offerings, both in quality and variety.

Several of us moto-journalists were given the opportunity to sample their base model Tech-Air 3 recently at the Yamaha launch of their updated 2024 MT-09 motorcycle. While Alpinestars specializes in race and track suit systems, they also offer two street units, the Tech-Air 5 Street/Track, and the street-only Tech-Air 3. We’ve had some experience with Alpinestars units via our resident racer Ryan Nolan, who has utilized the Tech-Air 5 and Tech-Air Race in recent years, and have discussed them with our friend Max Flinders in the MotoAmerica Superbike series. They both have been down with these units, and both swear by their protective properties.

Our own Ryan Nolan using the Tech-Air 5 under his race suit this year.

Alpinestars has obviously been at the forefront of innovative protective gear, especially in the racing world, for decades. Their street-focused Tech-Air 3 vest represents the pinnacle of their commitment to street rider safety, combining the advanced tech of their track/race offerings with a lightweight, flexible, breathable, and ergonomic street-focused design to provide riders with unparalleled protection on the road and in the dirt. They even make them in a women’s cut.

The Tech-Air 3 vest utilizes state-of-the-art, upgradeable airbag software to offer comprehensive coverage in the event of an off or a crash. The system is capable of detecting potential crashes and deploying it’s airbags in about 50 milliseconds, faster than the human eye can blink, significantly reducing the risk of injury to vitals around the torso, shoulders, and back. This proactive approach to safety sets the Tech-Air 3 apart from the traditional protective gear we all (and should) wear, providing riders with an extra layer of confidence and peace of mind any time they hit the road. Pun intended.

The Tech-Air 3 vest worn outside a jacket (Alpinestars T-Core Drystar), and underneath. Fluffy mic sold separately.

I studied up on how these airbag units work, and was fascinated by the tech that goes into them. Alpinestars’ Pro 2nd generation compact Electronic Control Unit (ECU), embedded in the back of the vest, incorporates an array of algorithms that use multiple accelerometers and gyroscope software that continually monitors along a set of axes for velocity and rider orientation (lean angle, etc.). As the rider passes through time and space, the unit can detect abrupt changes in either/both, and determines “Are we crashing?” then deploying if it concludes in the affirmative. Very intuitive. The unit is effective for what Alpinestars calls “first impact”, meaning the bags deploy instantly upon detection of an impeding impact with a vehicle, object or pavement. Again, within 50 milliseconds. Tests were apparently conducted within a speed range of about 15-40 mph. Above that? Good question. But 50 milliseconds is pretty rapid deployment, at any speed.

A little graph I once saw the boys at FortNine use to describe how these work. Makes sense.

The built-in airbags inflate via an argon-filled canister located in the lower back, easily accessible through an interior weatherproof zipper pouch. The vest can be recharged with a USB-C cord up behind the front left crest indicator light, through a Velcro pouch on the inside. Once on full charge, you’ve got about 40 hours of claimed battery life. Of course, this can be stretched for days, as the unit only powers up when it’s fully zipped up- connecting magnets and contacts in the zipper ensure power is on. Remove the vest, and it powers off. Very cool.

Alpinestars has also developed an app, the “Tech-Air App” in whatever app store you use, that can be Bluetooth synched with the vest via your phone. It can show you the unit’s operational status, battery charge level, riding data, even maps of your ride. We’ve read that many riders have trouble pairing the app with their vest or suit, which reflects in the low star rating the app currently has. Just something to be mindful of. Should you have issues, Alpinestars customer service folks are a phone call away.

Airbag placement in the Tech-Air 3, and the easy-to-access charging port.

We value our craniums, so we wisely wear good-quality approved helmets while we’re riding. If we likewise value our core vitals, wearing a torso-protecting airbag unit seems to make perfect sense too. It’s a tech I had never really considered personally, thinking these were only available for racers and track day riders. But after a couple of “offs” myself in recent years, and my discovery of street systems like this Tech-Air 3, I’m inclined to agree with their practicality. Worth the investment.

Rob

What are your thoughts on wearable airbag systems? Let us know in the comments below!

For more on the Alpinestars Tech-Air offerings, click here:

Alpinestars Tech-Air

*For our review video, watch it right here:

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