Airbags and seat belts -- mature products for suppliers -- are getting a fresh look from automakers that are trying to secure five-star crash ratings for small cars.
For example, automakers are equipping small cars with knee bolsters and even "pre-pre-tensioners" for seat belts to compensate for the vehicles' smaller "crush zones," says Steve Fredin, 50, president of Autoliv Americas.
Here are highlights of Fredin's interview with Special Correspondent David Sedgwick.
Q: What products are you developing to improve passive safety?
A: We've done some work with inflatable seat belts, which enhance rear-seat safety. We are getting more inquiries now that Ford is using inflatable seat belts [produced by Key Safety Systems] on high-volume vehicles.
There is also more interest in airbags, now that vehicles are getting smaller. Smaller vehicles have to be stiffer to have the proper crashworthiness.
If the vehicle is stiffer, it can't absorb as much of the impact, right? That would put the passengers at risk.
When you have stiffer vehicles, you have to "couple" the occupant to the car more quickly. You can't allow the occupant to be in free motion or you'll have very serious injuries. So you have to pre-tension the seat belt, and you can also add knee airbags. So you are pinning the occupant to his seat. It's like a Formula One race car. The driver can survive a crash with a very high g-load if you couple him to the car.
Can you describe how that works?
A conventional pre-tensioner is a one-trick pony. It's like an airbag; it's activated by a pyrotechnic device.
So once the pre-tensioner has been activated, you have to replace it. How does a pre-pre-tensioner work?
In many luxury cars today, you have a pre-pre-tensioner that is activated by collision warning devices. They use an electric motor to pull in the seat belt and reposition the occupant so he is not out of position.
And it's reversible, so you don't have to replace it. It can also vibrate to warn the driver that he's going too fast into a corner. We're getting more and more requests for this product as an optional feature.
Is there any demand in North America for pedestrian protection systems?
In the U.S, we've seen more customers ask about research studies. It's targeted toward cars that will be exported to Europe, but not the U.S. market in general. Customers are looking at export versions of some cars.
Now that North American production is recovering, can Autoliv meet rising demand?
In general, we are in fairly good shape. Coming out of the tsunami and the flooding in Thailand, there have been constraints on textiles, especially nylon for airbags. Those suppliers have been adding capacity over the last six to 12 months.