GM Introduces World’s First Front-Center Airbag

New system should reduce side-impact crash deaths, injuries.

by on Sep.29, 2011

Crash dummies demonstrte General Motors' new front-center air bag during a side impact collision .

General Motors will introduce the world’s first front-center airbag, a technology the maker claims can help reduce injuries and fatalities in side-impact crashes.

There was a time when manufacturers played a numbers game with cupholders, but these days, it seems, they’re focused on a more significant bit of math: how many airbags they can squeeze into a vehicle.

While this may be a bit of one-upsmanship, it clearly does deliver benefits that go beyond the ability to have two cups of coffee readily at hand at any moment.  A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for example, lists the expanded use of airbags as one of the reasons why the number of deaths in crashes involving a car and a SUV have dropped by as much as two-thirds over the last decade.  (For more on that story, Click Here.)

“The front center airbag has real potential to save lives in side crashes,” said Adrian Lund, president of the insurance Institute for Highway Safety, during a joint news conference with General Motors.

The new GM airbag system is hidden inside the driver’s seat until called into action.  When triggered, the tube-shaped device positions itself in the center of the vehicle.

The new front-center airbags are designed to provide a cushion in far-side crashes – where the impact occurs on the opposite side from where the occupant is sitting.  They can also prevent heads from literally bouncing off one another when there are two passengers up front.

Such side impact crashes – where a vehicle doesn’t roll over — are responsible for 11% of fatalities among motorists wearing seatbelts, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The new front-center airbags are the result of a three-year collaboration between GM and the supplier Takata.  They’ll become standard equipment on a number of the maker’s new models, including the Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GM Acadia, starting in the 2013 model-year.  More GM products will likely follow.

“While no restraint technology can address all body regions or all potential injuries, the front center air bag is designed to work with the other air bags and safety belts in the vehicles to collectively deliver an even more comprehensive occupant restraint system,” said Gay Kent, GM executive director of Vehicle Safety and Crashworthiness.

The industry has come a long way in reversing its early opposition to airbags.  So-called passive restraints become mandatory for the 1989 model-year, but initially, some manufacturers, including GM, tried to go with other systems, such as automatic seatbelts – with generally poor results.  By the mid-1990s, airbags were all but ubiquitous, though the industry was then forced to come up with “smarter” systems less likely to cause inadvertent injuries and deaths when deployed in otherwise survivable collisions.

In more recent times, makers have been finding more and more ways – and places – to use the technology.

Ford’s new Explorer offers optional seatbelt-mounted airbags for the second row, claiming the technology can reduce injuries to both young children and senior citizens.  Toyota, meanwhile, will introduce the first rear-mounted airbag system in its new Scion iQ microcar to help reduce injuries and fatalities in back-end collisions.

Side-impact and roof-mounted airbags, as well as bags designed for rollover accidents, have become almost ubiquitous, particularly in light trucks.  And some models use knee-bolster airbags to prevent a driver or front passenger from “submarining” under their seatbelts in a frontal impact.

Vehicles with six, eight, even 10 airbags are anything but the exception today and the new GM front-center airbag shows that still other possible uses of the life-saving technology may follow.


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