In the future, our race suits will be capable of predicting crashes, inflating prior to impact in order to absorb forces exceeding even 23g without injury. In the future, those suits will sync to mobile devices more powerful than the computers used to put men on the moon. In the future, all those components will add only 450 grams of weight and require no additional space in the suit. In the future, our motorcycles will monitor yaw, roll, both longitudinal and lateral acceleration and compare wheel speeds, enabling us to dial in safe slides using only the throttle while simultaneously keeping the front wheel on the ground to maximize acceleration. The thing is, the future is now. With Alpinestars TechAir and the Aprilia Tuono V4R (both pictured above), the future is now available to the public.
Photos: Josh Manning
I’m wearing two airbags.
The 15-year old nerd that sits behind the controls of Wes Siler, pulling levers and pushing buttons to facilitate an illusion of adulthood is seriously geeking out right now. I’m the first journalist in America to get to wear the same suit as Casey Stoner and all his fellow Alpinestars-sponsored GP riders.
With the exception of dropping two sensors from the collar bones (now considered superfluous as TechAir moves from prototype to production; they were there to collect data, not inform the safety algorithm), this suit is absolutely identical to the one Casey wears. TechAir packages an ECU and all the airbag inflation components inside the aero hump, accessed through a velcro’d flap. Clear urethane hoses connect the two cold gas generators to airbags located over the shoulders and designed to better protect one of the most frequently-injured parts of track riders’ bodies — the collar bones.
Data from five three-axis accelerometers (one in each arm and leg and one in the hump) is monitored every two milliseconds by that ECU and, using data collected during the 10-year development process and GP racing, is used to predict circumstances that will result in a crash. If that crash is determined to be a highside or the kind of tumble that can result in serious impact to the shoulder area, the airbags inflate in just 45 milliseconds. That’s 0.045 seconds, or less than half the time (0.1 seconds) it takes an impact to occur.
Taking advantage of the stretch accordion panels around the shoulder, those airbags inflate entirely inside the suit. Looking at racers like Jorge Lorenzo that’ve triggered inflation, you can barely detect the increased size of the suit in those areas when the bags are inflated. The bags deflate after 25 seconds so the rider is free to re-start. There’s two gas cylinders in the hump, meaning you can have two separate crashes, at least 60 seconds apart, in the same suit while still enjoying the additional safety.
Those cylinders contain a cold, nitrogen-based gas that’s triggered by small pyrotechnic charges blowing them open. Cylinder replacement and other service needs to be carried out by Alpinestars HQ in Italy. Each suit comes with a unique serial number and service record and the company covers shipping to and from Italy and all service costs.
Making racing safer
And TechAir does mean additional safety. Last year, Jorge Lorenzo experienced the massive highside you see here during FP3 at Laguna Seca. The sensors recorded an impact of 23g to his shoulders. Just hours later, Lorenzo hopped back on and qualified in pole position. He was not injured in this crash.
Before he started wearing TechAir, Lorenzo broke his collarbone several times, probably costing him the Championship in 2009. I’m hoping that I won’t have the opportunity to test TechAir’s effectiveness, but am confident that if I do, the likelihood of injuring my shoulders or collarbones will be tangibly reduced.
If those airbags are so great, why do they only protect the shoulders and not other vulnerable areas like, say, the neck? “Certainly the neck is a very dangerous injury, but looking at the data, the chance of you actually breaking your neck in racing is tiny, just .02 percent,” Alpinestars lead engineer Colin Ballantyne told us this morning. “You’re more likely to die from an impact to your head than breaking your neck. So do you invest in a system for an accident you’re never going to have or in something racer’s actually need? Statistics indicate that at some point in your career you will injure your shoulder or collarbone, so protection in that area is most useful.”
And TechAir, in its current form, is really a track-biased system. To avoid accidental inflation, the system doesn’t arm until a variety of parameters are met to indicate you’re operating a motorcycle in a track-like manner. Not only is there a minimum speed, but the suit also looks at variables like g-forces and vibration. It’ll arm if you’re getting your knee down at 80mph, but might not if you highside on a wet manhole cover at city speeds.
A street system is in development and will use different algorithms to determine activation and provide protection in different locations. “The street environment is substantially different, requiring a different algorithm with different priorities,” Colin tells us. “With the race system, you tend to crash alone, in a highside or lowside, on the street you tend to hit something or something hits you. Impacts also tend to be more focussed around the chest and the shoulder is less important.”
That street system is really going to be the end result of development process that began in 2001. Even at $4,999, Alpinestars tells us that each TechAir Race suit is being sold at a loss, one justified by increasing awareness and acceptance of the technology. It’s certainly popular among racers. This year, every single rider that Alpinestars sponsors in GP racing is wearing the suit. Adding only 450g to the weight, but also adding real protection has steamrolled any luddite holdouts. We hear Ben Spies was skeptical until seeing Lorenzo walk away from that highside above, after which he told the company, “give it to me now.”
Using the suit couldn’t be easier. To charge it, you plug what’s essentially a cell phone charger into a port just inside that velcro flap. The suit comes standard with a box full of power adapters, meaning you can use it anywhere in the world.
Once charged, you get 8 hours of riding time and several days of standby. Flip the yellow master switch and nothing happens. Until I figured out that a magnetic sensor in the zipper needs to be closed to actually turn TechAir on, this lead to some embarrassing confusion and frustration with a suit I couldn’t get to light up. I should really read instruction manuals.
Master switch on and zipper fully closed, LEDs in the left arm light up. A yellow and green indicate you’re ready to go, once the yellow goes off (as the system detects track-like riding), you’re armed and protected. TechAir re-tests for these riding conditions every 20 seconds.
All that might sound complicated, but once you get over the novelty, it’s essentially seamless, requiring no additional participation from its wearer. Just charge the suit before each full day of riding, throw that master switch in the morning, then the suit automatically switches on and off when you zip it on and off. That ease of use has been a big factor in its adoption amongst racers.
That box of electronics in the hump — assembled by Formula One technical provider Cosworth in England — includes a WiFi router. Sync it to your smart phone or tablet to monitor charge levels, suit diagnostics, inflation and service history or other factors. This external UI is super handy for race teams, meaning mechanics can monitor it without interfering as riders get themselves ready. Spies or whoever is free to move around the pits as normal, even while a team member checks up on suit status.
Worried about inclement weather? Lorenzo was wearing TechAir when he jumped into that lake at Jerez in 2010. Afterwards, Alpinestars technicians determined that his suit experienced no adverse effects and would have been 100 percent effective had he gone out and had a highside after.
The suit, sans electronics
Other than TechAir’s sensors, airbags, LEDs and ECU, the suit is otherwise pretty much Alpinestars’ flagship $2,900 Racing Replica. You know that means thick, sturdy leather, a huge number of flex panels that make moving around in it super easy and plenty of ventilation.
Because the idea with TechAir is maximum possible safety, a leather reinforcement has been added to the stretch panels on the side of the hips in a location that was previously known to suffer abrasion and perforations are swapped from all-over to slightly more limited geographic patterns. Neither change should be taken as slandering the safety of the Racing Replica, but are rather indicative of the completely anal degree to which Alpinestars is pursuing absolute safety, quality and longevity with TechAir.
Aside from getting to wear glowing LEDs, my favorite part of the suit are the rubber grip panels on the inside of the knees. Against a smooth tank, they’re sorta like built-in Stomp Grip. I wish this material was expanded over the inner thigh and calf to provide even more grip while hanging off and braking.
Armor, even in the shoulders, is Alpinestars top CE-rated stuff and covers huge swaths of the body. There’s also reassuring padding on the biceps, hips and coccyx. The suit comes with a CE2 back protector and a CE chest protector. That later item is my least favorite part of the suit, left free of retention to rely on suit tightness and some silicone strips to keep it from wandering around as you ride. It still wanders, so I’ve started wearing my Alpinestars Track Vest underneath for even more protection, ditching the standard back and chest protectors. Shouldn’t have to do that on a $4,999 suit.
Aside from the airbags, TechAir is extremely nice, extremely comfortable, extremely easy to move around the bike in and really boosts confidence with how chunky and safe everything feels.
That confidence is good because, as you saw in that RideApart episode, the Tuono is an absolute beast of a motorcycle. 168bhp in a naked bike is just ridiculous and takes real concentration and commitment to get anywhere near full throttle.
The Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tires on both this beautiful black version and that ugly yellow one we filmed with show significant signs of tearing, indicating that the slides I’m feeling aren’t just occurring in my imagination. That I (a long ways from being a rider of Jamie’s caliber) am comfortable ringing so much performance out of such a fast bike, on the road, is perhaps the best possible endorsement of APRC’s efficacy.
I know, from multiple first-hand experiences, how much crashing hurts and temper my riding accordingly, but taking even a bike this ridiculously, mind-bendingly fast to its limit ends up seeming like a sensible thing to do. Or maybe those crashes have just caused more brain damage than the doctors thought.
In transition from fully-faired race replica to upright naked, the Tuono has lost some of the planted feeling of the RSV4’s front end. Credit that to a minor shift in the rider’s weight from front to rear due to those nice, comfy, high bars. It’s not a huge difference, but leads to less confidence in the front end while riding on the limit. I had a pretty significant front-end slide while filming that apparently looked more dramatic to Jamie behind me than it felt from onboard. It’s a credit to how communicative those tires and the Tuono’s suspension are that it didn’t feel like catching the slide on my knee was a huge deal.
Just as an aside, I don’t really believe that it’s possible for mortals like you and me to catch lowsides on our knees (400lbs bike + 168lbs rider + 75mph or so = more momentum than I’m able to lift with my knee in an odd position). To me, they seem like much more a case of the front just naturally regaining traction.
Wheelie control? Well, riding with a former racer two nights ago, the Tuono easily walked away from his Z1000, easily putting down its power in situations where the Z1000 would just lift its front. It’s not that the Tuono won’t wheelie, it’s just that the front end comes up much, much later than you’d expect with wheelie control switched on. Switch it off and you can pull roll-on power wheelies simply by opening the throttle in 4th gear at 100mph.
As you can see, this particular Tuono has a couple extras: lighter wheels from the RSV4 R, a full Akrapovic system, frame sliders, levers, mirrors and, most noticeably, Ohlins’ very best TTX36 shock.
The wheels aren’t that much lighter and, without riding a stock bike back to back with this one, can’t really discern a difference. Complete with Aprilia’s “Race” engine mapping, the exhaust noticeably smooths out power delivery, even where the stock fueling is already very, very good. It’s no louder than stock either while ditching a fair amount of weight and losing the catalytic converter. The stock pipe on this Tuono and the new RSV4 is unbelievably loud as stock. Mirrors and levers aren’t a big deal, but both components are super high quality and feel really nice to use. That shock is predictably the biggest change. Honestly, I think it helps more than TC as it actively aids traction rather than merely limiting slides. If you want to upgrade a Tuono or RSV4, spend here first. You can read a good explanation of what twin-tube shocks like the TTX36 do here.
Is the future bright?
All of this sounds terribly complicated and is, admittedly, terribly expensive. But, that suit is tangibly safer without sacrificing convenience or performance over non-airbag leathers. No naked bike has had 168bhp before for a reason — you’d have killed yourself. Both products represent genuine advances in safety and performance, advances you will absolutely be able to take advantage of in the real world. Even if Tech Air or the Tuono are beyond your financial means (they’re beyond mine), the technology they’re at the bleeding edge of will trickle down to more accessible products as volume ramps up and costs come down. Riding motorcycles faster, safer? That’s a future this enthusiast can get excited about.