The premise of an airbag built into a seatbelt isn't a new one (such concepts first emerged nearly a decade ago), but Ford will be the first company to actually implement the technology in a production vehicle. The automaker announced it would be fitted in the rear seats of the next-generation 2011 Ford Explorer.
"We think that inflatable seatbelts will be another game-changing technology for Ford," said Ford engineering VP Paul Mascarenas.
At a first glance, the new belts look and function like a traditional seat belt. Beneath the surface, their construction differs. An air bag is sewn into the shoulder portion of the belt, and inflates with cold air (to prevent burns) in a collison. When inflated, Ford says the belt helps distribute crash energy over a larger portion (five times larger, in fact) of the passenger's body, reducing the possibility of injury to passengers of all ages, but especially for children and elderly people who often sit in the back and are more suspecptable to seatbelt-related injuries. The act of inflation will also counteract a passenger's forward inertia in much the same way an airbag does for front occupants. (Though, for obvious reasons, the seatbelt inflates more slowly than an air bag).
Ford claims focus group participants found the new belts slightly more comfortable to wear, given they're slightly thicker and padded to accommodate the air bag system. Ford believes this point, along with the additional safety offered by the system, will encourage more passengers to actually use their belts. According to the company, surveys indicate only 61 percent of rear seat passengers regularly use their seatbelts, while 82 percent of front-seat occupants buckle up.
Although the technology will debut in the 2011 Explorer (which will move to a unibody platform), Ford hopes to eventually implement the inflate-a-belt system across its portfolio.
Ford is not revealing how much they will charge for the seatbelts, which will be option, saying only that they will be "affordable."