An increasing emphasis on pedestrian safety in Europe and Japan is prompting the auto industry to look at ways to cushion the impact between a walker and a car, with research leading some to consider more plastics.
Automakers already have agreed to a voluntary pact with the European Union to make passenger vehicles more ``pedestrian friendly'' through a series of changes phased in starting in 2005. Japanese carmakers are looking at a similar time frame.
Those changes will require manufacturers and their suppliers to consider altering the bumpers and hood - areas most likely to cause fatal or serious injuries if they strike an adult's or child's leg or head. EU estimates the improvements could avoid up to 2,100 of the 9,000 annual pedestrian and cyclist deaths in their member countries annually.
Similar benefits could be expected for the 200,000 walkers and bikers injured each year.
``We are trying to protect people inside the car and people outside the car,'' said Sue Cischke, vice president of environmental and safety engineering for Ford Motor Co. Cischke spoke Feb. 11 during the Society of Plastics Engineers Global Automotive Safety Conference in Auburn Hills.
Automakers are looking at thermoplastics for exterior body panels, bumpers and even studying external air bags.
North American governments are not pushing for any adoption of pedestrian safety mechanisms for cars yet, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is watching what happens elsewhere, said Stephen Kratzke, associate administrator for safety performance standards at NHTSA.
``One of the difficulties is that it is hard to picture a circumstance where you would be struck by a vehicle at 30 mph, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go on,'' he said.
The agency first reviewed the concept 10 years ago, but could not get beyond that problem, Kratzke said.
Since then, though, studies are showing the real possibility of protecting pedestrians without hurting performance.
``Japan, in particular, has shown technology that can reduce the injury enough to make it intriguing,'' he said.
Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has created a version of its Civic sedan that uses thermoplastic body panels for their ability to absorb energy in an impact, yet still bounce back to its original form without damage. Traditional steel systems simply could not do that, noted Karel Huijser, global automotive marketing manager for GE Plastics.
Delphi Auto Systems Corp., meanwhile, is studying the potential for sandwiching an air bag within the hood module, providing a cushion for the head during the standard test speed of 35 kilometers per hour, said Srini Raman, manager of advanced safety systems for Troy, Mich.-based Delphi. Special contact sensors would trigger the air bag in an emergency.
The system also would work with a minimum amount of space, meaning automakers would not have to alter the body dramatically, but still would meet safety requirements, he said.
``Materials play a significant role, but we also know styling is a fixed constraint,'' Raman said.
At this point, Delphi's concept is only in early stages, he said. The firm considers the prospect of exterior air bags a ``second generation'' solution.
Further improvements also are on the way for bumper systems, with GE increasing tests on its injection molded Xenoy-brand polycarbonate/polybutylene terephthalate bumper system to show it can provide both needed protection to pedestrians and stand up to government tests for stationary objects.
Meeting multiple requirements will become increasingly important to carmakers anxious to make one bumper system for a vehicle it can sell in multiple markets - both in North America, where there is no pedestrian safety program at this time, and overseas.
Even if the United States does not adapt a pedestrian safety requirement, carmakers here still will have to respond to an external sales base, Huijser said.
``We are seeking one common design to meet a global business system,'' he said.