New enhanced air bags are creeping into midrange cars

Click here to enlarge image

Oct. 23, 2003 – August’s court decision scuttling a U.S. rule on tire monitors left sensor makers wondering what sort of MEMS pressure sensor market they’ll be facing. While their fate remains murky, companies that specialize in MEMS-based accelerometers and gyros may see demand grow through another auto-safety feature: enhanced air bags.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is currently conducting rollover tests under mandate from the 2000 TREAD Act (PDF, 122 kb). The results could bring additional safety legislation for rollover detection and stability control systems that use MEMS accelerometers and gyros.

Click here to enlarge image

“They’re conducting tests and collecting data to decide whether or not to mandate their use,” said Marlene Bourne, a senior MEMS analyst at In-Stat/MDR. “I expect that they’re going to (pursue legislation),” she said. “Given the preliminary data, I don’t expect that they couldn’t.”

Auto industry representatives say that won’t be necessary. “Automakers can implement new safety technologies much more quickly than a NHTSA regulation,” said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Like other features, he said, various forms of rollover detection and prevention, “will become more prevalent as people see how useful it is.” The new air bags run the gamut from side impact air bags that inflate next to a passenger to curtain air bags that roll down along the side windows.

Although new technologies usually appear first in top-of-the-line vehicles, the new air bags are already available in some midrange options. The $17,000 Mini Cooper, for example, comes equipped with six air bags as standard equipment: two in the front, two on the sides of each front seat, and a pair of tubular air bags that run the length of the car and protect passengers’ heads in the event of a collision.

Granted, the minuscule Cooper is something of a special case. However, more mainstream options like the $13,000 Saturn Ion also include sophisticated air bags. The Ion comes with dual-stage driver and front passenger air bags that sense the severity of a crash and adjust the air bag’s force. The goal is to minimize the risk of injury from the air bag itself. Curtain air bags that protect the head and neck of front and rear seat occupants are also available as an option.

Making significant headway in mainstream vehicles could be just what the auto industry needs to head off new air bag legislation. NHTSA’s rulings about tire pressure monitoring under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act have turned into a headache for both regulators and the auto industry.

The technology requirements and a three-year phase-in period that NHTSA set were wiped out in early August by an appeals court ruling. NHTSA must now go back and issue a new set of rules. Although they are likely to require a performance threshold that only MEMS-based sensors can meet, it is unclear what sort of timetable the agency will demand.

As far as the sensor makers are concerned, however, advanced air bag legislation would likely be easier to handle. “In terms of the sensor and in terms of the concept of air bags,” Bourne said, “it’s mature.” She said the greater challenge would be for the companies that integrate those sensors into complete safety systems, rather than for the sensor makers.

John McGowan, senior director of marketing for Infineon Technologies North America Corp., said his company is keeping an eye on such opportunities. Infineon recently bought MEMS sensor developer SensoNor ASA, largely for its tire pressure lineup.

However, McGowan said, the potential of SensoNor’s accelerometer lineup is not lost on its new parent. If legislation does not ultimately impact the North American accelerometer market, analysts say it would be likely that overseas automakers would provide more of the new safety features first.

As far as enhanced air bags in midrange cars are concerned, Bourne said, “You’ll find that the first sub-$20,000 cars are probably German.”


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.