How Center-mounted Airbags Work

Stuck in the Middle with You
Some dummies get together to demonstrate center-mounted airbag effectiveness.
Some dummies get together to demonstrate center-mounted airbag effectiveness.
Courtesy of General Motors

In the quest for head-bonk prevention, GM and Takata came up with a clever solution. Say you're cruising along and some dimwit runs a red light and T-bones your car. Or you hit a patch of black ice and slide into a telephone pole. Or your car gets kicked in the door by an AT-AT because you are driving on the planet Hoth in "The Empire Strikes Back." Any of these scenarios would be picked up by the sensors placed all over your car.

The sensors would trigger the airbag to deploy from the side of the driver's seat, right over the frozen Slushee you've got in the cup holder. The designers at GM and Takata were clever enough to make the airbag pop out in a curved shape so it doesn't literally blow up in your face. The odd-shaped airbag is designed to hold onto the driver and keep him or her from flying across the cabin to the other side of the vehicle. "We're trying to hook 'em," said Thomas, the lead engineer on this project at GM.

There a membrane that keeps the airbag upright between the two seats, so it works even if the driver is the only person in the car. But, since an airbag conveniently has two sides, the one center-mounted bag prevents a serious head-bonk situation between the driver and passenger. Still images from the crash test dummy sessions make it look like the dummies are snuggling and sharing a pillow while they nap; but in reality, they're avoiding the dreaded head bonk. Dummies.

The center-mounted airbag will only deploy when you're being kicked by an AT-AT in the side of the vehicle -- or in a rollover. But if you simply bang bumpers in traffic, or the AT-AT comes at you from behind, it will not deploy. As Thomas pointed out, you don't want it to deploy until you need it. Say the AT-AT kicks your rear bumper -- that might deploy your front airbag. But if he kicks hard (and you know he will), it could send your car rolling over a cliff. That's when you'll want the center-mounted airbag, and that's when you'll get it. "It's always there when you need it later," Thomas said, which sounds very comforting. Even on Hoth.