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Safety in Demand, Might Even Be Cost Effective

Of the more than 500 customer needs identified in a recent survey, No.2 on the list was a desire for vehicle cabins to protect occupants from every angle in the most violent of collisions.

DETROIT – Consumers are more interested in vehicle safety, and the good news for suppliers and auto makers is meeting their demands won’t necessarily mean added costs.

A recent survey by RDA Group Global Market Research & Consulting identified 87 safety features buyers would like to have in their next car or truck, Jim Thomas, senior vice president, says at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here.

Safety technology trailed only convenience features in the number of wish-list items identified by some 8,163 new-vehicle owners polled late last year.

Of the more than 500 customer needs identified, No.2 in the ranking was a desire for vehicle cabins to protect occupants from every angle in the most violent of collisions.

“Why can’t our vehicles provide as much occupant protection as we see on TV with some of the violent car crashes during NASCAR races?” one survey respondent asked.

Buyers also want confidence doors and windows won’t become inoperable in a collision, leaving them trapped in the vehicle, the study shows.

Minivan and cross/utility vehicle owners are among the most highly focused on child safety, Thomas says. Many of those surveyed asked for glass that won’t shatter and injure occupants in a collision, warnings should rear passengers unbuckle their seatbelts, alerts if child seats are improperly secured and systems that prevent small children or animals from being accidentally left behind in the vehicle.

Consumers also are more open to active safety systems that take over braking control, for example, when a collision appears imminent.

“We’ve seen a major shift in this since 2003,” Thomas says. “People are much more receptive to their vehicles being proactive. Previously, people wanted to control everything themselves; they though they were quicker. That has changed.”

Making the wish list top 100 are seatbelts that automatically adjust to the occupant’s height and weight.

Thomas says the survey didn’t ask buyers how much they might be willing to pay for the safety technology.

“They’re looking for that same (NASCAR-like) level of protection, and they’re looking for you guys to make it affordable,” he tells show attendees on hand for the panel on “Improving the Safety Cocoon.”

But Maurice Sessel, vice president-product engineering for International Automotive Components Group North America, says sometimes safety doesn’t have to come at a premium.

IAC, for example, has found a way to improve side-impact protection in light of tougher regulations, while cutting weight and cost, Sessel says.

The new side-impact standards, which begin phase-in in September 2009, require auto makers to provide a wider range of protection and survive a much tougher fixed-barrier crash test, Sessel says.

IAC’s new Impact Absorbing Countermeasure Bracket replaces the bulky foam blocks used to cushion door inners that are threatening to eat up more and more space. The thermoplastic bracket, which is seeing its first application on the Nissan Altima, is completely recyclable and provides a 15%-30% reduction in both mass and cost, Sessel says.

Similarly, a new instrument panel for a seamless airbag reduces part complexity by 90%, replacing a 33-piece steel panel with a 3-piece plastic system. Used in the Chrysler Town & Country minivan, it reduced costs 17% and shaved 1.6 lbs. (0.7 kg) in weight.

IAC worked similar magic with a headliner. Typical systems incorporate up to 26 pieces, including foam and plastic parts attached to the headliner to absorb energy. The supplier’s new 1-piece polyurethane foam headliner, already on two production vehicles, improves head-impact test scores 24%, is 4 lbs. (1.8 kg) lighter and 18% cheaper, Sessel says.

In addition, it offers more structural integrity, so there is less chance of causing damage to the headliner during installation.

“Safety doesn’t have to come with a price,” Sessel says. “As we move forward, we’re driving toward a more environmental, fuel-economy focus and lower cost solutions.

“We’re being challenged with the $4,000 vehicle,” he notes, a reference to such cars as the $2,500 Tata Nano from India and the host of competitors it is expected to spawn. “Vehicle interiors will be a big part of that.”

Sarah Smith, research engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, agrees safety doesn’t have to cost more when it comes to headrests and seats.

The IIHS says there are 3.9 million rear-impact collisions in the U.S. every year, with 20% of drivers suffering neck injuries resulting in medical claims topping $8 billion.

But auto makers are doing a better job in designing headrests than they were in 1999, when the IIHS first began rating the devices. And the better-rated headrests are proving effective in limiting injuries, the IIHS says.

Although auto makers are beginning to employ more expensive active headrests and seats that move in the event of a collision to better protect passengers, simpler designs also can do the job, Smith says.

“They don’t have to cost more,” she says. Seatbacks need to be strong and closely positioned to the occupant, with high-enough headrests that lock into place, she says.

Mark Wehner, chief technology officer for Key Safety Systems, says his company may have something to offer consumers who want a more comfortable seatbelt and the feel of NASCAR-like safety.

Key’s electric multifunction seatbelt retractors work in conjunction with the vehicle’s other onboard safety systems (blindspot monitoring, for example) to offer pre-pretensioning and haptic warnings to occupants should a dangerous situation arise, plus enhanced comfort.

After the occupant buckles up and the vehicle is started, the system automatically takes out belt-slack but maintains a level of comfort, Wehner says. If a dangerous situation arises, the belt vibrates to warn the occupant, while the pre-pretensioning feature gathers up remaining belt-slack to prepare for a collision. The belt automatically resets once the danger is eliminated.

Other safety restraint makers are offering similar systems, but Wehner says what sets the Key device apart is its seamless interface with existing electronic controls.

The supplier is working with Germany’s Robert Bosch GmbH on integrating the Key belt retractor with Bosch electronics.

Wehner says several auto makers are interested, most notably the Europeans, but Key has no applications yet.

Asked if the belts will be too busy for some car buyers, Wehner refers to the NASCAR response in the RDA survey, saying, “Customers appreciate the activity. They want to feel the vehicle’s systems working for them.”

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