New systems to debut on select models in 2012, 2013, slowly roll out to rest of the lineup

General Motors Comp. (GM) is back to strong sales and it's also looking to cement its fleet's reptutation for safety.  The company unveiled a pair of new features today -- center airbags and collision avoidance systems.

I. GM Adds a Center Air Bag: Common Sense, But an Industry First

GM claims [press release] to be the first in the industry to offer a center airbag.  The new feature will be available on the 2013 Buick EnclaveGMC Acadia, and Chevrolet Traverse midsize-crossovers.

The new airbag serves a multi-functional safety role in a number of crash scenarios.  When only the driver is present, it helps cushion them from impacts that occur on the passenger-side.  When both the driver and a front-seat passenger are present, it cushions them from impacts on either side, serving as a barrier to keep them from being whipped into each other.  And in the case of a rollover -- still an occasional problem in SUVs due to basic physics -- the airbag is also expected to help protect the occupants.

Center Airbag Deploying
Fig. 1: The center airbag provides a barrier between the driver and passenger, in the event of collision. [Source: GM]

The new airbag deploys out of the right side of the driver's seat and fills the space between the driver and the front seat passenger.  GM is offering the feature as standard on all Traverses and Acadias with power seats, and on all Enclaves.

Video 1: Middle air-bag in action with a crash test dummy. [Source: GM]

The trio of crossovers already has earned  five-star Overall and Side Crash safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s New Car Assessment Program, and 2011 Top Safety Picks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  But GM says that adding the airbag, which it developed for three years with Takata Corp. (TYO:7312), was a matter of its commitment to going above and beyond the call of duty.

States Scott Thomas, senior staff engineer in GM’s advanced restraint systems ,"The front center air bag is not required by federal regulation, and no other air bag in passenger vehicles today offers the type of restraint and cushioning this air bag is designed to provide for front occupants."

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety commends the design.  In GM's press release on the topic, he commends the new airbag feature, stating, "The front center airbag has real potential to save lives in side crashes.  GM and Takata are to be commended for taking the lead in this important area."

In some crash tests, the airbags made the difference between escaping a collision relatively unscathed and receiving serious injuries:

Crash comparison: With and without airbag
Fig. 2: GM says "no restraint technology can address all body regions or all potential injuries", but says that tests (pictured) show that the new airbag can prevent serious injuries in some collisions. [Source: GM]

The new technology seems like common sense, but it likely hasn't been implemented before due to technical difficulties in getting the airbag to properly deploy from the driver's seat and fill the center space.  The cost was also likely an issue, but clearly GM overcame these hurdles.

II. New Safety Sensors Could Help Prevent Crashes

In recent years there have been a number of advancements in using sensors to prevent or prepare for collisions.  Ford Motor Company (F) and others have deployed warning signals on the mirrors that inform the driver if a vehicle is in their blind spot.  Of course these technologies don't protect against  fast-moving vehicles entering the blind spot, but Ford has been busy cooking up wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems to remedy that.  It's also deployed to its lineup pre-braking technology that uses a radar sensor to detect impending collisions.

Not to be outdone, GM has unveiled [press release] a new safety sensor system aimed primarily at prevention.  A camera mounted to the windshield keeps an eye on the lane markers and vehicles in front of you.  When a vehicle is in front of you it displays a green car icon to the left of a thin LED display panel.  When you follow to close it turns on an amber warning light in the center of the panel, and if you're so close you're in danger of colliding it sounds a warning chime.

GM's new system warns of abrupt lane changes and potential rear-end collisions
Fig. 3: GM's new crash avoidance system can help warn distracted or drowsy drivers of dangers. [Source: GM]

The system could help drivers who are distracted by cell phones or other activities slow down in time to avoid -- or at least lessen the speed of -- a collision.

The new system also sees when you're changing lanes.  If you start to change lanes without signalling the system assumes you're drifting out of your lane.  It displays an amber warning signal to the right of the LED panel and sounds a warning chime.

This aspect of the new system could help alert drowsy drivers.  Driver fatigue is a major cause of accidents on American highways.  Similar systems can be found on vehicles in Damiler AG's (ETR:DAI) luxury brand Mercedes-Benz.

Video 2: GM's new system takes aim at driver inattention. [Source: GM]

Gay Kent, GM executive director of Vehicle Safety and Crashworthiness comments, "GM is committed to providing protection before, during and after a crash, but the best scenario is to avoid a collision in the first place, and this technology is designed to assist drivers for that purpose."

GM adds, "According to National Automotive Sampling System estimates, rear-end crashes account for approximately 28 percent of the nearly 6 million police-reported incidents that occur annually. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains that the majority of rear-end collisions involve driver inattention, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says forward collision warning systems have the potential to help prevent such crashes."

The technology is not currently standard, but will be offered on the 2012 GMC Terrain as a $295 option.

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