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Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Testing Ford's inflatable seatbelt

CNET Car Tech tries out Ford's seatbelt airbag technology.

Ford seatbelt airbag
Car Tech editor Wayne Cunningham tries out Ford's seatbelt airbag. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Last year Ford announced inflatable rear seatbelts, a new safety feature to appear in the 2011 Ford Explorer. Ford brought its demonstration module for the seatbelts to San Francisco, and we gave them a try.

Ford seatbelt airbag latch
The seatbelt latch is the conduit through which gas enters the airbag. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The module included one seat with an undeployed seatbelt airbag and the other seat with the demonstration seatbelt. We sat in that seat and fastened the shoulder harness. Instead of the explosive deployment that would happen in a real crash, the seatbelt airbag gently inflated until it rested like a giant yellow slug across our chest. Deployed, it felt quite comfortable.

The airbag resides inside the seatbelt strap. In an accident, the airbag fills with gas fed through the seatbelt latch, causing the strap to open up.

Ford says the seatbelt airbags are programmed to inflate at a lower impact force than would cause the front airbags to deploy, although the seatbelt airbags are also much less traumatic than the front airbags. After a deployment, getting the seatbelt airbags restored to usable condition involves a trip to the dealer. But Ford pointed out that any time the seatbelt pretensioners activate the dealer also has to restore them to operating condition.

Ford seatbelt airbag
The undeployed seatbelt airbag is a little thicker, with softer edges, than a standard seatbelt. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

We also tried the undeployed seatbelt airbag, which is a little softer than a standard seatbelt. Ford hopes the increased comfort level of this seatbelt will encourage rear seat passengers to use them more frequently.

This seatbelt technology is designed to improve safety for children and the elderly, the largest rear seat demographic.

Although Ford hasn't set pricing yet, the belts will be an option on the 2011 Ford Explorer and go for around $200 to $300. Other models haven't been announced yet, but a Ford representative mentioned that the Taurus would be a likely choice.