Last year Ford announced inflatable rear seatbelts would be a new safety feature that would first appear in the new Ford Explorer. Ford brought a demonstration seatbelt module to San Francisco, so we gave them a try.
The module included one seat with an seatbelt airbag that hasn't been deployed 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 (pictured above), 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 a usable condition involves a trip to the dealer. Ford pointed out that any time the seatbelt pretensioners activate the dealer also has to restore them to operating condition.
We also tried the seatbelt airbag when it hasn't been deployed, and found it to be a little softer than a standard seatbelt. Ford hopes the increased comfort level of this seatbelt will encourage rear-seat passengers in the US 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 new Ford Explorer due in the US in 2011 and go for around US$200 to US$300. We're still waiting to hear back from Ford Australia as to when the inflatable seatbelt will make its Aussie debut.