WASHINGTON - A top federal safety regulator brushed aside automaker worries that some advanced airbag technology is pie in the sky.
He predicted new devices will be perfected to improve protection for the full range of automotive occupants.
'It doesn't even start until model year 2003. So there is plenty of time for further development,' said Robert Shelton, executive director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
He referred to the planned effective date of proposed rules on advanced airbags. Last week, the agency unveiled a long series of revisions to the proposal. A final version is scheduled to be adopted by March 1, 2000, and to begin taking effect in 2002.
Shelton said the rules contain so much flexibility that automakers are sure to find some combination of technologies to meet the requirements.
Conventional airbags - which were designed to protect adult males who don't use seat belts - can cause serious injury to small women and children.
To correct this safety hazard, automakers and regulators agreed to create a new generation of 'smart' airbags. Equipped with sophisticated sensors and multistage inflators, smart airbags can protect occupants in a variety of crash conditions.
Automakers and regulators disagree over details of the rules, which would require carmakers to conduct dozens of tests on each vehicle using a whole family of crash dummies.
But the auto industry did win some concessions from the regulators:
Simplified test procedures that automakers must use to make sure airbags won't hurt children in the front passenger seat.
Limited number of baby seats that automakers must test to make sure airbags won't injure infants. Under the new rule, the agency will issue a list of 24 approved baby seats that automakers must test. The old rule required automakers to test all baby seats produced up to 10 years before the vehicle is launched.
In a partial victory for automakers, NHTSA also said it would consider allowing frontal crash tests at 25 mph to determine if a vehicle's restraint systems adequately protect unbelted medium-sized adults.
The agency had advocated reviving a 30-mph crash test, but automakers insisted that the higher speed would force them to reinstall more powerful airbags. They said more potent bags would endanger children and small women and defeat the main purpose of the new rules - more protection with less risk.
At an Oct. 27 hearing, several top automotive safety engineers argued that the agency has heard overly optimistic forecasts from airbag suppliers about what technology can do.
In other rule revisions, NHTSA said it may raise test-crash speeds for belted occupants from 30 to 35 mph. Agency officials said that would lead to better seat belts. But others saw the move in a political context.
Toughening the test for belted occupants could counter near-certain criticism from safety groups if the agency allows a slower speed for the unbelted test.
'It sells pretty good (to the public) if you say, `Seventy percent of you are belted,' ' said Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Overall, Wilber said, the revisions show NHTSA is at least trying to make the new rules workable.
In one case, however, the agency effectively acknowledged that advanced technology isn't perfect. NHTSA said it may allow automakers to use real women and children in some tests of airbag suppression equipment. That's because sensing devices aren't yet able to treat 'dummy bottoms' as if they were 'people bottoms,' Shelton said. In the tests, vehicles would not be moving and would not crash.
In a related development, raising further doubts about advanced airbag technology's reliability, NHTSA announced last week that Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. is recalling 6,300 BabySmart child seats, sold with new cars in 1997-99 model years. If not placed in a precise position on the passenger seat, the child seat may not deactivate the passenger-side airbag.
The BabySmart seat was developed in conjunction with Siemens AG. Mercedes-Benz spokesman Jim Resnick said revised child seats will have repositioned transponders so that they are better able to send signals to an antenna in the passenger seat back.