This Alpinestars Tech Air 5 airbag vest was bought by Paul Varnsverry, an expert in motorcycle clothing safety, so we asked him to review it for us…
My first involvement with the development and testing of air vests for motorcyclists was in the late 1990s, assisting a company that was using a modified marine life vest that originally took around two seconds to inflate, but with redesigning and respecifying some of the parts, this was reduced to just under one second. Still too slow, and the product never went on sale.
However, the vast improvements that have taken place over the past few years have improved airbag technology beyond all recognition. Attitudes have also changed; I remember watching visitors to the NEC show a few years ago, laughing and making disparaging remarks as they walked past the Helite stand. Take a look at the same stand now and you’ll see riders genuinely interested in how these garments function – some volunteering to experience being struck by ‘Babs’ the baseball bat, while wearing an inflated vest – and adding them to their motorcycling wardrobe.
I’d been contemplating purchasing an airbag for a good year, but a conversation with Daniel Cox, a police officer from Avon and Somerset’s motorcycling section, about how he and his colleagues were starting to see the beneficial effect of increasing air vest take-up by motorcyclists (plus awareness of how John Milbank had been injured on a rare occasion he wasn’t wearing his and a car hit his bike from behind on the approach to a roundabout), made up my mind that I needed to take the plunge.
I wanted an electronically-triggered system that would fit under my Klim Badlands Pro jacket (itself configured to take Klim’s own In&Motion-based system) and could also be worn under the made-to-measure suit that’s on my shopping list.
Importantly, it had to be tested and certified, as all of my riding kit is.
My enquiries eventually led me to BKS Made-To-Measure Limited, which is an authorised supplier and service centre for Alpinestars Tech-Air systems, from where I purchased my Tech-Air 5 vest.
The Alpinestars Tech-Air 5 airbag vest includes an inbuilt ‘passive’ central back protector, while the hump at the top of the back protector (see Trigger method) contains the Airbag Control Unit. A panel to the right of the bottom end of the main zip features three LEDs (red/amber/green) that indicate the operational status of the vest.
When inflated, the Tech-Air 5 protects the chest, back and sides of the ribs (which Alpinestars claim no other airbag product covers), as well as extending onto the upper arms down to biceps level (another area of coverage that appears to be unique to Alpinestars).
It was the side rib and upper arm areas of protection that particularly attracted me, although the Helite vest and In&Motion systems, for example, have the advantage of inflating to support the head and neck in a way the Tech-Air5 does not. Pros and cons…
Tech-Air 5 owners can download an iOS or Android app to their smartphone and connect via Bluetooth, providing access to a range of facilities including monitoring the operational status of the vest, internal battery level, GPS-based journey tracking, and updating the firmware.
The Airbag Control Unit at the top of the back protector, which sits between the wearer’s shoulder blades, is where all the science, technology and witchcraft converge and the magic happens (or rather, hopefully never needs to!), and contains three accelerometers, three gyroscopes, a Bluetooth Low Energy module and the battery that powers all of these.
The system is said to have an inflation time of around 40 milliseconds, but the algorithms adjust this to suit the prevailing speed of the motorcycle and the type of accident. For example, the system reacts differently when the motorcycle is stationery and is struck by another vehicle than how it responds to the motorcycle hitting an obstacle at higher speeds. At extremely low speeds (under 15 mph), the system may not deploy in every collision, but may do so if the wearer suddenly falls from the motorcycle after the impact.
Full details of how the system works can be obtained by downloading the user guide at www.alpinestars.com/pages/product-manuals and selecting the “Tech Air 5 Airbag System” option. The booklet that’s provided with the vest is 200 pages, of which 23 provide the comprehensive user instructions in English.
The passive back protector is claimed to meet the highest, Level 2 requirements of EN 1621-2:2014, while the airbag system itself is claimed to have been tested with reference to EN 1621-4:2013, which is the standard for mechanically-activated air vests (ie products where a lanyard is attached to the bike to trigger the airbag if the rider leaves it). This is because a standard for electronically-activated airbags is still under development, but Alpinestars has done what the PPE legislation requires and has used appropriate standards and other means of establishing the Tech-Air 5’s capabilities to convince certification body SGS to approve the garment.
From April 21 2018, all new motorcycle clothing was deemed to be Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). To meet this legislation, it must be tested to a recognised standard. For more information on the law, click here.
The Tech-Air 5 vest feels no different to wear than the D3O Viper back protector that was originally fitted to my Klim jacket. I removed that as it was unnecessary given the presence of the Level 2 passive back protector already in the vest. Alpinestars also states you’re your jacket’s shoulder protectors can be removed, but Brian at BKS said quite a few people keep them in place.
I’ve worn the kit on cooler days (below 8°C), and some unseasonably warm days (around 20C) and felt comfortable in both conditions. At the time of writing I have yet to wear the vest in hotter summer temperatures, but as the design of the passive back protector features apertures, and the fabrics used incorporate ventilation and spacer materials, these should collectively promote the flow of air around the body, enabling perspiration to escape and allowing airflow from an outer jacket’s ventilation points to reach the wearer.
Whether on or off the bike, the Tech-Air 5 vest is very comfortable. I do occasionally notice the mass of the Airbag Control Unit – which is the single heaviest part of the garment – when walking around, but I didn’t find it particularly obtrusive when donning or doffing the vest, or in general wear. For most of the time it felt no different to wearing a conventional foam back protector.
Put the Alpinestars Tech-Air 5 on in the same way as any other jacket, fasten the front zip, then close the Velcro tab at the top and this completes the circuit. The system then goes into a brief diagnostic check and the moment a green light is displayed it’s active.
That’s it; couldn’t be simpler. By the time an outer jacket has been pulled on over the top and fastened, the system should be armed.
Connect your mobile phone to the vest using the app and you’ll see further confirmation that everything is set before you ride away. This software also allows the system to be switched off in limited circumstances, such as when riding off-road.
After a few failed connections when trying to link the vest to my phone, I found it was better to hold my phone just above the Airbag Control Unit for a faster link-up between them.
You don’t have to connect you phone to use the airbag, but I like to, and on rides my phone sits in an SW-Motech tail pack, so there’s nothing to interrupt the Bluetooth connection during a ride. It you opt to use the app to track your ride (a simple press of an icon once the vest and phone have connected), you can relive it on playback, including records of speeds throughout the journey.
The battery is claimed to be good for up to 30 hours of use, but when the time does come to recharge it, the power socket can be found tucked away on the Airbag Control Unit between the shoulder blades. It can be a little fiddly to plug in the supplied AC charge unit connector at the first attempt, but once the technique is acquired there shouldn’t be any repeats. There’s a magnetised adaptor fitted to the charge lead and when disconnecting from the vest I recommend owners ensure this stays attached to the lead and not to the vest, and that the entire charge lead is safely stored away, so there’s less risk of the adaptor being lost or misplaced.
Care needs to be taken to ensure the Velcro tab, which completes the power circuit, doesn’t inadvertently close when the vest is being stored, as this will arm the system and consume battery power… you don’t want to grab the vest for your next ride, only to find there’s no power!
Alpinestars recommends that the Tech-Air 5 vest is serviced by an authorised service centre every two years or 500 hours, whichever occurs first. BKS Made-To-Measure Limited quotes £99.99 for this service, with charges of £199.99 for a service after an airbag deployment, and £299.99 to replace the airbag system after the maximum of three deployments (or earlier if pressure testing indicates the airbag is out of specification).
For high-mileage riders, the app keeps a log of the number of hours for which the system has been active.
There’s a range of effective, proven airbag vests on the market, of both mechanically-activated (a lanyard connection to the bike) and electronically-triggered variants. With some electronic versions you have to pay a monthly subscription, which can typically be £120 per year to have the hardware switched on, whereas with others the retail price is all you pay and there are no ongoing use charges.
The Tech-Air 5 falls into this latter category, with software updates that can be transferred to the vest via the app, rather than having to plug it into a computer. I updated my vest from my mobile phone and now have both ‘Street’ and ‘Race’ configurations available. In the Race setting, the vest will not activate when a stationary rider is struck by another vehicle, for example.
These are just three options – you can find all the airbag kit we’ve reviewed in our body armour, leather and textiles reviews here and be sure to regularly check for the discounts available through BikeSocial membership.
From being viewed as something of a joke in the past, air vests are now being looked upon more and more seriously as an essential piece of riding apparel.
I decided on the Alpinestars Tech-Air 5 because I wanted something to wear under my jacket and future suit, rather than on top, or you’d be reading a review of the Helite Turtle 2 or E-Turtle right now! I also wanted the most comprehensive protective coverage available.
Some riders will wince at the price of this technology, but my advice is don’t ever be tempted to buy a cheap ‘airbag vest’ off any of the e-commerce sites, as I have yet to identify one such product that has been tested and certified for motorcycling use. Every one I have looked into to date is a marine life vest (like the slow-inflating device I first worked on in the late 1990s) and the ‘certificates of compliance’ the vendors feature on their listings are heavily photoshopped and fake!
Would you purchase a counterfeit helmet? Then don’t be tempted to purchase a counterfeit air vest!
I’ve known Brian Sansom, the owner of BKS, for almost 40 years and it was in casual conversation that he told me BKS has a member of staff whose role is to focus on the Alpinestars airbag systems, and the company has recently invested in the pressure testing system required to check the integrity of the vest when returned for servicing or after a deployment. Based on BKS’ stellar reputation for customer service, and the investment the company has put into maintaining its customary high levels of professionalism as an authorised Alpinestars airbag centre, when my decision was made and the time came to place my order, BKS was on a shortlist of one.
So far, I am very pleased with my Tech-Air 5. I hope I never have to find out what its capabilities are, but it’s reassuring to know that if things do take a turn for the worse out on the road, then I have done as much as I can to mitigate the consequences.