Maria Kremer's ideal vehicle has every safety system in existence.
Her faith in technology is hardly surprising considering she is the program manager for safety electronics and restraint systems at Siemens Automotive Corp. in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Kremer, 37, spent five years at Kelsey-Hayes designing antilock brake systems, and before that she worked at General Motors after earning her engineering degree from Kettering University, formerly called General Motors Institute.
She spoke with Automotive News Staff Reporter Aaron Robinson recently about customer perceptions about safety features and other issues. Edited excerpts follow:
With all the advancements in safety, people have this perception of an injury-proof car. Do you think an injury-proof car is possible?
Honestly, no. That's a good goal, and we work for that every day. I just don't think perfection is achievable. I don't know if you'll ever have a perfect solution, because there's an infinite number of situations. I think the goal is to solve the biggest problems that you can.
What does the added use of electronic features in safety systems mean to the buyer?
A lot of this will be transparent. The buyer may not even know that the systems are in there or how extensive they are. They're not going to go and order a position-sensing system.
Likely, the price will go up on the vehicle, but hopefully, the safety level will also go up accordingly.
Is it a challenge to get the buyer to pay extra for the safety systems?
With ABS, when they first introduced it, people would pay for that as an option, and now it's just considered a standard. They just expect it to be on their vehicle. With (tomorrow's) safety systems, you may not even get that optional point. They're just going to expect these smart airbag systems to be on their vehicle.
Most of today's safety systems are passive. Do you see the future being fully passive, or will there always be an active safety element?
You'll always have the seat belt. I think the direction now through legislation and current development is to improve the passive systems so that the vehicle is safe without the customer having to activate a system or push a button.
What's the biggest challenge in implementing passive safety systems?
Right now, there's no one system that can cover every single situation that the customer's going to put that car into. You don't know whether they will buckle themselves in or buckle the kids. The kids can be jumping on the seats or hanging over the back (of a seat). So there are all these different situations that you can get into and it's impossible to predict every single one. That's probably our biggest challenge right now. That's why we try to do a lot of live testing, rather than just testing with the dummies.
Are you using real people in your safety testing?
For these particular systems (that use sensors to determine the occupant's position by measuring weight pressure at various points on the seat), we go out to (local malls), theaters and elementary schools with the seats and take data. We have them sit in the seats in different positions. Then we can take the readings and take all that data back and analyze it.
It's important, especially with the kids, because when you drive around, you see these kids are just all over the seats, which is sad, but it's also reality. If you take the 6-year-old dummy and you set him in the seat and you can move his arm or his leg or change his position and take a reading, and that gives you a data point. But if you have a kid crawling around on the seat or leaning over the back of it and kneeling or just jumping around, you get a whole different data set.
Do you sometimes feel you're swimming against human nature?
I think that's why there's a big push for the passive systems, because you can't control what everybody's going to do with their car. We have a group in Regensburg (Germany) working on a 3-D camera system designed to detect the position of the occupant. If the kid or medium-sized adult is leaning up on the dashboard, you don't necessarily want the full dual-stage bag. You might want one stage or you might want no bag at all. A lot of that work still has to be done to determine the right restraint system for any given situation.
What is more important to your customers: price or performance?
For the near future, I think it's going to be performance. Once everybody is able to produce the high-performance system, then it'll become price-driven.
Is there a way to extend the time before newly developed safety features become a commodity?
The only way I could see it is if you continually increase the performance and offer new performance that the older system didn't have.
How long will it take to develop and put into production an electronic sensing system that feeds the data controller information on the occupant's size, weight and position to the airbag?
The next-generation product is the weight classification seat, which is based on the concept that you want to know the size of the occupant in the seat. Our system uses strain-gauge technology, which has been used forever on truck scales. What we had to do was make it work in an automotive environment. That's been in development for probably three years or so.
With today's mandate to create products more quickly, how is day-to-day work affected?
To do everything faster means that we have to be developing products before they're legislated and before a customer sources them. We have to look at a market and we have to make our assessment of where the market is going and try to develop our products so that they are ready when the market is ready.
Obviously, the earlier the sourcing the better, but we try to be real careful about what we say we can do. We won't say that we can put a product out there before it's ready.
How far away is it until a completely integrated occupant-restraint system is developed?
Right now your occupant-sensing system is from one supplier, your airbag controller is from a second supplier, your side airbag might be from a third supplier. So the OEMs still seem to be sourcing these things as individual components and not sourcing an entire occupant-restraint system.
There's a lot of work going on to try to define a standardized sensor bus or firing bus, and Siemens has been very much involved in that. You're aware of the new cooperation we're going to have with Bosch and Temic in trying to standardize a vehicle bus for restraint systems. It'll allow the OEMs to source their components from whatever supplier they want without having to worry: 'Is it going to be compatible if I have Supplier A giving me this component and Supplier B giving me the other component?'