GM's dual-depth airbags are tailored to the anticipated size of the occupant. (Click on image to view video)
With brake systems under the control of microprocessors, electronics have reached out with their connected networks to other systems. The ubiquitous airbag was a great candidate for improvement. The bags' big bang may save a properly positioned, full-size occupant during a major front-end crash, but the full explosive force has also been responsible for injury and even death to those who find themselves in the wrong location.
So-called "smart" airbags help solve the problem of one-explosion-fits-all by their ability to deploy in two stages. For the average fender-bender, the front airbag(s) receive just enough inflation to arrest the occupant's quick deceleration. For major events, two-stage designs can inflate with full force at higher speeds when a really serious collision occurs.
The two-stage design is complemented by sensors that detect the presence of passengers in the front seat as well as where the driver's seat is adjusted in relation to the steering wheel. The new "smart" systems are not only safer than original airbags; they can save money by not deploying during a light collision when a passenger is not present. General Motors has taken the smart airbag design one step further with its dual-depth airbags for front-seat passengers. To ensure that the airbag deployment is appropriate for the size of the occupant, GM's dual-depth airbags deploy at different sizes depending on the fore and aft positioning of the seat.
Airbags are an important part of passive safety, and the front units have been joined by head, side, and knee airbags in an effort to ensure crash protection. Even motorcycles have gotten into the act, with Honda offering an airbag on its big cruiser model. But airbags act after the fact, and technology now plays an important role in helping drivers avoid accidents in the first place.