At the first mention of GM's front centre airbag, my first thought was that not many passengers sit in the front centre of today's vehicles -- bucket seats are pretty common.
Then Scott Thomas, senior staff engineer of GM Advanced Restrain Systems, explained to us the purpose of the front centre airbag, and this safety system was so impressive the Automobile Journalists of Canada have named it the Best New Technology of the year.
The front centre airbag is designed to help protect the driver and, to some extent, the front-seat passenger as well.
Developed jointly by GM and Takata, the airbag module is a softpack design about 35.5 centimetres long and 10 centimetres in diameter located in the upper seat cushion on the right side of the driver's seatback. The airbag deploys in a side-impact collision, but not in front or rear collisions. Unlike frontal vehicle airbags, the front centre airbag is designed to stay inflated for extended periods so it can help protect the front occupants in a rollover situation.
It took more than three years of development to put the front centre airbag into production. The first vehicles to have it available are the 2013 GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave mid-size crossovers.
When deployed, the airbag is a tubular figure-eight design that pops out above the centre console. Two tethers then pull it back toward the driver as it becomes fully inflated. The inside of the woven airbag material has a silicone lining to keep it inflated in case of a secondary impact or rollover.
Analysis of 4,000 to 5,000 vehicle accidents is done annually by the U.S. government's National Automotive Sampling System Crashworthiness Data System (NASS-CDS) and the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Their studies found 11 per cent of all belted front-seat fatalities occurred when the vehicle was hit on the passenger side, referred to in the studies as "far-side collisions." The most frequent injuries occurred in the head and thorax regions, with more than half in the upper-body area.
In far-side collisions where only a driver was in the front seat, nearly 30 per cent of head injuries occurred when the driver's head hit the passenger door. More than half of upper-body injuries occurred when the driver hit the centre console or the passenger-side seat, especially if the passenger-side seat was positioned ahead of the driver's seat.
To reduce these types of injuries, the front centre airbag is designed to catch and retain the driver safely in the driver's seat. Imagine a big catcher's mitt snagging a baseball and you have a simplified idea of how the front centre airbag works.
When both front seats of a vehicle are occupied, both driver and passenger benefit from the front centre airbag. A large percentage of injuries occur to both front-seat occupants during a side impact when their heads come into contact with each other. Contact with the centre console was the other major source of serious injury. In both cases, the centre airbag acts as a cushion between the two occupants to reduce injuries.
While legislation does not yet require front centre airbags, the system has the potential to reduce many side-impact injuries. You can expect to find this safety feature in many other GM vehicles in the near future.
Jim Kerr is an experienced mechanic, instructor of automotive technology, freelance journalist and member of the Automobile Journalists' Association of Canada.