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Autoliv works to make airbags safer

Maker of inflators keeps producing smarter systems

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OGDEN — In a world where automobile airbags can have a dubious reputation, Autoliv, the largest airbag inflator manufacturer in the world, is intent on convincing people airbags are safe while working to make them safer.

Autoliv is producing automotive safety systems that are smarter than ever before; and with its eight Utah facilities, the airbag that could one day save your life may have been made right here in Utah.

Kathy Whitehead, manager of marketing communications of the Autoliv textiles division in Utah, said Autoliv's "intent is to optimize safety for every vehicle occupant, whether it is a child, a short-statured person, or a more severe crash."

The Smart safety system, also known as adaptive airbag systems, is new technology that will eventually allow a car to respond to a collision via an electrical control unit that considers a number of factors such as the weight, height and position of the passenger by using sensors in the vehicle.

The system will even be able to detect whether a rear-facing child restraint is in the front seat to automatically switch off passenger bags.

The system will cause "the airbag deployment and other safety systems to function harmoniously," based on the input of the sensors and the severity of the crash, Whitehead said.

Autoliv hopes to launch the system in the United States by 2003.

Utah facilities put Autoliv's new technology into motion.

Autoliv's North American headquarters is in Ogden. Also in Ogden is Autoliv ASP Inc., the holding company that supports the different divisions of Autoliv, some of which are located in Ogden, Tremonton, Promontory and Brigham City.

The four divisions of Autoliv in Utah each make a part of the airbag or its components.

The Autoliv Inflators division has four plants that make airbag inflators, the components that generate the gas that inflates the airbag. Autoliv Textiles has one plant that manufactures airbag cushions, the woven fabric that inflates in a crash.

Autoliv American Components supplies wires and other parts that are used in the inflators, and Autoliv North America has one plant that assembles airbag modules, putting the cushion and the inflator in the plastic steering wheel column.

In total, Autoliv provides Utahns with 6,380 jobs. Autoliv AP merged with Morton Automotive Safety Products (ASP) in 1997 to become Autoliv Inc.

Autoliv AP was Europe's leading automotive safety company, that pioneered seatbelt development and Morton ASP was the leader in airbag development. When the two merged, Autoliv became the leader in automotive airbag safety.

Autoliv Inc. has its headquarters in Sweden. The company has 60 wholly owned subsidiaries and joint ventures in 29 vehicle-producing countries. The company also has eight technical centers around the world.

Sales in 1999 totaled close to $3.8 billion and net income totaled close to $200 million.

Autoliv's inventions include the world's first side-impact airbag, an anti-whiplash seat and other front and passenger airbags, as well as different types of seat belts.

Autoliv supplies airbags to all major car manufacturers of the world. The Utah facilities primarily supply Chrysler and General Motors.

Improvements are being made every day in the safety industry, and Utah's Autoliv plants are often a part of the success.

In May, Autoliv was presented with the 2000 Pace Award for its side impact airbag inflator ASH-2.

The award is given by Ernst and Young and the trade magazine Automotive News and is awarded to companies that are committed to value-driven innovation in product, technology and management practices.

The ASH-2 inflator was created by Karl Rink and his research team at Autoliv Inflators, a division of Autoliv, and it was developed in the technical center in Ogden.

Rink has lived in Utah for 11 years and received his doctorate from the University of Utah. He began working at Morton in 1994 and has 21 inventions to his credit.

The ASH-2 inflator uses a chemical process called dissociation — the process by which a molecule is split or fragmented. Energy is released and used to heat and expand the stored gas necessary to inflate the airbag.

"It's primary achievement is the amount of time the bag can remain inflated using this gas to help with side impact and rollovers," said Tom Hartman, president of the Utah Autoliv inflator division.

The long inflation time makes the ASH-2 inflators well suited for Autoliv's curtain technology, which is an airbag that inflates out of the side roof railing of a car, protecting passengers' heads in side impact or rollover crashes.

The ASH-2 inflators will be used in cars that have curtain airbags in North America beginning this fall.

Rink said he has had a lot of fun developing the ASH-2. The idea came to him after thinking about how to fix some difficulties Autoliv was having with some products. He has a master's degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University and has previously worked at a jet-engine gas turbine manufacturer. He learned a lot about different chemical properties there and thought he might could use similar chemical reactions in airbag inflators.

Rink and his team worked on the theory and found that it would work. The concept then went to Tom Wilson, manager of side impact inflator development, who developed the official ASH-2 program.

Rink said Autoliv is continuing to work on new and improved ways to inflate airbags. "It's a very exciting time. We haven't reached the ultimate in airbag technology," he said.

Eighty percent of Autoliv's airbag inflators are developed in Ogden. Hartman said the products developed in Ogden are used worldwide.

Autoliv is focusing more on how to help protect people in side impact and rollover crashes because the U.S. Transportation Department estimates that about 600 deaths each year could be prevented if all cars had side-impact airbags with head protection.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 4,600 people are alive today because of their airbags.

Although the inflation of airbags has caused serious injuries and deaths, it is often due to the position the passenger is in when the airbag deploys, said the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS) in its May 2000 airbag safety publication.

If a passenger is not seated at least 10 inches from where a front or side airbag would inflate, injuries can occur. Thus, people should wear seat belts and sit properly in the car to avoid being injured.

IIHS said the back seat of the car is safest for children of any age. In a recent IIHS study, children riding in back are 36 percent less likely to be killed in a crash.

New types of airbags are being produced by Autoliv to decrease the number of airbag injuries by decreasing the force in which an airbag deploys.

The smart airbags, which are now being introduced in the United States, are a new type of airbag that use special inflators to meet the needs of different types of vehicles.

These inflators, called dual stage inflators, are being produced in the Utah plants, and allow an airbag to respond to the severity of a crash.

"What many people doesn't understand is that each vehicle is unique and the safety system must also be unique," Hartman said.

In a low-impact collision, only one inflator would kick in, providing enough inflation to protect the passenger. But in a high-impact collision, a second inflator would kick in and inflate the airbag more, and provide greater protection.

Gentler airbags are in development with fabric made of a special one-piece woven technology that includes tearaway threads. Based on the pressure of a crash, a hidden compartment would open, allowing a more gentle increase in pressure, Hartman said.