Recognized as a critical safety device in every passenger vehicle in the United States since 1998, airbags offer a soft “pillow” to land on in a crash. The science behind how these safety devices work is staggering, but basically the airbag has only a fraction of a second to inflate at just the right time to slow the passenger’s motion without an abrupt halt. There are a number of things that have to happen simultaneously in order for the airbag to be triggered, and this is governed by a complex computer program.
At the time of an accident, a number of sensors send information to the car’s computer about whether the impact is coming from the front, back, side, or is a rollover, and then the computer activates the appropriate airbags. All this occurs in milliseconds. Unfortunately, recent crash tests show that airbags sometimes fail to function properly, the malfunctions primarily being caused by faulty software and problems with sensors.
In May 2014, Ford Motor Co. recalled 600,000 SUVs due to airbag malfunction. Other major auto manufacturers, including Nissan and GM, have acknowledged problems with malfunctioning airbags in this same year. The combined recall totals more than 6.5 million cars and trucks – over 30% of the total.
A Complex Algorithm Causing a Complex Problem
Many auto design engineers feel that the growing complexity of all automobiles is the problem. Many current automobile models feature as many as 11 separate computer-controlled airbags, protecting passengers from head to knee. Complex computer algorithms must work in sync to ensure the appropriate airbags deploy at exactly the right moment. It may be logical that this technology, which has saved thousands of lives, would be continually improved upon. At some point, however, the number of situations these devices must be prepared for surpasses the computer’s ability to keep up.
Improving Airbag Technology
While auto manufacturers have found “buggy” software and faulty sensors to be problematic, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been under pressure to gain a better understanding of this complicated safety device. Though the NHTSA has been studying the problem of airbag failure for over 10 years, the devices continually evolve, creating a moving target of sorts, as the issue becomes more complex with each new model.
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