Many of us can remember a time, seemingly not that long ago, when wearing a seatbelt was optional, and maybe people even mocked you for clicking yourself in. A friend recalled how when she and her sister would travel with their dad in his sports car, she would sit on her sister’s lap in the front passenger seat. Funnily enough, he worked for an automaker, so her family was one of the first on the block to enforce seatbelt usage. Talk about your mixed messages.
At Ford, there are no mixed messages – safety is a top priority. And while a seatbelt may seem like a simplistic concept, Ford has taken things up a notch, to the tune of breaking new ground. “Ford is the first in the world to bring the second-row inflatable seatbelt into production,” said Dr. Srini Sundararajan, Ford Safety Technical Leader for Research and Innovation. “We spent a lot of time developing safety technologies for front-seat occupants and we started asking ourselves what we could do for people in the rear seats. We quickly decided we could not put an airbag there, so we started looking at the seatbelt.” Ford introduced the inflatable rear seatbelts in the 2011 Explorer, following a decade of development. Early data showed approximately 40 percent of Explorer buyers are parents who are ordering the rear inflatable belts.
Srini led that development and has also guided the development of deployable door trim systems designed to improve side-impact protection, and led innovative biomechanics research on the human cervical spine movement during rear-end collisions on Ford vehicles. He has applied his expertise of vehicle occupant biomechanics and advanced restraint development to a number of other safety projects at Ford as well, and led the development and evaluation of the industry’s first comprehensive automatic collision notification system by completing a study of 500 police vehicles in Texas to establish its operational parameters in real-world crash scenarios.
Even with that extensive knowledge and expertise, Srini admitted, “Combining the functionality of a safety belt and some of the benefits of an air bag into one occupant protection system was easier said than done.” Yet, it worked: Srini and his team developed technology that, “in an accident, an inflatable seatbelt spreads the crash force to a wider area of the chest. When the force is in a wider area, the propensity for injury comes down. The bag also helps support the head and neck,” he explained. “We wanted to make sure it would provide protection for anyone buckled in the backseat, so we designed it to work with all ages, from a child in a safety seat to a full-grown adult. It works like a regular seatbelt when fastening an infant seat.”
And while Ford obviously did not have kudos in mind during the making of this industry-first technology, it has been a side effect we’re happy to embrace. “Our Passive Safety Research Team just accepted the Breakthrough Product award from Popular Mechanics. We received a gold Edison award, the 2011 World Traffic Symposium award, and we placed first in the Safety Category of the 40th-SPE® Automotive Innovation Awards Competition,” said Srini. “We were also presented with the Henry Ford award, the highest award given within the company. It was humbling.”