DETROIT - The next generation of airbags is about to inflate the North American market for automotive plastics. About 50 percent of the vehicles produced in 2005 are expected to have side-impact systems, up from less than 10 percent this year.
'You're seeing large increases in a market that wasn't even there five years ago,' said Scott Upham, president of Providata Automotive, a consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.
At the same time, manufacturers are considering changes in the way they produce airbags, with composites potentially replacing some metal parts.
Plastics make up the majority of the bags; nylon and thermoplastic are the cushion and covering.
About 9 percent of the vehicles produced in North America this year will have some kind of side airbag built into seats and doors. Another 3 percent will have a 'curtain' unit designed to drop out of the headliner to protect the head and upper body in a rollover.
Ford Motor Co. will begin offering curtain airbags on sport-utilities this summer.
By 2005, about 50 percent of North American vehicles will have side airbags, and 26 percent will have curtain systems, said Upham, whose company has produced two studies projecting growth of the business.
In Europe, where carmakers adopted side-impact technology in door and seat systems before U.S. firms, about 23 percent of this year's vehicles will have side bags, up from 17 percent last year. It is expected to be 58 percent by 2005.
The curtain airbags are expected to climb from an estimated 3 percent of the market in 2000 to 33 percent in 2005.
'We're already seeing the application rate skyrocket in Europe,' Steven Fredin, director of restraint systems engineering for Autoliv North America of Auburn Hills, Mich., said during the recent Plastics in Automotive Safety Conference in Troy, Mich. 'It will expand with the U.S. marketplace coming on line.'
Asian carmakers are expected to put side airbags in about 19 percent of their vehicles this year and 45 percent by 2005, with curtain bags going into about 2 percent this year and 20 percent in 2005.