WASHINGTON - Because airbag suppliers oversold federal regulators on what advanced technology can do, automa kers face new rules that can't be met without endangering children and small women, some carmakers' safety experts say.
'Airbag suppliers have been a thorn in our side on this,' said Robert Lange, director of safety engineering for General Motors.
Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said, 'Just because you physically have this little hardware sitting in a display case doesn't make it work' in motor vehicles.
Lange and Wilber contended that overblown promises by suppliers are one reason the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seems intent on reviving a crash test that automakers say would force them to reinstall more p owerful airbags.
They declined to name suppliers. They also put some blame on safety advocacy groups for pressing for the more aggressive test.
Although automaker representatives don't know what NHTSA will decide, they are concer ned that the agency again will require that airbags provide ample protection for unbelted, mid-sized adult men when vehicles hit a solid barrier at 30 mph.
Lange said such a rule would be 'internally inconsistent.' He and other automaker safety engineers said that even with new technologies, the more powerful airbags required to satisfy the test would endanger children and small women.
The carmakers' safety experts said more technology ultimately may be developed to provide optimal protection for all kinds of passengers in all kinds of crashes but said automakers must make design decisions soon for the vehicles that must comply with expected new airbag rules.
A preliminary version of the new rules was unveiled in September 1998. A revised version is expected soon. A final version is to be adopted by next March, for implementation beginning in the 2003 model year.
The carmakers' safety experts briefed repo rters about their concerns on Wednesday, Oct. 27. NHTSA, in something of a pre-emptive strike, held a briefing the day before.
Agency officials, insisting that they not be named, said their new studies show airbags with reduced de ployment force, installed since the beginning of the 1998 model year, are a success. The number of people killed by deployments has dropped sharply.
But they said they also found automakers could meet the 30-mph test without havin g to increase airbag power.
George Kirchoff, president of the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council, which represents the airbag industry, said his organization did tell NHTSA it believes a full-vehicle crash test is needed but d id not say at what speed.
Otherwise he declined to respond to the criticism from automakers.
David Ladd, spokesman for Siemens Automotive, said his company and others will be delivering systems over the next two years that accura tely will sense the weight and position of occupants.
'Promises will be kept,' he said. Nevertheless, Ladd cautioned that the anticipated further improvements in airbag systems should not be used as an argument for returning to the unbelted 30-mph barrier crash test.
From Automotive News. Copyright 1999 Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.