The Report

Bytes and bikes: Is a smart bicycle revolution afoot?

Bytes and bikes: Is a smart bicycle revolution afoot?

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Millennials love their smartphones and bikes. Cars? Not so much. This could spawn a new generation of smart bikes for hipsters and obsessive cyclists, starting with Helios handlebars.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) recently put hard data behind a trend that has become evident to anyone living in a major city: young people aren't into cars anymore.

PIRG found that per capita, Americans drive the same number of miles each year as they did back in 1996. The biggest declines in driving since 2009 come from Millennials (people born between 1983 and 2000), who congregate in cities tend to walk, take transit and bike -- all while using their smartphones.

Today, drivers synchronize their phones with their cars to guide them to their destinations, navigate heavy traffic, and even track down restaurants. If bikes continue to ascend in popularity, will phones and bikes have a similar marriage?

HAXLR8R, a San Francisco-based hardware accelerator program, thinks they will. That's why it gave Helios Bikes, a collective of three young designers/tinkerers from the Bay Area, $25,000 and sent them to Shenzhen, China, where they (and 9 other HAXLR8R inductee teams) spent four months refining their smart bicycle prototypes and testing business models.

The startup's debut product is Helios Bars. The technology is a wired-up version of standard handlebars that sports an integrated LED headlight, and directional and speed indicators controlled via Bluetooth 4.0 with the rider's smartphone (Apple iOS only right now, Android coming). If the rider selects a route using Google Maps on his or her phone, he or she can send the directional data to the handlebars via the Helios app. This triggers the right or left indicator lights (visible to traffic around the bike) to blink whenever the rider should turn. The lights also change hue as the bike accelerates or decelerates, so traffic can react.

The Helios Bars also contain an embedded GPS receiver the rider can use -- along with the Helios app and the addition of a pay-as-you-go SIM card inside the bars -- to track down a bike if it is stolen.

Helios Bikes is led by Kenneth Gibbs, the 22-year-old son of an inventor who helped develop on-bike computers (devices mounted on handlebars and used to track distance and speed) at Hewlett-Packard. Gibbs grew up working on motorcycles and cars. "I used to work on cars and then flip them on eBay. That's how I made money in high school," he says.

The Helios Bars are targeted at mobile-savvy urban cyclists, who appear to be receiving the product well, if the Kickstarter campaign Gibbs and his co-founders launched May 21 is any indication. Within three days, the campaign raised more than half of its $70,000 goal, with most backers pledging enough to earn the handlebars.

Kenneth Gibbs

Gibbs and his co-founders want to expand the system's capabilities to attract performance-focused riders. Today's top bike computers contain GPS receivers, mapping software and performance features such as heart rate monitoring and cadence tracking. It seems only a matter of time before top bike manufacturers begin integrating these technologies into their own products, but Gibbs hopes to beat them to it.

"We'll be integrating sensors to track things like heart rate and wattage," he says, and eventually Helios Bars will include a kinetic energy harvester to keep the integrated batteries charged during long rides.

But first, Gibbs adds, the focus is on the Kickstarter campaign and producing the first commercial version of the prototype. "We learned a lot in Shenzhen," he says, "like how to iterate quickly and how to get manufacturers excited about our product."

HAXLR8R helps entrepreneurs with product development and also provides a crash course in learning to manage supply chains. That's an awful lot of real-world experience for a 22-year-old college drop-out.

I asked Gibbs: "What if the Kickstarter campaign explodes, and you raise $2 million? Can you scale production to handle that kind of demand?"

He answers cheerfully: "Oh yeah. Our current manufacturer produces bikes for big European and American companies. They can handle it."

(Photos: Helios Bikes)

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure