They don't always get it right, but it's a miracle they work at all.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
ExpertiseAutomotive technology, smart home, digital health.Credentials
One of our viewers in New York, Gerald T., told me he is fascinated by crash-test videos but puzzled by the different ways airbags deploy in various cars, even when subjected to the exact same crash. The answer lies in the the brain of the airbag.
That brain is the Airbag Control Module, or ACM, a hardened computer in each car that keeps communicating with airbags even when the car around them is disintegrating. It gets constant motion data from a series of accelerometers around the vehicle and must decide if and when airbags should be deployed. If the answer is yes, it must be done during the key 20 milliseconds of what is only about a 100 millisecond impact. Talk about threading the eye of a needle.
Watch this: Why air bags don't always deploy
But why airbags don't just deploy liberally in every impact comes down to three factors:
Prevent injuries and save lives: This is the main goal, of course, and airbags are said to prevent some 2,800 auto fatalities per year. But doing so requires the ACM software consider the nature of an impact, its direction and rotation, the crumple characteristics of the car its installed in, and the distance between each airbag and occupants. Its like taking an AP Calculus exam in a fraction of a second. The answer isn't just "deploy airbags" because of the next two factors:
Minimize airbag injuries: They are not completely benevolent devices and often cause their own fractures, bruises, and burns as they do their job. ACM programming is carefully tuned to only use them when the alternative is even worse.
Minimize airbag replacement costs: Airbags cost roughly $1,000 apiece and can only be used once. In some cases, airbag replacement can make up the lion's share of collision repair costs, so deploying them is not taken lightly otherwise a lot more cars would be totaled by insurers.
Many people are surprised that there isn't a standard airbag scheme used in every car, but that's because airbags are as smart as seat belts are dumb. Maybe we need a new bumper sticker: