In case you missed it, Garmin announced their Garmin Varia rearview bike radar, which signals the rider of traffic approaching from the rear.
There’s tremendous interest in this gizmo and I’m sure I’ll see at least a few on-bike radar devices after this product launches in October, but I’m curious: what is the actual benefit of a rear radar for cyclists?
Garmin Varia Bike Radar
Garmin purchased the assets of iKubu, a startup that attempted a crowdsourced bike radar they called the “Backtracker.” A number of gadget and fitness blogs have remarked on the amazing ability of Garmin to redesign and launch this product within six months. Garmin announced Varia this week, but actual product launch is scheduled for October. I’m on a design team for servers that sell for $50,000 and up, and these aren’t your basic low-cost rackmount units using generic reference designs; if we can’t get product out within ten months, we cancel the project. But I digress.
Garmin’s marketing copy capitalizes on fear from the rear. “The threat is real. That’s why getting some extra help knowing what’s sneaking up behind you is an important breakthrough.” Is this useful in preventing hit-from-behind collisions? Although hit-from-behind are very rare, this is indeed the type of crash that is mostly likely to kill you as a cyclist in the United States.
The Varia device keys on micro-changes in air density to detect alien death creatures approaching from the rear. This information is sent to either the dedicated display unit designed for the Varia, or to a compatible Edge cycling computer via Garmin’s wireless ANT+ interface. This display shows the relative speed, distance, and “threat level” (Garmin’s words, and good grief) of approaching chestbursters, predators and motor vehicles so you can jump out of the way or take other countermeasures.
I still don’t see how you’re supposed to know when a car will hit you. Although several people online have already commented on the questionable utility of this bike radar, Garmin obviously believes there’s a market for this device.
Varia has a more useful feature that Garmin doesn’t talk about as much: the tail light unit included with the radar flashes brighter and faster as the vehicle approaches. When I’m taking the lane on a narrow road, I typically use the “slow down” hand signal when I hear traffic approaching quickly from behind me. I really like this flashing light feature.
But what about that display? Does it really help knowing there’s traffic approaching from behind? After all, isn’t that kind of our default assumption when cycling on the road?
I can think of five scenarios where this bike radar might be helpful.
- Two abreast riding. You and your buddies are riding two (or more) abreast on an otherwise empty shareable road. The bike radar signals “car back!” and everybody moves over to ride single file. When the way is clear again, you can ride two abreast and resume your conversation.
- Stiff neck. You have a left turn or you need to merge left up ahead in possibly busy traffic. A stiff neck makes the head check difficult, so instead of constantly scanning back to look for that gap in traffic, maybe you can glance down at your M314 motion detector for the gap, then do your head check to confirm the gap and perform your merge.
- Sometimes I play in traffic. This has happened to me: I’m on a country road with no traffic and I’m riding very slowly while shooting bike selfies or otherwise goofing off in the middle of a shareable lane. While riding no-handed, I check my self-portrait on the phone and notice the car behind me, with the driver waiting patiently for me to get out of the way. Ooops!
- Seat warmer. Radar operates in the microwave band. Point that up and a little forward on a cold day and warm your tush!
- Traffic calming device. I don’t know which specific band Garmin uses, but if it uses one of the police radar bands, maybe you can trigger the radar detectors in every car behind you, encouraging these drivers to slow down. If a different frequency band is used, how hard would it be to hack one of these units to transmit on a speed gun band?
These can be handy functions, but is it really worthwhile to spend $200 to $300 for functionality that can be performed equally well with bicycle mirrors?
Interesting product with possible benefits, but color me dubious.
DC Rainmaker got his hands on an advance review unit and gives what seems to be good review.