Ford's Better Idea: Smart Airbags To Debut on 2012 Focus

September 19, 2010

Word from the Blue-Oval gang in Dearborn, Michigan that Ford Motor Company will debut smart airbags on the all-new 2012 Focus comes as a pleasant surprise. Well, maybe we should call them smarter, instead of just smart, since airbag technology has been clipping along at a fairly steady pace.

In the case of the 2012 Ford Focus, the automaker has picked this model to introduce next-generation driver front and front passenger side airbags that represent the latest in safety airbag innovation. Then, they’ll roll out the smarter airbags to other Ford products over the next few years. Consumers won’t have to pay extra for them either, since they’ll be included as standard equipment. That is a better idea.

New driver front airbag protection

The next-generation driver front airbag features advanced chest protection technology designed to help reduce chest and rib injuries in the event of an airbag-triggered crash. Specifically, the new driver front airbag uses a reconfigured curve-shaped tether system that pulls in the bottom portion to create a pocket of protection – which helps lessen the airbag’s impact on the driver’s chest and ribs during a frontal crash.

The automaker credits years of biomechanical research, in part, as the basis for the new driver front airbag. Enhanced chest protection technology, says Ford, is particularly helpful in more serious crashes.

With more baby boomers coming to the age of what used to be considered retirement – but today only means they’re likely to be forced to continue to work – and the ranks of the elderly swelling apace, protecting drivers from potentially serious or fatal injury from frontal crashes becomes even more important.

According to Frank Heitplatz, Ford supervisor of occupant safety integration, “While seat belts and airbags provide proven protection for drivers of all ages, elderly drivers remain at higher risk of injury than younger drivers due to the nature of collision forces.” Further reduction of the risks of serious injuries through refinement of vehicle safety technologies remains a priority at Ford.

For all those families with an elderly parent who still drives – my own included --  this kind of increased driver protection is welcome news indeed.

New side airbag innovation

Side airbag protection leapfrogs ahead with the addition of unique shoulder vents that stay open and reduce pressure for smaller occupants – those who typically benefit from reduced forces. In the case of taller occupants, whose shoulders would block the vents, they would benefit from the higher pressures.

The automaker also says that Focus will be its first product ever to feature front passenger airbags with adaptive venting technology. This technology allows the airbags to divert some of the gas from airbag inflaters through vents outside of the airbags. Adjusting the level of venting based on seat position is the job of restraints control module – the control center of Ford’s advanced safety systems.

Think of the new side airbag as being able to sense the size of the occupant – and deploy with the right amount of force while providing enhanced neck and head protection. In essence, the new airbags utilize innovative technologies to customize airbag protection to the occupant.

Ford’s history of airbag research

Little-known by most consumers, perhaps, is that Ford was the first automaker to dive into airbag research a half century ago. They haven’t stopped since. In 1971, they had a test fleet of airbag-equipped cars. A driver-side airbag was offered in 1985, and by 1993, driver and front passenger airbags were standard in most of the company’s vehicles. A variety of crash protection systems, ranging from knee bolsters to canopy airbags, have been introduced in recent years. Ford has reason to tout its focus on safety. The company has the most Top Safety Picks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) of any automaker.

How appropriate that Ford chose the 2012 Focus to introduce its smarter airbags. You could say this mirrors their focus on safety. It would also make a clever marketing tag.

Since safety is a key consideration in family cars, these new airbags will hopefully spur other automakers to continue to ratchet up safety research and introduce even more comprehensive new systems to help protect all the car’s occupants. I, for one, don’t think you can ever have too much safety in a car.

[Ford, IIHS]

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