General Motors is advancing the airbag art in a direction that can't earn it any extra stars or crash-test brownie points. That's because its new industry-first front-seat center airbag provides protection in a crash nobody tests for, one in which the side impact is on the opposite side of the car from the crash test dummy. But this new bag, which deploys from the inboard side of the driver's seat aims to prevent the 11 percent of all deaths occurring in these so-called "far-side side impacts."
Developed with supplier Takata (with whom four pending patents are shared), this elaborately tethered bag forms a rigid tube in the shape of a figure-8, that's tethered to angle toward the driver. It inflates in 26 milliseconds using a combination of pressurized argon and pyrotechnically generated gas, and stays inflated for several minutes to provide protection in a rollover or multiple-impact crash. Its main purpose is to cushion the driver's head and torso from colliding with the center console, passenger seat or its occupant, or the intruded structure in a nasty pole-type hit, and to cushion the passenger from the driver.
The front center air bag arrives for 2013 as standard equipment on the Buick Enclave; optional on the GMC Acadia and Chevrolet Traverse, bundled so as to appear on 90 percent of these midsize crossovers. These family-oriented vehicles were chosen for their higher likelihood of use with two front occupants, but the technology is expected to proliferate throughout the GM portfolio. No rear center airbag is envisioned yet because of the very low incidence of reported fatalities in the rear. The module adds 2.4 pounds to the car and is somewhat bulky, so it may package easily in every seat design. The only other minor modification required was to the console latch to ensure it wouldn't open during deployment. No cost figures were discussed, but its larger, more elaborate design makes it cost more than the typical outboard seat-mounted airbags.
Collision Warning on the Cheap
Remember when only fancy Mercedes-Benzes and Volvos could rouse you from your texting to warn of impending doom? In an industry-first, General Motors' computer programmers have managed to make this technology available at an option price of just $295--including free lane-departure warning. Such a deal! The key is teaching the computers to use a single forward-looking high-def camera to examine 14 images per second looking out at a 37-degree field of view and determine what objects in these images are cars, trucks, motorcycles, pedestrians, and to then determine which ones are in the path of travel, and furthermore which might pose a risk of collision. It does this by noting the rate of change in image size from one frame to the next, and by comparing sizes to known dimensions like the lane width.
It's not easy, and it gets particularly tricky in bad weather or at night (is that a close-up motorcycle, or a far-away '55 Ford with one burned-out tail lamp?), but the system performed flawlessly on a demonstration drive. It illuminates a red warning signal high atop the center console near the base of the windshield, and sounding eight quick tones through the front stereo speakers for forward collision warning, and sounds lower tones from the speaker on whichever side of the car has strayed out of its lane.
Best of all, it seems unlikely to aggravate enthusiast drivers. The driver can set the warning/following distance warning to far, medium, or near settings, and even at the "far" setting, the tailgating/collision warnings appeared at what this aggressive driver deemed a mighty close distance. Also, the lane-departure only nags when the tire is on the line and the driver hasn't signaled a lane change. Fair enough. Both systems can be independently switched off from the steering wheel, and the system remembers the selected following distance upon restart.
Additional features that may roll out in the near future include traffic sign recognition and automatic high-beam assist, though there's no current plan to use it for adaptive cruise control. Those systems generally employ forward-looking radar (which currently costs from 2-5 times what the camera costs). The system was developed with Magna and Mobileye, and mounts inside the windshield behind the passenger side of the rear-view mirror, where its view is well cleared by the windshield wipers. Look for the option to appear first on the 2012 Chevy Equinox and GMC Acadia, and to spread quickly throughout the lineup.