Key Safety Systems Inc. has found a new spot in the car for air bags, this one aimed at providing better protection for passengers' legs.
With the knee air-bag system making its debut on some European cars in 2007, the company is finding a way for the emergency device to not only save lives, but protect occupants' quality of life by helping them avoid broken legs and damaged feet.
Air bags have been gaining more use since they first began showing up to protect a driver's head and chest during a crash. Passenger-side air bags quickly followed.
Now automakers increasingly are adding side-impact air bags, which deploy from seats and from inside interior trim.
The knee air bag - or KAB - first will appear in Volkswagen AG's Bentley ultraluxury car and move from there into other VW vehicles. During a crash, the KAB expands out from a compartment tucked into the bottom of the instrument panel, cushioning the lower legs, ankles and feet in a crash.
The bag also helps to keep passengers in the optimum spot on the seat where the front and side air bags can help the most, said Robert Block, vice president of engineering and program management, during a Nov. 1 interview at the Sterling Heights-based auto supplier.
Unlike knee bolsters, made of a rigid plastic, the knee air bag is a flexible cushion that expands up and around the dashboard.
``It's really a new market. We're starting from scratch,'' Block said.
To bring the KAB onto the market, Key had to consider where to place the bag and its inflator within the plastic instrument panel, design a way to have it inflate properly and even reconsider the crash-test dummy used to study the concept.
A typical crash-test dummy has sensors through its head and torso to measure the force of an impact, and that information is translated into the types of injuries people sustain in real crashes. But the standard dummies lack sensors in the legs.
Working with dummy manufacturer Denton ATD Inc. of Milan, Ohio, the companies created a set of artificial legs that mimic real bones, joints and even the Achilles tendon, said John Musiol, director of engineering technical services.
The first-generation KAB has extensive plastics within the module and required Key to find the best placement inside the thermoplastic dashboard. Plastics will play a bigger part in future systems. Key plans to create a plastic housing, Block said.
While Key has limited sales set for the KAB so far, other automakers are interested, said Ronald Feldeisen Jr., senior vice president global sales and marketing. The company expects other customers to sign on, as customers become aware of the additional safety measure - just as they have invested in side air bags on more vehicles.