Autonomous vehicles: changing the face of future airbags

Current innovation in the automotive sector has its sights set on developing autonomous or self-driving vehicles. The prospects of this new technology invoke images of an ideal world in which human error no longer results in crashes, mobility is available to everyone, and congestion, fuel consumption and pollution are reduced. With decreased chances or even the elimination of crashes altogether, what then will become of the airbag? Amidst these changes, one thing is certain: the arrival of autonomous cars will significantly impact the way we conceive of and manufacture the future airbags. 

Bring in the experts of future airbags and innovations

To tackle this subject, we’ve called on the expertise of two professionals from Elkem Silicones: Pierre Defaux, Global Market Manager and Expert for Coating Solutions, and Damien Djian, Textile Coating Technical Manager. Mr. Defaux and Mr. Djian attended the Airbag 2016 International Symposium and Exhibition on Sophisticated Car Occupant Safety Systems, a biennial event which aims to create and strengthen ties between all prominent players in airbag development and application. We sat down with them for an interview to hear more about the innovative solutions presented at the exhibition, and to gain some insight into what they think the future has in store for airbags, especially within the context of this ‘ideal’ world created by autonomous vehicles.

What will the future of car technology look like and what potential do airbags have within this new context?

Mr. Defaux: Let me paint a picture of what the world could look like in 20 years’ time. Ideally, autonomous vehicles would communicate with each other to go from point A to point B without any human interference.

Cars would be equipped with advanced detection abilities in order to anticipate and prevent all kinds of situations and incidents.

Currently, however, airbags are a passive safety system meaning that they provide protection to help reduce consequences once the damage has already been done. In the future, airbags might disappear altogether— although highly unlikely! —because active safety systems, those that prevent crashes from occurring, would be enough to anticipate and avoid impacts, resulting in airbags becoming obsolete. Autonomous vehicles could potentially push back the point of no return.

Mr. Djian: Although, as good as that sounds, we do live in the real world and have to be realistic! No matter how advanced technology is, we will always run into bumps and incidents on the roads, although these bumps might look different from what we are used to today. As the type of road crashes changes so will the type of airbags we need to protect ourselves.

Can you describe in more detail the specific changes that airbags will have to adapt to?

Mr. Defaux: To give you a few examples, in autonomous cars, steering wheels may retract into the instrument panel and seats may pivot so that passengers can sit face-to-face and engage in conversations. This new layout would require other forms of passenger retention. Airbags then would not be located inside the steering wheel but rather a series of frontal airbags would have to be installed to ensure passengers are not jostled around during abrupt accelerations or decelerations. Plus, airbags may even be designed to deploy outside the vehicle. This new concept of passenger safety would then require airbags to be reusable and capable of easily inflating and deflating back into place.

What are the essential characteristics future airbags will need to integrate?

Mr. Djian: Well, for starters future airbags would have to be more compact and lighter as the electronic components in cars will take up more room, and potentially with the ability to inflate and deflate as required. We might expect the shape of airbags to undergo some changes, as well as their location in the car; for example, manufacturers might think of installing them in the ceiling, in or around the seats, among a wide range of other possibilities.

Mr. Defaux: Manufacturers of car safety systems have actually already started working on designing new solutions to meet and anticipate the needs of this changing market. If there is anything we can be sure of, it is that autonomous cars are the future of automobiles.

What about silicone coatings for textiles? What changes will silicone coatings have to undergo to adapt to the new context?

Mr. Djian: The performance of coated textiles is a sector that will have particular impact on Elkem Silicones. Because steering wheels, and generally airbag modules, are of increasingly reduced dimensions and cannot house large airbags, textile coating systems will then have to be minimized in terms of add-on weight. Elkem Silicones is currently working on developing textile coating systems that would use less coating material but still maintain the exact same level of performance and reliability over time.

So, it seems as though autonomous cars are on everyone’s mind. Was that the general feeling you had at Airbag 2016?

Mr. Defaux: Yes, many conferences we attended during the Airbag 2016 Symposium devoted a lot of time to discussing autonomous cars and, more specifically, the types of impacts these cars would be subject to.  We realized how important the subject is for car manufacturers today, and the expectations on the safety systems suppliers are high. We have a role to play to make this happen in the future airbags!

Can you leave us with a few words about what Elkem Silicones gained from this event? What did you walk away with?

Mr. Defaux: In short, our job as a supplier of silicone-based solutions is to look towards the future and adapt to the changing needs of the sector: packability of textiles, new substrates, more stringent requirements, etc.

At Airbag 2016, we had a glimpse into the future and now it’s up to us to make sure we can deliver products that will contribute to make airbag systems always more efficient and reliable on the long term.

What we discussed with our customers and partners during the event confirmed just that: we are essential to support them in the long run of autonomous vehicles.