Every 13 minutes, someone in America dies in a traffic accident. Every ten seconds, someone is injured. Traffic accidents in the US alone claim about 41,000 lives and result in more than three million injuries each year. Given such gruesome statistics, is it really any wonder why safety sells? Matthew Beecham, author of a new study from ABOUT Automotive and just-auto.com reports.

Safety sells
According to J D Power & Associates’ 2002 Feature Contenting Report, Americans are again placing safety at the top of the list of new features required on their next vehicle. The top five features are ABS (wanted by 92% of respondents), remote keyless entry (89%), automatic transmission (88%), steering-wheel mounted controls (79%) and a CD player (69%). Among emerging new technologies, the top five most-wanted were: side impact airbags (79% wanted them); smart airbags with occupant sensing (69%); stability control (66%); auto-dimming rear view mirrors (63%) and daytime running lights (63%). Respondents also said how much extra they would pay for such technology, ranging from $75 for daytime lights to $300 for side airbags and stability control. Smart airbags were considered to be worth an extra $200.

A separate study commissioned by TRW Automotive confirmed how Americans perceive safety systems to be more important than they were five years ago. The consumer research group, Dohring Company, quizzed 500 Americans on what they thought about vehicle safety. Some 74% of those polled said vehicle safety features and options are more important to them than they were five years ago. And 76% of respondents reckoned that the availability of an active seatbelt retractor – such as that used in the Mercedes Benz PreSafe system – would be important in their next vehicle purchase decision, while 84% see advanced occupant sensing/smart airbag systems as a top priority.

Star wars
New car assessment programmes, such as EuroNCAP have contributed toward raising consumer awareness of passive safety technologies. In turn, their heightened awareness has led safety campaigners to put further pressure on legislators to raise standards.

Following the launch of its new Avensis model for Europe, Toyota has boldly claimed that every new European car it launches from now on will be designed to achieve the maximum five-star rating in the EuroNCAP safety tests. A tall order as few cars so far have achieved this. The first was the Renault Laguna, followed by the new Mégane and Vel Satis. Other claimants are the Mercedes-Benz C- and E-class and the Saab 9-3. Future safety developments from Toyota will include a radar-based pre-crash system which retracts the front seatbelts and boosts braking pressure. The new Avensis already features nine airbags as standard, a driver’s knee-airbag and a persistent seatbelt warning system that continues for 90 seconds if the belts are not fastened. In referring to the NCAP test, an auto executive told us: “To have a five-star vehicle on the government NCAP test, one of the best things you can do to get your numbers up is use a pretensioner. It is really a low-cost safety feature which gives a lot in return. It is the easiest way to jump one or two stars. This is certainly the motivation for carmakers.”

Another supplier said: “We are trying to give our customers value for money. And if it increases their star rating then that is definitely high value for them. And we are talking about very minor costs. By adding a few extra dollars, you can lift the image of the vehicle. So it is a good investment for the vehicle maker.”

Star players
On the global stage, Sweden’s Autoliv shares leadership positions in many areas with US-based TRW Automotive and Japan’s Takata. These three companies are estimated to hold over 80% of the global vehicle occupant restraint systems market, estimated to be worth $13 billion. Airbags account for just over 50% of the total market, seatbelts for almost 30% and electronics (mainly sensors) for nearly 20%. In 2003, Autoliv led the global vehicle occupant restraint systems market with a 33% share, followed by TRW and Takata, each with a 25% share and Breed with 8%. Other players include Delphi and local manufacturers, mainly located in Japan, South Korea and Brazil. The airbag industry is growing so rapidly that the overall picture of its suppliers is continuing to develop. Currently there are a large number of second- and third-tier manufacturers supplying the airbag industry. But there is still a question-mark over whether some of the smaller manufacturers of individual airbag components will be able to survive or perhaps be swallowed up by the larger systems suppliers, as Mats Ödman, spokesman for Autoliv, confirmed to us: “I think it will be difficult for them. They are facing a head wind due to two major trends. First, the technologies are becoming more and more integrated. Second, the industry is becoming globalised.”

Although most of today’s safety systems are passive, manufacturers predict a move to passive-active. For example, TRW’s innovative Active Control Retractor seatbelt technology – fitted on the Mercedes-Benz S-class – is the first actively controlled seatbelt system on the market. It works by combining the seatbelt’s traditional passive functions with active belt tightening, when the car’s sensors detect a potential impact. The belts are tightened a split second before impact, ensuring that the occupants are in the safest position. The controls are activated by sensor inputs from the brake and ESP (Electronic Stability Programme) systems and belt slack is reduced via a brushless DC motor, developed by TRW for just this purpose. Although it is likely that active seatbelt actuation will be available in 42-volt form in future, at present, the brushless motor technology allows a sufficiently powerful and compact motor to work with the car’s conventional 14-volt supply. Doug Campbell, vice president of TRW Automotive’s Occupant Safety Systems, told us: “This is the first true innovation of taking chassis inputs of braking and steering together and ensuring the seatbelt reacts to that, securing the occupants prior to a crash. We are seeing a lot of interest in it.”

Star products
During the last five years, the terms ‘advanced’, ‘adaptive’ and ‘smart’ airbag have often been used interchangeably. But what exactly makes these ‘advanced’ restraint systems ‘smart’? Advanced airbags feature two-stage inflators that vary force levels with crash severity and offer other systems that reduce the risks for out-of-position infants and smaller drivers. They effectively monitor and analyse such factors as the severity of the crash and pre-crash circumstances of both the vehicle and its occupants. This information is then fed into onboard microprocessors which optimise restraint performance. Crash severity sensors can signal airbag inflators to deploy the bag at a level appropriate to the crash. Sensors also detect whether or not there is a person sitting in the seat, as opposed to, say, a shopping bag. On detecting a person, the sensors can relay the occupant’s weight, location in the seat and whether or not they are strapped in. Based on all of this information, the bag’s deployment output can be tailored to optimise crash protection.

In May 2000, the US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (No. 208) was announced setting out the terms of an advanced airbag ruling requiring manufacturers to make airbags more effective for a broader weight-range of occupants than was previously required for vehicles sold in the US.

Beginning 1st September 2003 through August 2004, 35% of each manufacturer’s fleet sold in the US must be equipped with advanced airbag systems and the number increases to nearly 100% by September 2006. However, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has since reduced this figure to 20% following a petition from vehicle makers. The remainder of the phase-in schedule remains in place, with the percentage of cars equipped rising to 65% in September 2004 and then to 100% in 2005.

A number of suppliers, including Autoliv, Delphi, Siemens and TRW are all working to support the vehicle makers developing smart airbags. Delphi was the first to market with its FMVSS 208 compliant occupant-sensing device to control airbag deployment, introducing its PODS (Passive Occupant Detection System) with Jaguar in 2001. PODS measures the weight of the front passenger using a silicone bladder mounted under the seat cushion and connected to a pressure sensor. This allows the airbag control system to suppress airbag deployment if the seat is empty or is occupied by a small child or an infant in a child seat. The world’s largest supplier of auto parts and systems has positioned itself to take a more holistic view of the vehicle system. “The best way to protect occupants is to avoid the accident from happening altogether,” said Lon Offenbacher, business line executive for Delphi’s Interior and Safety Systems business. “Our Integrated Safety System (ISS) is a showcase of safety technologies that, when combined, can enhance the driver’s ability to avoid the accident.” As part of its ISS concept, Delphi’s second-generation PODS uses a fluid-filled, seat-based load sensor and, as a new feature, a seatbelt tension sensor. “Our Recognition System has been very well received by the market,” added Offenbacher who also chairs the automotive occupant restraint council, a US industry body. “We are advancing that technology by introducing some of our vision systems to try and identify not just if there is an occupant in the seat but where that occupant is positioned. Our vision systems are designed to provide a much finer analysis of where the occupant is and then tailor the airbag performance.”

TRW Automotive followed Delphi with electronic strain-gauge sensors embedded in the seat frames. This technology will appear in select North American 2004 model-year vehicles. Some other second-generation systems are being developed which not only senses the weight of the seat occupants but use miniature CCTV cameras coupled with clever image processing algorithms to determine the size of the seat occupant, and, equally important, his or her position in relation to the airbag. Siemens VDO expects to have its technology debut on a 2006 model year European vehicle and TRW Automotive says it already has three development contracts with manufacturers around the world for its vision-based system.

Expert Analysis

Vehicle occupant restraint systems: trends, companies and market forecasts to 2010

A seatbelt for every seat and airbags for the front seat occupants are the norm these days. While frontal and side airbag design has caught much of the limelight in terms of interior safety systems over the last decade, some vehicle makers are turning to safety equipment below the steering wheel in an effort to protect all parts of the occupant’s body. These moves follow the fact that, in the US alone, 40% of injuries caused by frontal crashes relate to injuries to the lower extremities. Of these injuries, as many as 60% are below the knee. Introduced in 1995, Autoliv claims its knee airbag protects the occupant’s knees and the hips as well as reducing the risk for submarining, ie sliding under the belt.

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