air bag
nothing Air bags and kids
Even though the air-bag problem can be solved by simply strapping children safely in the back seat, the federal government and industry are bent on a technological fix -- air bag that can decide when (and possibly how) they should deploy. "What the auto industry has to do is to develop smart air bags, and that's not hard to do," says Steven Batterman, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
This prototype "smart air bag" creates a weak electric field.

Antennae located under fabric or in
the seat cushion measure the field
and instantly
update the air-bag controller about
the size and
position of the occupant.
Illustration source: NEC

passenger sensing system diagram
Despite the warnings about possible hazards of air bags, and despite the recent deaths, the innovation has been highly successful. More than 1500 lives have been saved, and that number is rising rapidly as a higher percentage of cars now carry air bags. But there's still room for improvement, Batterman says. Every product that's used so widely needs "feedback from the field and fine-tuning," and air bags are no different.

When air bags were first conceived, back in the '60s and '70s, nobody thought about giving them brains. Back then, the problem was brawn -- making them strong enough to restrain the average (unbelted) male, adult driver who was hurtling toward the windshield in a 60 mph collision.

What are the options?
Several things have changed. Seat belt use is much more common, and technology is cheaper and more capable. That combination has brought a variety of proposed techno-fixes to the air bag hazard:

A scale in the seat can weigh the occupant, directing the air bag to deploy only if the rider is above a certain weight. But this system cannot distinguish a properly belted child from an unrestrained one.

A sensor on the seat reads a tag affixed to a infant safety seat. If such a seat is in front, the bag is deactivated. However, this system would not help an out-of-position (unrestrained) adult.

An ultrasound unit on the dashboard produces high-frequency sounds and reads the echo to determine who or what is in the passenger seat.

An electrical field system uses antennas in the car seat to create a high-frequency but weak electrical field. NEC Automotive Electronics is showing such a system to auto makers, says vice-president Phil Rittmueller. The advantage of this system is that it not only provides real-time analysis of the occupant's position, but it also can register mass, thus determining, at least theoretically, whether the occupant would actually be restrained by the seat belt.

The smart sensors are not likely to be available before the 1999 or 2000 model years, says Rittmueller, depending on how rapidly the federal government decides on its rules.

Finally, some newer cars are featuring side air bags to protect heads from deadly side impacts.

You can protect your family today.

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