Article by Haney Louka

Toronto, ON – It’s hard to believe it has been more than four months since AJAC’s annual Car of the Year competition – known in the biz as TestFest – took place in Niagara-on-the-Lake. And while identifying the year’s best new vehicles is the primary purpose of the Car of the Year awards, an equally important task is assigned to a smaller group of journalists, known as the AJAC Technology Committee. Twelve of us reviewed proposed entries from automobile manufacturers last November and pared the list down to ten based on the information provided.

On the eve of media day at the Canadian International Auto Show, the seven manufacturers that had eligible technologies offered presentations to educate us on their function and purpose.   This allowed us to dig deep into not only how each technology worked, but why each one might be important to the car buying public. Once the presentations concluded, we had a round table discussion and each ranked our top five technologies. The points were tallied, and the award for Best New Technology was announced the next morning along with AJAC’s Car and Utility of the Year. And the honours went to the front centre airbag by General Motors.

GM Centre Airbag
2013 AJAC Best New Technology – GM Centre Airbag. Click image to enlarge

One thing that came out of this year’s exercise is the realization that recognizing a single best new technology might not be the way to approach this in the future. The downside to this approach is that on one hand we have safety-oriented technologies that could save lives, but they won’t be appreciated by consumers on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, there are new performance, convenience, and entertainment technologies that can enhance our interaction with our vehicles every day that we get behind the wheel. Being able to crown only one winner means choosing between saving lives and making things more convenient or enjoyable. Hey, we never said this was an easy job.

With that in mind, we’ll be reviewing the possibility of categorizing entries for best new technologies in future years.

But back to this year’s winner: upon reading the description of GM’s new front centre airbag last fall, it was clear that such a safety technology had merit. But it wasn’t until the presentation by Scott Thomas, senior staff engineer in GM’s advanced restraint systems group, just how much potential it has toward reducing fatalities caused by side impacts.

Thomas has spent the last five years of his career working on this baby, and it shows: he got a bit emotional while he told us about a GM staffer who was driving a vehicle equipped with the new airbag was broadsided at an intersection, causing the vehicle to roll. The driver, who was alone, was unharmed.

He started with a convincing statistic: when rollovers are taken out of the picture (with rollovers it’s difficult to isolate the specific impact that causes a fatality), 39 percent of fatalities are due to side impact collisions. Of those, 29 percent occur to the “far side” occupant, or the person sitting on the side of the car opposite the impact. Before this valuable development, the only thing for a far-side occupant to hit upon impact was a part of the vehicle or an adjacent passenger.

In one particularly convincing photo, a Volvo S60 had received a severe impact from the passenger side, to the point where the passenger side of the vehicle was compressed to nothing. The fatality in this case was attributed to the driver’s head hitting the armrest on the passenger’s door. And yes, this driver was properly belted.

The airbag is best described as a catcher’s mitt that deploys from the right side of the driver’s seat. It has a figure-8 shape and employs tethers to give it the curvature and restraint it needs to be effective. It is deployed during side impacts from either side and during rollovers.

GM Centre AirbagGM Centre Airbag
2013 AJAC Best New Technology – GM Centre Airbag. Click image to enlarge

It’s not only designed to protect the driver though: both front passengers stand a higher chance of escaping injury during a side impact from either side because the airbag will act as a cushion between their heads.

A side-by-side stop-motion sequence showing the crash-test dummies in vehicles with and without the airbag drove the point home further, showing that the driver is kept in place much better when the front centre airbag deploys.

The new airbag will be offered on GM’s mid-sized crossover vehicles; the Buick Enclave will have it as standard equipment while GMC Acadia and Chevrolet Traverse will see it as an available option.

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