When Mercedes Benz showcased a concept car a few years ago bulging to the headliner with no less than 18 inflated airbags, small wonder that some people have a perception that an injury-proof car exists. While it’s a fallacy to believe we can escape injury following a serious car crash, passive safety devices to protect all parts of the body have come a long way in short period. Once the sole preserve of luxury cars, airbag modules are now concealed in the even smallest cars. The new Mini Cooper, for example, offers up to six airbags. Front and side airbags are fitted as standard for both front occupants while head airbags are optional. In the mid-range segment, the new Ford Mondeo comes equipped with a vast array of safety system devices, including a so-called Intelligent Protection System with adaptive dual-stage front air bags for the front-seat occupants, an advanced detection system that analyses frontal crash severity, driver position plus passenger-seat occupancy, plus front seat pretensioners and load limiters.

While safety systems have almost reached saturation point with regard to the number of airbags on board a car, electronics is allowing them to become more intelligent. The driver for long-term growth lies in developing adaptive restraint technology, including “smart” airbags, anticipatory crash sensors, rollover protection and low-level airbags to prevent knee injuries. TRW‘s new products and services for this year alone include: integrated vehicle safety systems; smart restraints; side-impact head curtain airbags; rollover airbag curtains; inflatable knee bolsters; inflatable seatbelts; dual stage inflators; integrated steering wheels; heated / cooled steering wheels; wood / leather steering wheels.

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Driver airbag components (excluding electronics)

source: Autoliv

The major recall of Firestone tyres this year, amongst other things, has increased attention on rollover accidents and should further speed the take-up of these new systems. Software engineers at all the major airbag producers are hard at work on the next generation of sensors to detect a rollover occurrence and activate the seatbelt pretensioners and long curtain airbags in a timely manner. We forecast that curtain airbags will feature on 50% of all new cars built in Europe by 2004, 40% in North America and 28% in Japan. In addition to curtain airbags to help shield vehicle occupants from injury in the event of a rollover incident, we expect to see meteoric growth of front seatbelt pretensioners in all three major car producing regions, reaching 100% fitment levels by 2010.

Global market for airbags and seatbelts

The $12bn global vehicle occupant restraint market has grown by an average rate of 12% annually since 1993. The driver for long term growth lies in developing adaptive restraint technology, including smart airbags, anticipatory crash sensors, rollover protection and low-level airbags to prevent knee injuries. Autoliv shares global leadership positions in many areas with TRW Automotive. These two companies are estimated to hold around 60% of the automotive safety product market, with the remainder being taken by competitors such as Takata, Delphi and Breed Technologies.

Some key issues facing the industry are:

  • The major recall of Firestone tyres this year has, amongst other things, increased attention on rollover accidents and should further speed the take-up of these new systems. In an effort to alleviate safety concerns about sport utility vehicles, in particular, some carmakers have taken the decision to install curtain airbags that will open and remain inflated for six or more seconds, covering the side windows. In addition to curtain airbags to help shield front and rear passengers from injury in the event of a rollover incident, we expect to see meteoric growth in the US of front seatbelt pretensioners with fitment levels of around 15% this year reaching 100% by 2008.
  • The rush to offer rollover protection, especially for the ever-popular SUVs, has triggered a raft of major contract awards to suppliers of sensors, which activate rollover curtain bags. Just recently, Autoliv announced it had won contract awards for its new rollover sensor to be installed in 1.2m North American vehicles starting with the 2004 model year. TRW tripled production of curtain airbags in 2000 to 1.2m units, with around 10m units projected in 2004.

  • BF Goodrich’s Smartbelt

    source: BF Goodrich
    Demand in the US will be spurred on from September 1, 2003, when 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. Although manufacturers say these advanced systems will increase the supply value, delivery prices will inevitably stabilise before tumbling as technology improves and volumes soar.
  • As the advanced airbag market gets set for growth, demand for initiators will rise exponentially. Given these bags will each require at least two inflators (instead of only one in existing systems) and each seatbelt pretensioner uses one initiator, there could be as many as 15 initiators in each car. In consequence, some manufacturers reckon the initiator market should grow even faster than the airbag market. The market for micro-generators is also poised for growth.
  • On the seatbelt side, growth products will centre on energy management devices controlling the occupant’s forward movement in the event of a crash.
  • The global average supply value for automotive safety products per vehicle has risen 70% over the last seven years to around $230 per car today. With no signs of abatement, occupant restraint suppliers expect year on year growth of around 5% as carmakers fit increasing amounts of side protection as standard equipment and turn their attention to new applications, such as inflatable seatbelts. Although the prospects look good for the major suppliers, the rapid unit growth will be partly offset by strong pricing pressure.
  • As fitment levels of frontal airbags increases, this is likely to be reinforced by strong growth in the side impact market, at least over the next five years. Demand for side airbags will stabilise in the second half of this decade as carmakers substitute for curtain airbags.
  • As manufacturers ponder the massive growth prospects in side- and curtain-airbags, some are considering changes in the way in which they produce airbags, with composites replacing some metal parts.
  • Although carmakers are gradually sourcing increasing amounts of safety equipment from one tier-one source, suppliers still perceive some carmakers as cherry picking; selecting an occupant sensing system from one supplier, an airbag controller from another and a side airbag from a third supplier. Despite these trends in supply, some carmakers are unlikely to relinquish control of safety systems integration to a tier-one supplier. Indeed, as legislation becomes more complex, some manufacturers believe this will postpone the day when the carmaker outsources the complete passive safety system to a supplier.
  • Among the lower tiers, there is 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. The eventual structure of the industry will depend upon the best economies of scale.
  • In Europe, the next challenge for carmakers, currently being considered by the European Commission, is a pedestrian-friendly car equipped with external airbags. In the US, where fewer pedestrians are hit by cars, it’s unlikely to become an issue for debate.

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Autoliv’s head-thorax bag

Bosch’s airbag control unit with integrated rollover function

source: Autoliv

source: Robert Bosch

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