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Airbags – Patent Analysis, Innovation, and Future

The airbag market is expected to reach $47 Billion by the year 2030 with a CAGR of 5.4%. Considering the market cap, a few of the top manufacturers of airbags are Autoliv, Joyson, TRW, ZF, Toray Industries, Daicel, Toyoda Gosei, Hyundai Mobis, Neaton Auto, Kolon, Delphi, and Robert Bosch. Apart from these OEMs, there are also a number of manufacturers that only produces inflators for airbags such as Thomasnet, ARC automotive, and Seair. The airbag industry has also seen several mergers and acquisitions in the last 30 years, starting from the acquisition of TRW automotive by ZF, followed by the acquisition of Takata by Key Safety Systems, and the merger of Key Safety Systems with Joyson.

What is an Airbag?

An estimated 600 million passenger vehicles travel the roads of the world each day, and airbags play a vital role in protecting people from injury as a result of automotive accidents. Fundamentally, an airbag is a bag filled with air that acts as a cushion in vehicle-related emergency scenarios. As per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the airbag is an inflatable cushion built into a vehicle that protects occupants from hitting the vehicle interior or objects outside the vehicle (for example, other vehicles or trees) during a collision. Although airbags have a huge application area in the marine and lifting industries also, this article discusses their automobile applications.

The airbag "for the covering of airplane and other vehicle parts" traces its origins to a United States patent, submitted in 1919 by two dentists from Birmingham. Air-filled bladders were in use as early as 1951. The airbag specifically for automobile use is credited independently to John W. Hetrick, who filed for an airbag patent on 5 August 1952, which the United States Patent Office granted on 18 August 1953. Overall, it took more than 90 years (from the first automotive driven in 1886) to understand the need for a safety restraint system in vehicles moving at a speed of 20+ Kmph.


Basic Components of Airbag Modules

A typical airbag module contains an inflator or gas generator and a deflated airbag. The inflator or gas generator further comprises an initiator, a gas generant, and a diffuser nozzle. Based upon the presence or absence of gas, there are two major principles of operating an inflator named as pyrotechnic inflation and compressed gas inflation. As per IIHS, airbags deploy as quickly as 10-20 milliseconds upon detection of a crash, due to instant inflation provided by inflators.


Airbags are usually made from woven fabric, which may or may not be coated. Airbags must be flame resistant and impermeable to gases. Nylon textiles i.e. polyamide is the most commonly used fabrics to weave airbag cushions for automotive applications and general manufacturing. Approximately 18% of total automotive textile is attributed to airbag production i.e. equivalent to over 145,000 tons of annual output.


Further, the airbag as a complete safety restraint system (SRS) also comprises a crash detection sensor and a controller to trigger the initiator upon detection of the crash. Airbags are deployed based on signals sent to the controller from a vehicle’s crash sensor. The controller will only deploy the airbags if a substantial collision is detected or a collision factor above a set threshold is identified, such as in a head-on accident or when the vehicle surpasses the speed mark of 16 kilometers per hour. Upon a signal from the sensor and the controller, it produces a gas—usually argon or nitrogen—which fills up the airbag cushion and force the inflator to expand and deploy.

Different types of Airbags

The airbag market is majorly segmented based on the type of inflator used, the number of inflation stages, and its implementation areas. Based on the type of inflator, an airbag is either a pyrotechnic-initiated airbag, a compressed gas-initiated airbag, or a hybrid airbag. In the context of a number of inflation stages, an airbag can either be classified as a single-stage airbag or a dual-stage airbag. In terms of their implementation areas, airbags are categorized as side airbags, driver airbags, passenger airbags, overhead airbags, hood airbags, knee airbags, and pedestrian airbags.


Side airbags are mostly deployed in pillars, seats, and headliners of the frame of the vehicle. While the driver’s airbags are deployed on the steering wheel, roof, and dashboard of the vehicle. Apart from inflation-based airbags, Ford also worked on bellow-based knee airbags which come out of the glove box or instrument panel of the vehicle.


Top Manufacturers of Airbags

The airbag market is expected to reach $47 Billion by the year 2030 with a CAGR of 5.4%. Considering the market cap, a few of the top manufacturers of airbags are Autoliv, Joyson, TRW, ZF, Toray Industries, Daicel, Toyoda Gosei, Hyundai Mobis, Neaton Auto, Kolon, Delphi, and Robert Bosch. Apart from these OEMs, there are also a number of manufacturers that only produces inflators for airbags such as Thomasnet, ARC automotive, and Seair. The airbag industry has also seen several mergers and acquisitions in the last 30 years, starting from the acquisition of TRW automotive by ZF, followed by the acquisition of Takata by Key Safety Systems, and the merger of Key Safety Systems with Joyson.


Patent Analysis - Airbags

A quick analysis of 107,814 patents revealed that the top 10 players in the airbag domain own 24% of the total patents. Autoliv, Toyoda Gosei, Toyota, Takata, Hyundai Mobis, Honda Motors, Ford Global, Nihon Plast, Kia Motors, and General Motors are the top 10 patent filers. An interesting insight that needs extreme consideration is that 11 out of the top 20 patent filers are automotive OEMs rather than airbag manufacturers and suppliers. Joyson, ZF, Neaton, Kolon, and Delphi are nowhere even in the top 30 patent filers.

In the context of the geographical distribution of patent filing, China and Japan account for 30% of the total filed patents. Considering the fact that the first patent related to airbags was filed in the United States, it is still lagging at 3rd position with Germany and Korea at 4th and 5th positions. Indian jurisdiction has also seen recent updation in airbag-related government regulations i.e. mandatory 6 airbags in every vehicle manufactured after October 1, 2022, and lieu of that, it stands at the 9th position in the airbag-related patent filing.

IP Investment Trend - Airbags

After 1953, the next big year for airbags came in 1993 when the airbag-related patent filing count touched the apex of 1000. An interesting fact to consider is that the last 10 years’ patent filings are equal to the patent filings of 60 years from its inception. This IP investment trend displays the huge inclination of automotive companies toward the safety of passengers.

Are Airbags Really Safe?

Airbags are installed to improve safety and provide protection to the passenger during a car crash event. But these can also be the cause of severe injuries and even death in the case of a faulty operation. Also, these can lead to an uncertain mild injury even when they operate properly. Faulty airbags can result in significant bodily harm.


Takata is one of the airbag manufacturers which faced huge scrutiny for its exploding airbags. NHTSA confirmed that 19 people in the United States were killed when their defective Takata PSAN air bag inflators exploded. In addition, at least 400 people in the United States faced injuries due to exploding Takata airbag inflators. Approximately 60 million vehicles with Takata airbags have been recalled till now. Long-term exposure to high heat and humidity was identified as the major cause of uncertain airbag explosions. Ford, Mazda, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Mitsubishi, Cadillac, Chrysler, Citroen, Dodge, and Holden were a few of the automotive OEMs which also went through major vehicle recall due to the faulty Takata airbags.


How are Companies Making Airbags Safer?

Amid the scenario where airbags themselves were putting harm to the passenger due to sudden impact, ventilation of the inflating gas inside a deployed airbag became came up as a solution to mitigate the impact. Majorly all the airbags come with a vent, either on the back or side walls of the airbag that varies from company to company.

Major innovations in the airbag domain are taking place in the context of the ventilation mechanism. General Motors became the first company to introduce flexible venting technology to its Chevrolet Cruze in 2013. The technology reduces the risk of inflation-induced injury by allowing the driver's forward momentum to effectively push the air out and away. An interesting fact to consider is that General Motors and Takata co-developed this flexible venting technology.

Most recent innovations - Airbags

  • Hyundai Mobis has been leading the airbag in innovation with its world’s first panoramic sunroof airbags and Hug airbags. While the sunroof airbags justify their name as it is deployed from the headliner along the sunroof of the car, on the other hand, Hug airbags are more inclined towards the autonomous vehicle. The hug airbag deploys from the seat to completely cover the passenger irrespective of the seat’s orientation.

  • Not far behind Hyundai, some other companies are also working towards airbags for future vehicles with flexible seating options (reclining seats, campfire configurations, etc.). Airbag suppliers such as Autoliv and Joyson have been developing seat-mounted airbag systems that provide cocoon-like passenger protection. Specifically, the Life Cell airbag from Autoliv and the Embrace airbag from Joyson are key examples of the same, which come out from the side bolsters and headrest of a seat to form a cushioned shell around the upper body of the passenger.

  • Till now, traditional airbags were focused on in-cabin protection of the passenger. Nowadays, external airbags are also in development. One outcome of such development is a pedestrian airbag from Volvo, which is fitted under the bonnet near the windscreen. In the event of certain frontal collisions with a pedestrian, the sensors in the front bumper react and the airbag inflates if required, based on the force of the impact.

  • Other external side airbag includes one developed by ZF, which is designed to reduce crash forces on a vehicle during side crashes. This airbag uses precrash sensors to detect a sudden side impact and deploys a large external airbag from under the side sill of the vehicle to cover the driver and rear passenger doors.

  • Some companies are also working toward wearable airbags such as Helite vest airbags and Hovding helmet airbags. During normal riding, while wearing a vest airbag, a tether connects the vest to the motorcycle. During a crash, when the rider and the bike start separating, the tether is pulled, which further activates a CO2 cartridge to inflate the vest. The said cartridge can be replaced to reuse the jacket or vest. The helmet airbag from Hovding is collar based airbag. It is configured to deploy out of a collar worn around the neck when an abnormal movement of the cyclist indicating a crash is identified by an integrated sensor.

Conclusion

The airbag industry has seen steep development and implementation in the last 20 years. But it will be interesting to keep a check on how effective these developments be in context to the safety of the passenger. The airbag industry expanded from marine applications to automotive and in the last 5 years saw an expansion in pedestrian safety applications as well. Let us see if someday a jetpack may also need airbag deployment.


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