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Road safety not just a lot of hot airbags.

Motor industry suppliers expect to sell comfortably more than pounds 4 billion of airbags this year.

But although demand has grown rapidly since their introduction in the late 1980s, manufacturers have become increasingly twitchy about the operation of the equipment.

The USA's army of ambulance-chasing lawyers means motorists whose lives are saved by airbags are now more likely to sue because they were bruised as the device inflated, than compose a letter of thanks to its designer.

And given the bizarre size of settlements from American juries in such cases, there has been increasing pressure to produce new "smart" airbags.

The idea is that bonnet-mounted radar sensors would detect a crash moments before it happened, by monitoring the distance between nearby vehicles and their speed, and pass the information to the airbag.

Inflation would start a nano-second before impact, meaning the airbag could inflate more slowly than present models and therefore dramatically reduce the chances of accidentally injuring the occupants.

The world's two biggest airbag producers are Sweden's Autoliv and US-based TRW, which completed its acquisition of LucasVarity last week. Together, they account for about half the 100 million airbags likely to be produced this year.

The former's chairman, Mr Gunnar Bark, reckons that "smart" airbags should be available to motor manufacturers within two years.

He believes that such pre-crash systems will become standard on many types of vehicle within five years.

The forecast will sound extreme to many in and outside the motor industry but only ten years ago, motor manufacturers were dismissing airbags and automatic braking systems as expensive exotica.

TRW is working on similar systems, using the technology developed by its space division which makes surveillance satellites for the US military.

Its engineers are developing infra-red and ultra-sound devices that will scan the interior of a vehicle, determine the position of the driver and passengers and pass the information on to the airbags, so their rate of inflation can be controlled accordingly.

The same data could also be used automatically to alter the tension in seatbelts.

Both companies are also designing post-crash systems, so information about an accident, the damage to the vehicle and even the condition of the occupants, can be sent by satellite links to the emergency authorities.

However, the next development that reaches showroom models will be airbags fitted inside vehicles' roofs. Much larger than current designs, they would inflate to form a curtain covering the windscreen and windows, protecting occupants from shattered glass, and the impact of roll-overs.

TRW plans to fit so-called curtain systems in cars for sale this year but its Swedish rival has already installed them in some of the more upmarket models built by Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Toyota.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 6, 1999
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