The design of an airbag restraint system presents a classic engineering challenge. There are numerous design parameters that need to be optimized to cover the wide range of occupant sizes, occupant positions and vehicle collision modes. Some of the major parameters that affect airbag performance include, the airbag inflator characteristics, airbag size and shape, airbag vent size, steering column collapse characteristics, airbag cover characteristics, airbag fold pattern, knee bolsters, seat, seat belt characteristics, and vehicle crush characteristics. Optimization of these parameters can involve extremely costly programs of sled tests and full scale vehicle crash tests. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) with regard to airbag design are not specific and allow flexibility in component characteristics.
One design strategy, which is simplistic and inexpensive, is to utilize a very fast, high output gas generator (inflator). This ensures that the bag will begin restraining the occupant soon after deployment and can make up for deficiencies in other components such as inadequate steering column collapse or an unusually stiff vehicle crush characteristic. The use of such inflators generally works well for properly positioned occupants in moderate to high-speed frontal collisions by taking advantage of the principle of ridedown. When an airbag quickly fills the gap between the occupant and the instrument panel or steering wheel it links him to the vehicle such that he utilizes the vehicle’s front-end crush to help dissipate his energy, thus reducing the restraint forces. Unfortunately, powerful airbag systems can be injurious to anyone in the path of the deploying airbag. This hazard is present for short statured individuals, out of position children or any occupant in a collision that results in extra ordinary crash sensing time. Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing to rewrite FMVSS 208 to help reduce such hazards.