Vehicle Safety:

Technologies, Challenges, and Research and Development Expenditures for Advanced Air Bags

GAO-01-596: Published: Jun 12, 2001. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2001.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a rule requiring vehicle manufacturers to install advanced air bag systems in an increasing number of cars beginning in 2003. This report reviews the development of technologies that vehicle manufacturers plan to use to comply with the advanced air bag rule. GAO found that some advanced air bag technologies are now being installed in vehicles and others are still being developed. The principal advanced technology being installed in some vehicles is an air bag that can inflate with lower or higher levels of power--rather than a single level--depending on the severity of the crash. Although frontal air bag systems with these advanced technologies are an improvement over previous systems, they do not contain all of the features that manufacturers believe are needed to meet the requirements of the advanced air bag rule, such as sensors that can distinguish among different types of occupants. To meet the requirements, manufacturers plan to introduce new technologies as well as continue to make further improvements in current technologies. The key new technologies that manufacturers plan to introduce are occupant classification sensors that can distinguish among infants and children (as well as their safety seats) and adults on the passenger side. The addition of these sensors is necessary to allow the air bag system to provide the appropriate deployment level--such as no deployment, low power, or high power--depending on the type of occupant. The primary challenge in meeting the requirements in the advanced air bag rule is the development of occupant classification sensors that are accurate, durable, and suitable for mass production. Expenditures on advanced air bag research and development by NHTSA and vehicle manufacturers have increased since 1998, when Congress mandated the installation of advanced air bags in future vehicles. The information aggregated from four manufacturers shows that these expenditures rose by about 275 percent from 1998 through 2000 and are anticipated to increase overall by about 375 percent from 1998 through 2003, when the requirements in the advanced air bag rule take effect.

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