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Big Three automakers to team up on ‘smart’ air bag

December 19, 1996

DETROIT (AP) _ In an effort to reduce risks to children and small adults, the Big Three automakers are teaming up to develop so-called smart air bags that automatically adjust to people in car crashes.

``We can get the next generation of air bags into tomorrow’s vehicles more quickly than if we pursued these efforts individually,″ said Mike Thomas, executive director of the United States Council for Automotive Research. ``This collaboration benefits customers, suppliers, government regulators and the companies themselves.″

USCAR was founded four years ago by General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. to jointly address technological hurdles in the industry.

The goal of the venture, announced Wednesday, is to develop an air bag system that can automatically determine the size, weight and position of people seated in front of air bag compartments and adjust how fast the bags deploy, The Detroit News reported today.

Phil Recht, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said he was pleased with the decision.

``We welcome all efforts to build the research base that will permit rapid design and installation of reliable and effective smart air bags,″ Recht said.

NHTSA said last month that it will propose a phase-in schedule for automakers to make the new air bags. The agency has said it wants to start with the 1999 model year.

Fast-deploying air bags have saved more than 1,600 lives, but also have been blamed for the deaths of 32 children and infants and 20 adults _ mostly smaller women.

Amy Leszczynski, an USCAR spokeswoman, said the automakers’ decision to work jointly did not establish a budget or timetable.

``Everyone agrees in concept that smart air bags are a good idea, but when we get them is the big issue,″ said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety. ``If the industry is talking about the 21st century, that is too long.″

Morry Markowitz, a spokesman for the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said foreign automakers also are working on smart air bag technology. Mercedes-Benz and Audi will have new air bag systems in selected 1998 models, he said.

A Mercedes spokesman said the company’s SLK Roadster, which will debut next month, will have a system that can detect the presence of a baby seat.