Future automotive safety engineering could be conducted at the Pentagon.
A passion for technical minutiae, a burning desire to get new systems deployed before the adversary, and an iron stomach for escalating costs are qualities that will be vital for those charged with making tomorrow's vehicles safer.
That's because the industry has committed itself to a formidable challenge: reduce vehicle-related death and injury at the same time that the population of vehicles and the number of miles they drive are rising globally.
A completely injury-proof vehicle may never be possible, say engineers and executives. But the next big offensive in auto safety will launch soon and could take the automobile closer to that dream than any other form of motorized transport.
It will result in cars that can automatically read traffic and avoid collisions, airbags that automatically recognize and adapt to their owners' varying physiologies, and communication devices that automatically summon emergency services when all else has failed.
It is an epoch that will also have costs. Some in the industry worry that the apparent willingness among consumers to pay for the newest safety systems could be overstretched by the industry's ability to come up with new technologies.
'We're really pushing the affordability envelope,' says a technology planner for a major airbag system supplier. 'We're going to run into a wall pretty soon.'
That fact weighs heavily on new-product development managers. They face ever-tightening budgets that spawn blood battles over pennies. New airbag systems that protect knees and feet, anti-collision technologies such as distance-monitoring cruise control, and other drive-by-wire gadgets threaten to break the bank while bogging down a new vehicle's development schedule.
'More isn't always better,' says Susan Cischke, DaimlerChrysler senior vice president for regulatory affairs and passenger-car operations.
'We're trying to find the right balance between adding real value to the customer, the regulatory requirements, and trying to ensure that we've got good reliability and good system integration.'
Deluge of choices
An automaker pondering which safety devices to include in a new vehicle program is deluged with choices. Airbags are a good example.
Consider the impressive armory of airbag systems offered by Autoliv Inc., which are cataloged on the company's Web site, www.autoliv.com.
Aside from the de riguer front-impact airbags, program purchasers can opt for Autoliv's side-impact airbag, which protects both the head and thorax. (A more economical model covers just the thorax.) The company also makes two types of side window airbags, including an 'inflatable tubular structure.' Another type airbag springs from the lower instrument panel to protect the knees, while a gas-filled 'inflatable carpet' purports to prevent feet from twisting upward at bone-crushing angles during an impact. Autoliv is also working on an airbag sewn into the seat belt that would reduce chest and shoulder injuries caused by straining against the webbing.
'I never thought I would say that you can have too many airbags in the car, but I think we're approaching that point,' observes Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The agency collects vehicle safety and loss data for use by insurance companies.
'It's hard to believe an airbag in the foot well is any better than a piece of padding,' he says.
'We need to make sure the industry is not developing safety gimmicks that can be advertised but don't really offer increased protection.'
Equipping a car with federally mandated driver and passenger frontal airbag modules (including the bag, inflator and housing) fattened the manufacturing cost of a 1999 model-year vehicle by about $100, says Scott Upham, president of Providata Inc., a consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. Add another $20 to $40 for the black box containing the acceleration sensor and microprocessor, says Upham, who has worked in the safety system operations of both TRW Inc. and Takata Inc.
The sum may seem piddling, but it is a huge outlay when multiplied by the production run. Embellish the vehicle's airbag package and the costs quickly rise.
Side-impact airbag modules for the front occupants cost their makers another $20 per door. Side airbag modules for the rear passengers: $40 per door. An inflatable window curtain: $30 per side. Airbags for the front occupant's knees and feet - two ideas now being heavily touted by airbag suppliers - are another $80.
A full complement of the latest airbag designs can thus run the automaker more than $350 in module piece costs alone, or somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of the cost of the vehicle's engine. The number doesn't include the price of additional electronics and extra costs for installation labor and warranty replacement.
Then there are the costs of engineering worker-hours to package, tune, and test the systems so that they work reliably. Writing the control algorithms that determine when each airbag should fire requires thousands of hours of computer analysis and live testing with sleds and dummies.
The same goes for other next-generation passive safety systems being developed to avoid collisions. An electronic brake system that can anticipate a crash and automatically slow the vehicle requires a complete re-engineering of the vehicle's brakes. It also requires moon-shot levels of reliability over the life of the vehicle, says Terrence Connolly, executive director of General Motors' safety center.
'We certainly approach such systems cautiously,' he says. 'The prime road block is not that we have to re-engineer a system, but rather that we have to re-engineer a system that's going to live in the customer's hand for 150,000 miles and 12 years of life and perform reliably.'
Considering the expense, it should be easy to walk away from 'gimmicks' such as Autoliv's. But safety is a hot button, and consumers want it.
'There's no doubt that safety's become more of a competitive-marketing, high-awareness thing,' says GM's Connolly. 'It has always been important to customers, but right now they can differentiate vehicles based on different safety equipment more so than they've been able to in the past.'
An airbag can be more tantalizing to a prospective buyer than thicker door beams or foam crash padding, which may accomplish the same result. 'A lot of times a system is installed not only to protect the occupant, but also to keep up with the Joneses' - or such companies as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, which typically have the systems first, Upham says.
Besides, the industry really has no choice but to keep investing in better safety systems, says Albert Bernat, group vice president of engineering with Takata Inc. in Auburn Hills, Mich.
'There's still a significant number of people who are sustaining serious injury or death,' says Bernat, who is chairman of the Inflatable Restraints Committee of the industry's Automotive Occupant Restraint Council.
Current federal safety standards are written to best protect 180-pound males, Bernat points out.
'What about the rest of the population?' he asks. 'What about small-stature females? In some ways, we've just begun to develop systems that meet all of the public's needs.'
Aaron Robinson is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Detroit