On-Bike communications. Is it worth it?

21 Sep

With the advent of new technology & advancements on mobile communications, it seems that Motorcycle headsets & intercom systems are becoming more popular & more biker to passenger intercoms etc are being used than ever before, but there are pluses & negatives still as the technology is still adpted from other forms of communication.

On a personal level, in the past i’ve used Helmet to helmet intercoms which are essentially a headset control box outside the helmet kept between a rider & passenger & although 20 years ago these were about £50 to buy, these days similar units can be purchased for between £5 & £10 with some even having an option to plug in an MP3 player so you can listen to music when not using the system as an intercom or so rider & passenger can listen to music, the technology largely remains the same today as it did 20 or 30 years ago. There are some vaiations in helmet to helmet where you could slightly adapt the system into a wireless unit rather than cable connected system also, so similar systems are available where you can connect bike to bike or bike to car using frequencies basically used for baby alarms. Although these days various wireless adaptions are available to connect commercially available PMR446 radio’s to helmet headsets which are very useful for group riding or even touring & even training.  Bluetooth & 2.4ghz technology is becoming more commonplace on bike to passenger intercoms but can be expensive when compared to the older type radio based systems.

Bluetooth technology & mobile phone technology also means that you can connect a mobile phone & answer calls on the move, or even take instructions from a mobile sat-nav.. again this is something that has been used in the past on the roads, however on bikes bluetooth only seems to of come into play in the last few years, previously on a motorbike you would need to buy an adapter to connect a mobile phone using a cable that would convert a police type headset for mobile phone use & then plugging into the headphone port of the phone.  This can be expensive & also the communication relies on handfree operation so if answering a phone it needs to be with a phone that can be set on an auto answer basis & you will be still connected unless the person on the other end, ends the call first once you take a call unless you stop & pull over to stop the call.

Even so the format of helmet communications hasn’t become standardized.  Many PMR446 type radio’s seem to use 1 mono jack to connect headsets where HAM style radio headseet units or professional portable walkie-talkies or business radio’s use a 2 pin connector, but do allow for a remote switch to talk rather than relying on voice activation to open the channel.  Also mobile phones use a bespoke 3.5mm jack similar to a standard headphone but with an extra ring to connect the microphone or many mobile phones (including the newer iPhones) rely solely on bluetooth or a more bespoke connction.

Voice activation for radio communication on a motorcycle can also be perilous as wind noise, high speed & general traffic noise can open the channel so maybe adapting a press to talk button mounted on the handlebars is your best option.  Even so riding at speed can be problematic as well because once you get above 30mph wind noise & other noises mean that if you try to talk to a passenger or fellow rider the noise makes it tricky to hear what’s being said by the person / people listening who may also have a problem of wind noise making it harder to hear through the headphones.  Also with the various systems around, you will need to adapt or convert the headset from a mobile phone use to a rider intercom or maybe install 2 separate headset or switch between the choices.

Let’s be honest, i’m not saying on-bike communications are bad, but they are problematic.  The system of bike to bike communications isn’t a new idea & has even been adopted for the motorcycle test as far back as the late 1980’s when Part 2 motorcycle test rules were changed so that examiner could perform the bike test as they would a car test with direct communication which meant the examiner had to use a radio link between the pupil & himself, However the bike test very rarely goes on roads with speeds over 40mph & the routes are known so the system works.. the majority of the time.  The big plus points are safety & security, meaning if riding in a group among friends or alone in need of support, you don’t become detached from others & also you can raise the alarm should something happen.

I think the development of decent communications for motorcycles needs to be brought forward to keep up with mobile phone technology & the like, however unless it becomes mandatory for motorcycle racing teams in MotoGP or World superbikes etc to use “ship to shore” radio’s like in Formula 1 or touring car racing, i have a feeling vocal communications won’t progress & will be continually adapted from other systems.  In saying that now it seems more & more use of dash mounted communications is being developed, such as teams sending text messages to the bikes dashboard which the rider can read by glancing down.. so could it be now that racing teams are using text made rather than voice based communications, does this mean that everyday road bike technology will follow suit with bikes being able to receive messages as text & bike riders not being able to communicate back like having some back seat driver?

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