European customers are demanding airbags even though politicians are not. Unlike the US market, Europe has no laws mandating the use of airbags. But by next year, 95 percent of all cars produced in Europe will have at least one airbag as standard equipment, according to DRI/McGraw-Hill. In the US, 99.2 percent had an airbag last year. The market is demanding side airbags as well, even in small city cars. Indeed, Europe is perceived to be the leader in side airbag technology and cutting-edge future technology like inflatable curtains and smart bags that adapt inflation to match the size and shape of the occupant. In Europe, airbags are more or less a market requirement from customers, said Holger Thum, director of safety for ACEA, the manufacturers3/8 association. Customers feel safer having airbags for protection against injuries. If you can offer a car with an airbag, it's become a selling point. Airbags are mandated by the US occupant crash protection standard FMVSS 208. By September 1997, cars must have driver and passenger airbags. Trucks must have them one year later. Proposed European crash standards for 1998 will not require airbags. However, airbags may help cars meet the crash test requirements. This is especially true for side airbags because of the tough new side-impact standard already approved by the European Parliament for 1998 new models. Similar legislation for a 30-degree offset frontal impact is to be debated this fall. Today in Europe, makers only have to certify that a dummy's head is within a mandated distance from the wheel or dashboard. Makers can pass with a good steering wheel one with soft rim and padding and seat belts coupled with pretensioners, said Thum. An airbag, he said, improves the safety level about 20 percent. Makers are using them to boost vehicle safety levels above the minimum. That extra margin of safety has become a marketing tool. Market drivenAdam Opel AG, the General Motors subsidiary, is credited in Germany with being the first volume maker to equip its entire range with dual airbags. Opel began in late 1994 for 1995 models. To date, Opel has sold 1.25 million cars equipped with dual airbags. Market research shows that safety features, as part of the standard equipment on cars, are able to build image for a car manufacturer, a spokesman said. Opel is considered the manufacturer that has democratized airbags and other safety features in the volume car market. We believe we have achieved a better image than other carmakers. Opel holds up as evidence its latest image survey done by an outside German firm. The survey asked which European makes are dual airbag providers. Of those questioned, 45 percent said Mercedes-Benz and 34 percent said Opel. While Opels have dual airbags in Germany, they don't have them in all markets. The British Vauxhall division only offers driver airbags as standard. Meanwhile, Volkswagen plans to move ahead of the other volume makers this autumn with standard side airbags in the new Passat. The Passat will premier at the Paris auto show in October. Already, the Golf and its variants, including Vento/Jetta are offering side airbags as a DM650 million ($442.1 million) option in Germany. We did it to be more competitive, to have higher automotive safety. Side airbags will be state-of-the-art, said a VW Group spokesman.The southern difference A Renault spokesman in Paris said Germany, Switzerland and Austria are the top markets for airbags. Not every market demands them. For example, Fiat, like many makes, doesn't even offer airbags as options on some vehicles in markets like Spain. Joachim Hirsch, deputy managing director of TRW's European occupant restraint division based in Germany, said southern countries are behind in airbag installation. Historically, there has been higher seat belt use in Europe. They were used as the first offensive, Hirsch said. These same markets were the laggards in installing catalytic converters, which were required in 1993, and still lag behind in offering the more efficient direct diesel fuel injection systems. Such technical options are desirable, but expensive. Renault's use of airbags underlines southern market reluctance. Neither airbag is standard on Twingo in France, Renault's largest market. Even on the Megane range Renault's newest a driver airbag is only standard on the pricier RXE or Coupe. The Renault Espace was given standard dual airbags in a marketing decision, to keep the aging minivan competitive with the newer Ford Galaxy and VW Sharan. Those sister vehicles had dual bags from the start of production last year. For Mercedes-Benz, airbags are a symbol of dedication to safety. Mercedes offers dual front airbags in all its models in all markets and adds side airbags in the E class, SL and S class. BMW, on the other hand, has standard dual airbags in Europe on only the 5, 7 and 8 series. The 3-series passenger bag is only standard in Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg. Ditto Saab. In the US, dual bags are standard. In Europe, the driver bag is standard in Sweden, Germany, France, Italy and the UK. In each market, the decision is the importer's. In Sweden, a Saab spokesman said that buyers are extremely safety conscious, but they often use rear-facing child seats upfront so they don't want airbags on the passenger side. There's also a perceived issue of need. The distance between the passenger and the dashboard is great, said a spokesman. Whether an airbag would be truly effective, is questionable. Seat belts are seen as the basic safety feature for not being injured in a crash, he said.
Different technologies The size of the airbag differs between Europe and the US.Mercedes uses what is called the US or full-sized bag with a capacity of 65 liters for the driver bag and 170 liters for the passenger. Ford Motor Co. in Europe uses the Euro-bag on the driver side, 30 liters in size. The small bag primarily shields the head. Passengers get a 60-liter bag. When we launched it on the Mondeo, we felt it was unnecessary to have a larger bag. It was as efficient in terms of safety as a full-sized one but easier to store, said a Ford spokesman. With almost 100 percent use of seat belts in Europe, the smaller bag has less dramatic inflation but fulfills the same purpose. The different approaches to airbags are a result of different attitudes toward seat belts. In the US, many people don't use their belts, and airbags are designed to protect an unbelted occupant. In Europe, airbags are designed to protect someone wearing a seat belt. Mercedes, for example, sets the airbag to inflate in Europe in a 29 kph crash. In the US it goes off at 19 kph if a sensor determines that the belt is not latched, and 29 kph if it is latched. Many makers use the smaller European airbags because a belted passenger requires less protection. Mercedes, however, uses a larger bag in all markets. We are convinced that the full-sized airbag offers more protection and also in combination with a safety belt, said Luigi Brambella, a Mercedes safety engineer. Brambella says Mercedes was the first European maker to offer airbags, beginning in 1979, two years before it offered them in the US. Airbags have been given improved electronics and better fabrics since then, but the principle is unchanged, said Brambella. Meanwhile, the cost has fallen to DM500 ($340 million), about half the 1980 price, for Mercedes. The price is low when you consider mounting the airbag costs more than DM500, said Brambella.
Side airbags Side airbag installations will rise from 1.0 percent last year to 26.4 percent by 2001, according to DRI. TRW's Hirsch says higher speeds and the potential for more severe injuries makes Europeans more enthusiastic. TRW's only customer today for side airbags is BMW. Next year Fiat, Ford and Mercedes-Benz will be added. By 2000 TRW in Europe forecasts its worldwide sales of side airbags will be 3-5 million units. Autoliv AB, the Swedish airbag maker, pioneered the side airbag that debuted in the Volvo 850 in 1994. Now it is expanding European capacity to meet demand. Autoliv is opening a new plant in the UK near its current factory in Congleton. The Congleton factory was expanded several times. Autoliv said it has more than 40 contracts for future shipments of side airbags to 14 different makers. It wouldn't spell out how many are European, but said its next system will premiere on a BMW next year. Nissan said all of its volume models in Europe will have side airbags by the end of 1998. The first model will be the Maxima QX flagship beginning in 1997. Mitsubishi Motors Sales Europe said side airbags will be an option beginning in 1997 also.