Bell tries on custom-fit helmet tech

April 8, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC
Bell’s Star Carbon is one of the two models chosen to get the custom-fit treatment.

FORTUNE — Google Glass. The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The Interaxon Muse headband. The head has been a popular place for technology in recent years, but there hasn’t exactly been a raft of innovations in the lowly helmet industry — be it for motorcycles, bicycles or extreme sports. In fact, Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, says helmet technology has been basically stagnant for more than 14 years.

“I don’t think there’s been any real advance since the turn of the century,” he says. “The bicycle helmet that I wear comes from the early ’90s, and I haven’t seen anything better.”

While bike helmets must comply with CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] standards, motorcycle helmets answer to the national Department of Transportation’s FMVSS [Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards] guidelines. Still, Ed Becker, executive director of the independent, helmet-certifying Snell Memorial Foundation, says it’s the same story: “DOT is essentially at the same level it was at in the ’70s,” he says, using the acronym for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Bell Helmets, which was founded in California in 1954 as an auto racing helmet-maker, is working to change all that. In the year of its 60th anniversary, the company is preparing to commercialize a digital, custom-fit motorcycle helmet process that it believes gives wearers a better — and thus potentially safer — fit.

The company finished beta-testing the process last year, with help from its sponsored athletes. Here’s how it works for the average customer: First, you put on a small cap and sit in a chair. A Bell technician takes a small scanning wand (it looks sort of like a handle with nothing attached to it) and circles your head. A three-dimensional image of your skull is generated by a computer in about 30 seconds. From that, Bell makes a custom-fit helmet — that process takes closer to three hours — and sends it to you in four to six weeks.

Bell says the new process can result in as much as 40% energy reduction to the head; moreover, its precision allows for helmets to be manufactured less expensively, without as much excess foam.

MORE: James Stewart’s extreme motocross success

Bell is bringing this capability to five or six big motorcycle events this year, such as the MotoGP Championship in Austin from April 11 to 13. Bell says it will use events like these as an opportunity to show off and explain the tech — there, it will happily scan riders’ craniums and keep the data on hand, whether or not they are interested in buying a new helmet, allowing Bell to make them for someone at any time.

Bell plans to deploy the custom-fit scanner setup at up to 20 retail stores by the fourth quarter of this year. (Bell doesn’t have any branded stores of its own, but Bell Powersports business unit director Chris Sackett says that’s not a problem: “We have a lot of dealers we work so closely with that when you walk in, you’d think it’s a brand store. But we don’t own it.”) For now, the custom-fit scanning capability is only available for motorcycle helmets. Eventually, Bell could use it for all different kinds of protective headwear, including for bicycles.

Bell’s head-scanning technology in action.

Though the more efficient manufacturing process might save materials, the scanning service comes at a premium: The custom fit motorcycle helmets will go for $999 (the “Star Custom Fit”) or $899 (the “Moto-9”). Those two models normally retail at $649 and $549, respectively, but Bell product engineer Joe Tomascheski believes that the extra bucks for the custom fit are worth it. “We start with a standard inside volume, and then we put your head in and extend the foam to comfortably fill those voids,” he says.

Keeping a reasonable price on custom helmets was a major company concern, Sackett says. “First we were like, ‘Eh, this is going to cost people $2,000, it won’t work,’” he says, “but now that we’ve got it under $1,000 it’s going to rewrite the helmet industry. And the likelihood that anyone else is going to be able to copy this in a way that is cost-effective is very small.”

MORE: Dario Franchitti talks business, IndyCar’s future, and the crash that ended his racing career

The invention comes out of Bell’s Advanced Concepts group, which was only formed three years ago. “This is [the group’s] first project we’ve been ready to really commercialize,” Tomascheski says.

It’s a big deal for a business that has been under fire in recent years. Bell’s parent company, Easton-Bell Sports, also owns Giro, Easton Cycling, Blackburn and Ridell — the brand behind helmets for the NFL. Earlier this year, reports indicated that private equity group Fenway Partners, which owns Easton-Bell, attempted to sell off the company but failed specifically due to concussion lawsuits against Ridell.

Moreover, Formula One racing legend Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident last December raised further concerns about the adequacy of helmets. (He was wearing a non-Bell model, with a GoPro camera attached.) Schumacher is still in a coma today.

Swart remains optimistic about Bell’s new technology. “The part that’s really intriguing is there’s a huge need — well, within a niche market — for people with very large heads or heads that have unusual shapes,” he says. “Trying to make a helmet fit using fitting pads is sometimes difficult, other times impossible. The idea that you can make a custom fit sounds like a genuine advance to me.”

Becker is more cautious. “We don’t know that these are safer yet,” he says. “We do demand that the helmets meet our same performance standards, and we have certified them. What we’re waiting to see is whether the public will agree with Bell that all these benefits are worthwhile, and the necessary delays of waiting for the helmet [to arrive once you’ve been scanned] are worth it.”

Bell and its competitors have greater concerns to address.

“The biggest problem has been getting people to wear helmets at all,” Becker says. “You find a lot of people wearing fake helmets — they look like fiberglass yarmulkes that really won’t manage a severe impact at all. They don’t like the weight or the size of a real helmet. It interferes, maybe, with their sense of style.”