Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. is relying on two new occupant-sensing technologies to win a significant share of the growing smart airbag market.
Delphi already has a contract with Ford Motor Co. to supply five vehicles with one of the occupant sensors. That sensor uses a silicone-filled bladder under the seat cushion to determine the weight of a seat occupant and then reduce the explosive force of an airbag accordingly.
The result is an airbag that explodes with less force if a child or small adult is sitting in the seat. If no one is in the seat, the airbag will not deploy in a crash.
Delphi also remains committed to a second sensor despite problems with a key component - a membrane mat based on a children's toy.
'We really wanted to get both in our portfolios,' said Jeff Owens, general director of engineering for Delphi's Delco Electronics Systems. Owens spoke with Automotive News Europe at the Convergence 2000 International Conference on Transportation Electronics in Detroit last month.
In a move to protect children and small adults, new US safety standards require automakers to have occupant-sensing airbag systems in 35 percent of their vehicles for the 2004 model year and 100 percent for the 2006 model year.
Strategy Analytics Ltd., a market research company in London,, predicts annual sales of occupant sensors will reach E4.25 billion by 2006. Ian Riches, an analyst with Strategy Analytics, said a base sensor, such as Delphi's, will probably add about E60 to the cost of a vehicle by 2006. But Riches also expects more sophisticated sensors to be on the market by then.
'We'll see systems selling at a wide variety of price points,' Riches said.
Delphi CEO J.T. Battenberg III, speaking at Convergence 2000, said Delphi expects to capture a 'significant portion of this new market.'
The company takes its first step into the market this month by supplying bladder-based smart airbags for Ford's 2001 Jaguar XK. Battenberg added that Delphi will supply the same system to four other Ford models.
Originally, Delphi's first occupant-sensing system was to go into GM's 2000 Cadillac Seville.
That system is based on a membrane-sensor technology developed by Flexpoint Sensor Systems Inc. for video games.
In August, Delphi revealed that its contract with GM was in jeopardy because Flexpoint's membrane sensor did not perform properly.
Owens said the biggest difficulty has been making a toy technology robust enough to work in a demanding automotive environment.
'We're very close to making it work,' Owens said.
But that might not be enough for GM, which is under pressure to get occupant sensors in its vehicles quickly. 'They're pursuing other alternatives very fast,' Owens said.
Delphi is also focusing on its next big challenge - developing sensors that detect an occupant's position in a vehicle. For example, the occupant may be leaning forward, too close to the airbag.
Owens said Delphi is looking at three solutions: infrared sensors, ultrasonic sensors and video cameras.
The key, he said, is to find a technology that can work in an automotive environment and is inexpensive.