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Autocom to go portable and support ‘bluetooth’

I just received a mailshot from Autocom telling me they’re still producing rider training intercoms, and specifically that their big new offerings to trainers are a moderately affordable tankbag-based system and a bluetooth transmitter to allow an uplink to any bluetooth headset. but under their new ownership. I’m presuming I’m on the Tecstar mailing list as I bought some of the Starcom equipment some years ago.

The tankbag idea is long-overdue. Whilst the conventional underseat installation might suit long distance tourers who don’t swap bikes very often and also advanced instructors with only one bike, it’s pretty hopeless for basic trainers who are often hoping from bike to bike, or even for riders who like a new machine every year – having something that’s independent of the machine is far more convenient for most riders than a permanently-wired system.

It will be interesting to see if allowing their system to link to existing bluetooth headsets will revive their fortunes. I’m not sure how long Autocom have been around but I’m guessing twenty years at least. When they first appeared, they produced virtually the only bike-to-rider and bike-to-bike intercoms worth bothering with, and even as competition appeared they were able to trade on their quality, but that quality came very much at a price premium.

In the last few years, the appearance of bluetooth intercoms might have meant more riders are using intercoms but I suspect the competition has also eaten into Autocoms sales, for it turns out the original company was in trouble in late 2009 and went into receivership in December that year.

I have to admit that the demise of Autocom was one of the news stories that slipped past me, and in any case they were bought out a few weeks later in early 2010 by their newer rival Tecstar who manufacture the Starcom system, which incidentally explains why they had a joint stand at the NEC last year.

As a matter of interest, I originally approached Autocom for a training set up back in early 1997, when I realised the old 49MHz ‘baby alarm’ radios were totally inadequate for DAS and advanced training. They’d been fairly useless on 125 courses where at a 4:1 ratio with the instructor at #2 in the group of five bikes, the rearmost trainee was often out of radio contact, but at least all he had to do was follow the ‘ducklings’ ahead. With the 125s, I could always quickly overhaul the leader if he went the wrong way, but on a DAS course where the trainee was riding a bike as quick as mine, the rider was liable to be down the road out of sight and radio contact if I got stuck at a junction, and of course the same applied to post-test training.

So as the acknowledged leaders in the field, I looked up Autocom, who’d just started advertising for the bike training market as they spotted the need for decent sets. I introduced myself to their staff at one of the bike shows, and yes, they were more than happy to provide me with a trainer radio and two trainee sets. That was the good news. The bad news was the price. It wasn’t just chin on the floor stuff, I dislocated my jaw when I heard the price. They wanted well in excess of £2000. HOW MUCH? I could get a nearly-new GS500 for that and the VOX-operated 49MHz systems were around £100 each!

Given that two sets only had to receive and plug into an earhanger speaker, and didn’t need all the complicated VOX and noise-cancelling circuitry, this seemed exhorbitantly expensive as an Autocom bike-to-bike intercom was around £1000 per bike at the time.

And that turned out to be the GOOD news. After I’d got my heart rate back to normal and reset my jaw, and figured the bank account could just about stand it if I ate beans for the next 12 months, I asked if they offered a trial of the equipment. The answer to that was a straight no.

“We’re confident enough of our product that we don’t offer kit out for trial”.

Sadly for Autocom but not for my diet, that was the end of my involvement with their company, and truth be told, as I walked away they didn’t seem particularly bothered.

A few days later I contacted another company offering a set of three Motorola Handicoms operating on the short-lived and now defunct “short-range business radio” frequency, and next day by post arrived a complete three radio set on extended try-before-you-buy trial.

One Handicom came with VOX, a headset and battery eliminator for the trainer, and the other two were straight press-to-talk jobs with simple earpieces for the trainees. The whole job including battery packs and chargers still came to £800, which was pricy but at least it didn’t need a bankloan to purchase, which I duly did after a month or so.

In the event, I used the Handicoms for several years, and although they didn’t offer noise-cancelling, they performed fine apart from a steady diet of headsets which suffered regular fractured wires. I ditched the battery eliminator as it required wiring into the bike’s battery as cumbersome and inconvenient when I was hopping on and off different bikes. The only downside to that was the rate of consumption of rechargable batteries in the trainer set. I went through about five battery packs per day, and had to build a charging rig to keep on top of that.

I would have continued to use them for longer still, but soon after I’d bought the Motorolas it was announced that the SRBR frequency was to be withdrawn in 2003, making it illegal to use my £800-worth of perfectly functional kit. Does government ever think about the costs of changing legislation in this way?

Once again I headed off to Autocom to see what they could do. And once again, I came away disappointed. Although the noise-cancelling box had dropped in price, their PMR-based trainer/trainee sets still cost far more than the PMR alternatives which were rapidly dropping in price and offered a combination of decent range and affordability – in fact, I already knew I was able to source an instructor set and two trainee sets for around £140, which if I remember rightly was around one fifth of what Autocom were asking. The drawback was that just like the Motorolas the basic headsets didn’t have any noise cancelling circuitry so as speeds went up, so did the windnoise in the trainee’s earpiece.

So couldn’t I just pair their noise-cancelling box with my own PMR radios, I asked hopefully. Nope, turned out that wasn’t possible either, so once again Autocom lost a sale, and I equipped myself with the basic PMR radios and headsets for a fraction of the price.

Frustratingly Autocom’s kit couldn’t talk to mine even when trainees turned up with Autocom-supplied PMRs, even though we were both using standard PMR radios which should have been able to talk to each other. I discovered later the Autocom radios were locked on an obscure channel setting, presumably to make interconnection with non-Autocom kit difficult and encourage more sales.

(As an aside, at this point I did actually invest in the rival and much cheaper Starcom system which only needed a specific radio-to-box lead to get it paired with my existing radios, but never got on with it – too many leads, and I failed to get the VOX operation working properly.)

That takes the story forward to 2008, when I got hold of a Scala Rider Teamset, the paired rider and pillion bluetooth headsets to test. Now, these were not sold as a bike-to-bike intercom, but a quick check of range showed that with a clear line of sight we actually had around 25-30 metres of range. It doesn’t sound much but it was about the same as the old 49MHz sets, and in practice it proved enough for bike-to-bike use, with the sets re-pairing if the connection dropped, and with surprisingly good sound quality – much better than the PMRs. Unfortunately, the helmet mounting system used by Scala and the other bluetooth headsets to date doesn’t lend itself to slipping in and out of helmets – the plastic bracket and wiring is far too fragile – so I’ve not made the obvious next leap to the long range bike-to-bike bluetooth intercoms. I did actually by a set for my own use though.

Which brings us back to Autocom. Today’s press release reads:

“For those that want to maintain all of the features of their Autocom but have the need to get off the bike and still talk to the pupil [which is virtually every instructor basic or advanced!] we do have the new Wire3A product, which is a Bluetooth dongle that basically replaces the extension lead. You will need a third party helmet or Bluetooth headset for the dongle to connect to, but it will provide all the performance and multi connectivity of the Autocom system with a wireless headset solution.

“We are looking at producing Bluetooth headsets in the future but these won’t be available until later this year. They will of course be available to upgrade your system as required.”

I had a quick look at the relevant bit of the autocom website (http://www.autocom.co.uk/AutoComRiderTraining.htm). The top-of-the-range stuff is much more competitively priced than it was a few years back, with a tankbag-mounted instructor kit now costing under £500, and I found that their basic noise-cancelling headset with a PTT button and Kenwood PMR radio can be picked up for £170 (the 2011 brochure says £150 so either there’s VAT missing from the brochure or the price has gone up).

Even at the higher figure, that’s actually a reasonably competitive price as it includes the headset, and something I’ll think about as I need a new radio as the jack socket has gone on my spare.

But ultimately I’d like to go wireless. So listed under Options and Upgrades, I can buy a “Wire3A – This allows you to connect any of the instructor systems to another Vendors Bluetooth headset”. That way I could link my Scala Rider headset to a PMR radio, giving the convenience of a helmet-mounted wirefree set up for me, with the range of a PMR radio.

Unfortunately, it’s listed at £99, which seems a bit steep for a bluetooth receiver wired on the end of an audio/microphone jack. So for the moment, that idea’s on hold.

I’ll be interested to see if they can keep the price of their own bluetooth headsets reasonable when they appear later this year. If they can keep the complete headset the right side of £100 then Autocom might finally make a sale to me after 15 years of trying!

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