The Social Rider: Communication Systems

The Social Rider: Communication Systems

Movies and TV shows sometimes depict motorcyclists as lone wolves traveling into the sunset. But in reality, most riders are highly social and seek to become part of a group. Traditionally, groups focused on motorcycle type, the rider’s age, or riding style, but today social groups can be a diverse mix of physical riding groups or virtual groups, such as internet forums and social media sites.

This new series of articles will explore some of the current and future aspects of the modern social rider.

Past to Present

Citizens band radios became extremely popular in the 1970s. The short-distance radios were cheap, compact, and allowed for easy communication between riders. But they had their issues. First, the CB radio was a half-duplex device, which meant that only one person at a time could talk (by pressing the push-to-talk button). In contrast, a natural conversation is full duplex: one can talk and listen at the same time, without a PTT button, similar to talking over the phone. With CB radios, privacy became a major concern because anyone could listen or join a conversation. With only 40 channels and a rapidly growing number of users, the experience became very noisy and uncontrollable.

These concerns, together with the rise of mobile phones in the 1990s and the introduction of modern smartphones in 2007, resulted in CB radios losing much of their allure, except with truck drivers and die-hard fans.

In the last 10 years, improved electronics have led to tiny and reliable personal communication helmet-mounted headsets that enable high-quality audio, long-lasting batteries, and wireless Bluetooth connectivity to GPS and smartphone devices. Most importantly, they provide full-duplex intercom communications with other riders in a secure and private way.

Today, the headset market is booming. It is quite rare to find a rider that doesn’t have a device mounted on the helmet. In fact, Cardo and Sena, two of the market’s biggest players, are partnering with helmet manufacturers to provide fully integrated offerings. Some Schuberth helmets can be powered by the Cardo SRC-System and Sena SC1 units that are specifically designed to be fully compatible with these models.

Nonetheless, operating headsets has become an ever more complex challenge. There are too many modes and deep settings with options. At many riding events, including our RoadRUNNER Touring Weekend, it is quite amusing to see people gathering in small groups and trying to cast some magic spells that will connect those communicators. Alas, hocus pocus doesn’t do the trick. I sometimes get called to help, and I get it resolved by downloading the large User’s Guide PDF files, and then I RTFM (read the f* manual).


The term pairing implies binding between a pair of devices and unfortunately is used interchangeably and ambiguously for very different scenarios. The headset uses standard Bluetooth pairing to connect either to smartphones or GPS devices with Bluetooth support. Audio (such as audio navigation instructions or music) is sent to the headset from the paired device. For cellular phone conversations, voice captured by the headset’s microphone is sent to the smartphone over the Bluetooth channel.

Intercom pairing is another type of binding. It can be done directly between two communicators without using Bluetooth. This is a proprietary wireless protocol that requires both headsets to be entered into a special pairing mode. They automatically find each other wirelessly, register the other device in their internal memory for future usage, and start an intercom session. Typically intercom pairing works only with models of the same brand—e.g., Cardo with Cardo headsets. Some models have support for another type of intercom pairing, Universal Intercom, which enables communications between headsets of different brands by utilizing a special Bluetooth feature called Hands-Free Profile. While not all advanced features will be available with Universal Intercom, basic intercom functionality will work with a limited and shorter transmission range.


What happens if there are more than two riders in a group? Some headsets allow group connectivity using a method called daisy-chaining. Each device can connect to two other devices. Suppose a group has four riders—we shall call them peers—named A to D. The group leader, peer A, would first pair to peer B. B would pair to C, and finally C would pair to D. Then each peer, in reverse order starting from D and ending with A, will join the conversation one by one. The messages between peers are relayed in both directions — A to B, B to C, C to D, and vise versa.

It could be tricky to daisy-chain a large group of people, but it is doable. The problem with this method is that it is rigid. If a rider drops out of the group, due to range, connectivity issues, or just by suddenly leaving the group due to some personal reason, the chain will be broken. Changing rider order in the group might also break the chain due to range issues. Conversely, adding new peers during a ride is virtually impossible. The group must stop and the new member can only pair with the group’s tail (last peer on the chain) or a full repairing is needed.

GPS, Daisy chain. Communication systems


Mesh Networks

A better way, which solves the daisy chain rigidness, is using a mesh network. Peers can be added and removed ad hoc without breaking the network. Each peer acts as a relay that can send and receive messages to and from any other peers who are within its range. The group is initially formed by the group leader, but members can be added or removed, even while riding, as the network doesn’t rely on the group leader peer as a single and central point of failure. This distributed method greatly increases the reliability and resiliency of the communication while increasing its overall range. When one of the peers drops, for whatever reason, the mesh network automatically heals and recovers. When a new peer joins, then the mesh network automatically adapts to include the new peer and utilize its relaying services. One possible downside of this redundancy is higher battery consumption.

Once a networking infrastructure is established, all sorts of information can be shared between people and motorcycles, opening up a whole world of opportunities.