Ford's Inflatable Seat Belts – Click above for high-res image gallery
They started out in our steering wheels before taking up residence across the dash. They then migrated to the side of our vehicles and grew to be full-sized curtains. Automakers seem to stick them everywhere, so where else can airbags go to protect our fleshy, organic bodies when metal meets metal in an accident? Ford has the answer: seatbelts.
Today Ford is introducing the auto industry's first* inflatable seat belts, which are scheduled to enter production in 2010 on the next-generation Ford Explorer before being offered across its global lineup. They're designed for rear-seat occupants only (front passengers already have a plethora of airbags) and, in the event of a frontal or side impact, will inflate the belt across a passenger's chest in 40 milliseconds. When expanded, the belt cover five times more surface area of the body than a normal seat belt, which helps better distribute the forces of a crash.
The mechanics of Ford's inflatable belt system use cold compressed gas to inflate the bags, unlike traditional airbags that rely on a heat-generating chemical reaction. The seat belt bags also inflate slower and to a lower pressure than a traditional airbag, mainly because they don't have to cover the distance between the passenger and an object (steering wheel, dash).
This isn't the first time we've heard about Ford's inflatable seat belts. The automaker has been working on the idea for several years and revealed their intentions right before the 2006 Detroit Auto Show. Unfortunately, Ford may not be the first to market with the idea. The Lexus LFA, also set to enter production next year, features an SRS seatbelt airbag as well. We don't know if the next-gen Explorer will beat the LFA to dealer showrooms yet, but Ford can at least take pride in knowing that its technology will be protecting more than just 500 lives.
UPDATE: Videos added after the jump.
Ford Introduces World-First Automotive Rear Inflatable Seat Belt -1
Ford Introduces World-First Automotive Rear Inflatable Seat Belt - 2
Inflatable Seat Belts
Animation 1 - Inflatable Seat Belts
Animation 2 - How They Work
Inflatable Seat Belt Sled Crash Test - 1
Inflatable Seat Belt Sled Crash Test - 2
FORD INTRODUCES INDUSTRY'S FIRST INFLATABLE SEAT BELTS TO ENHANCE REAR SEAT SAFETY
- Ford introduces the auto industry's first-ever production inflatable seat belts, which are designed to provide additional protection for rear-seat occupants, often children and older passengers who can be more vulnerable to head, chest and neck injuries
- Ford's inflatable rear seat belts will debut on the next-generation Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle, which goes into production next year; Ford eventually plans to offer inflatable seat belt technology in vehicles globally
- Ford's inflatable rear seat belts spread crash forces over five times more area of the body than conventional seat belts; this helps reduce pressure on the chest and helps control head and neck motion for rear seat passengers
- More than 90 percent of Ford research participants indicated that Ford's inflatable seat belts are similar to or more comfortable than traditional belts, which could help increase the lower rate of rear belt usage
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DEARBORN, Mich., Nov. 5, 2009 – Ford Motor Company is bringing to market the world's first automotive inflatable seat belts, combining attributes of traditional seat belts and air bags to provide an added level of crash safety protection for rear seat occupants.
The advanced restraint system is designed to help reduce head, neck and chest injuries for rear seat passengers, often children and older passengers who can be more vulnerable to such injuries.
Ford will introduce inflatable rear seat belts on the next-generation Ford Explorer, which goes into production next year for the North American market. Over time, Ford plans to offer the technology in vehicles globally.
"Ford's rear inflatable seat belt technology will enhance safety for rear-seat passengers of all ages, especially for young children who are more vulnerable in crashes," said Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president of Sustainability, Environmental and Safety Engineering. "This is another unique family technology that builds on our safety leadership, including the most top safety ratings of any automaker."
Safer and more comfortable
Advances in air bag inflation and seat belt construction methods have enabled Ford and its suppliers to develop inflatable seat belts that are designed to deploy over a vehicle occupant's torso and shoulder in 40 milliseconds in the event of a crash.
In everyday use, the inflatable belts operate like conventional seat belts and are safe and compatible with infant and children safety car and booster seats. In Ford's research, more than 90 percent of those who tested the inflatable seat belts found them to be similar to or more comfortable than a conventional belt because they feel padded and softer. That comfort factor could help improve the 61 percent rear belt usage rate in the U.S., which compares to 82 percent usage by front seat passengers, according National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
"Ford is pioneering inflatable seat belt technology to help enhance crash safety protection, while encouraging more people to buckle up with a more comfortable belt," said Paul Mascarenas, Ford vice president, Engineering, Global Product Development.
In the event of a frontal or side crash, the inflatable belt's increased diameter more effectively holds the occupant in the appropriate seating position, helping to reduce the risk of injury.
Vehicle safety sensors determine the severity of the collision in the blink of an eye and deploy the inflatable belts' air bags. Each belt's tubular air bag inflates with cold compressed gas, which flows through a specially designed buckle from a cylinder housed below the seat.
The inflatable belt's accordion-folded bag breaks through the belt fabric as it fills with air, expanding sideways across the occupant's body in about the same amount of time it takes a car traveling at highway speed to cover a yard of distance.
The use of cold compressed gas instead of a heat-generating chemical reaction – which is typical of traditional air bag systems – means the inflated belts feel no warmer on the wearer's body than the ambient temperature. The inflatable belts also fill at a lower pressure and a slower rate than traditional air bags, because the device does not need to close a gap between the belt and the occupant.
"It's a very simple and logical system, but it required extensive trial and error and testing over several years to prove out the technology and ensure precise reliable performance in a crash situation," said Srini Sundararajan, safety technical leader for Ford research and advance engineering.
The inflated belt helps distribute crash force energy across five times more of the occupant's torso than a traditional belt, which expands its range of protection and reduces risk of injury by diffusing crash pressure over a larger area, while providing additional support to the head and neck. After deployment, the belt remains inflated for several seconds before dispersing its air through the pores of the air bag.
Ford's safety leadership record continues to grow
The inflatable seat belt debuting on the next-generation Ford Explorer continues Ford's record of safety innovation. Ford today has more 5-star U.S. government ratings and "Top Safety Picks" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety than any other automaker.
Ford was the first automaker to introduce seat belts in 1955 and led the way in making driver and front-passenger air bags standard in most vehicles by 1993.
This year, Ford introduced radar-enabled Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning with Brake Support and Blind Spot Information System (BLIS®) with Cross Traffic Alert (CTA). These technologies – introduced on the new 2010 Ford Taurus and Fusion – help drivers avoid potential dangerous crash situations using radar to detect the relative position of other vehicles and warn the driver with a combination of visual and audio alerts.
Ford's other recent seat belt and air bag innovations include the industry-first BeltMinder system in 2000, which the U.S. government credited with increasing front belt usage by 5 percent in Ford vehicles. On the 2002 Explorer, Ford launched the industry's first rollover-activated side curtain air bags – called Safety Canopy – as well as Roll Stability Control technology that goes a step beyond traditional stability control systems by helping measure and prevent side-to-side skidding and dangerous situations that could lead to rollovers.