The Firestone tire recall in the USA is focusing attention on rollover crashes, and what automakers and suppliers are doing to cushion the victims of such accidents.
Big production contracts are starting to be awarded to suppliers of electronic sensors that deploy rollover airbag systems. Advanced sensors are necessary to detect a rollover occurrence; sensors on today's curtain airbag systems may not even fire the airbag in the event of a rollover. The new sensors, however, will drop longer curtain airbags from the vehicle headliner to cover the side windows and pillars.
Swedish safety systems supplier Autoliv recently announced that it is supplying the technology in Europe for vehicles scheduled to go on sale in January 2003. Autoliv also announced four-year production contracts for more than 1.2 million North American vehicles annually, starting with the 2004 model year.
Autoliv officials wouldn't name an automaker or reveal the value of the contracts or the number of customers involved.
The sensors, however, will go on a mix of sport-utilities, pickups and other vehicles.
Autoliv will supply the curtain airbags on a couple of the contracts; sourcing for the rest of the programs was awarded to competitors in a few cases and is undecided in others.
TRW Inc. also has a rollover-sensor contract for a North American sport-utility program beginning with the 2004 model year, though volumes have yet to be made final. The US supplier is testing the sensor with several other automakers, including a major Asian customer, officials said.
Those systems won't be the first on the market, though. Ford Motor Co., for one, is introducing a rollover protection system on the redesigned 2002 Explorer/Mountaineer coming out in January. That system, with curtain airbags from TRW and rollover sensors from Visteon Corp., will be available later in 2001. Ford has said it will equip all its sport-utilities with rollover airbag systems by the end of 2005. Multiple safety systems suppliers likely will share that work.
'Rollover protection is the next hot item in safety,' industry consultant Scott Upham said. 'Especially when it comes to sportutility vehicles.'
So far Autoliv is leading the development of commercial rollover protection applications, said Upham, president of Providata Automotive of Michigan.
Several other competitors, including TRW and Siemens Automotive Corp., are also promoting their rollover sensors as the potential for the business takes off. From virtually nothing today, 30 percent or more of vehicles on the road could have the rollover systems by 2010, Upham predicted. Higher installation rates depend on how regulators and the buying public respond to the technology.
The Firestone tire recall could be an important factor. The August recall no doubt has brought the rollover
frequency in sport-utilities to the forefront of consumers' minds. Many of the tread-separation incidents involving Firestone tires have led to Explorer rollovers.
But rollovers have long been an issue for sport-utilities with their higher center of gravity. Across the industry, single-vehicle rollovers accounted for 50 percent of occupant deaths in sport-utilities in 1998, against 19 percent for cars, the US Department of Transportation reports.
Even before the fervor surrounding Firestone tires and Ford Explorers erupted, the industry already had made aggressive moves toward providing rollover protection, Upham and suppliers said.
'Now is this going to speed it up a bit? Quite possibly,' Siemens Automotive spokesman David Ladd said. 'It certainly has called attention to it.'
Siemens is demonstrating its own rollover sensor to automakers, he said. The technology is ready, but the supplier has yet to land any production contracts.
Rollover sensors measure such criteria as vehicle speed and tilt to inflate the airbag curtains for several seconds between occupants and the vehicle pillars and windows, preventing passenger ejection. A speedy response - measured in milliseconds - is critical as certain roll events can shift the occupants sideways even before any wheels leave the ground.
Autoliv's system, for instance, uses initial vehicle speed to predict whether the vehicle will roll over even before the angular rate sensor detects any vehicle tilt, said Doug Werth, business development manager for the company's North American electronics group. That is especially key in trip-over crashes when the vehicle hits soil, a particularly rapid type of rollover.
Such rollover protection systems likely will be installed on sport-utilities and pickups first, perhaps even as standard equipment, consultant Upham said. Luxury vehicles also will get the rollover systems early on.