It might sound extreme, but it's perfectly safe.
The development of new airbag designs continues unabated, with Toyota's latest effort being one of the most elaborate we've yet seen. According to a patent found by CarBuzz at the US Patent and Trademark Office, Toyota is working on a new upper-body-surrounding airbag design that will not only protect an occupant's head from injury but will also shield their face and support their neck and shoulders in a collision.
In the patent sketches, the shape of this new airbag looks closer to a wrestling headlock than an inflatable head protection device, but there are good reasons for this. While current airbags do a fine job of protecting against head- and chest injuries, they all lack efficacy in one critical area: neck protection.
This new Toyota patent should alleviate this shortcoming because it's designed to keep the occupant's head in a stable position by preventing lateral head movements while keeping the occupant's upper body and head in alignment with each other by eliminating any torsional forces on the occupant's neck. Consequently, side impacts will be handled more effectively, while oblique collisions should have little effect on the occupant's upper spinal area.
Unlike most airbag designs, this new patent locates the airbag unit in the seat's head restraint. Its operation is equally unusual, with staged deployment to ensure that the airbag takes shape around the occupant. Pre-collision sensors will aid in this goal by initiating deployment a fraction of a second before the collision occurs. This will assist the airbag in getting into the appropriate shape before the inertial forces can significantly alter the occupant's orientation.
Deployment first occurs in a lateral direction, with the first airbag section reaching from the headrest to the front of the vehicle, past the occupant's head, and on the same side as the seat belt buckle's location. The second deployment stage has the airbag's free end sprout an extension that reaches back, towards the occupant's other shoulder, with a small canvas tether keeping it from straightening too far.
At the same time, a third deployment stage inserts another cushion between the bending point and the vehicle's roof, providing further protection in the upward direction. The primary deployment section also contains an inflating shoulder pad to eliminate upper-body rotation on the side where the vehicle's diagonal safety belt section cannot hold the shoulder in place.
With all these restraining airbags in position, the occupant's upper body and skull will be held securely, augmenting the protection offered by the rest of the airbag suite and the vehicle's safety cell. When combined with other airbag innovations, such as Hyundai's crotch airbag, safety scores will surely improve, even if they mean that insurance- and repair costs will follow a similar upward trajectory.
According to the patent filing, this new airbag is designed to work in tandem with the existing frontal-, side- and curtain airbags, so it will perform a supplementary safety function rather than replacing any currently-available airbags. No timeline for the introduction of this new design has been indicated.
Still, chances are it will debut in something upmarket, like a future Lexus LS, before trickling down to more ordinary offerings over time.
Join The Discussion