How Center-mounted Airbags Work

Where Can I Get This Head Bonking Prevention Technology?
Scott Thomas, a senior staff engineer for General Motors, demonstrates how a center-mounted airbag works.
Scott Thomas, a senior staff engineer for General Motors, demonstrates how a center-mounted airbag works.
Courtesy of General Motors

As was pointed out at the beginning of this article, the center-mounted airbag was brand-new on only three vehicles in 2013, and GM wasn't ready to say yet which other models might be next to get it.

If it prevents head-bonking so well, why not just throw it into every car in the fleet, you ask? Good question! The answer is simple: It doesn't fit. Airbag packaging, with the bag itself and the little explosives that set it off and the electronics that tell it when to go, is pretty bulky. Yet, in regard to some of GM's crossover-sized vehicles, like the Enclave, Acadia and Traverse, Sharon Basel at GM said, "the size of seat allowed us to get it to market much quicker." Putting a big bag like this, packed with explosives, into a tiny commuter car would have been an engineering nightmare.

The other reason, Basel pointed out, was that crossovers are really popular family vehicles. They're more likely than some teensy commuter car to have occupants in both the passenger and driver seats. As much as everyone wants to keep you from squishing your spleen against the center console, we really want to prevent the driver and passenger from knocking each other out (or worse) with a solid head bonk after a side impact.

Since this technology is so new and in so few cars, it's neither regulated nor required by the U.S. federal government. Basel made it perfectly clear: "This is an industry first in terms of concept, development, design, engineering and getting it into the marketplace."

You may still be wondering -- even after all of this information -- if a glorified balloon in a weird shape will actually stop a "supersized" American from pitching into the passenger seat. It will indeed. Thomas, along with Richard Wiik at Takata, designed the airbag to "give appropriate coverage and restraint for larger occupants." As high school physics teaches us, a larger body will have more energy. And if the center-mounted airbag works for the big guys, it'll work for anybody.

Author's Note: How Center-mounted Airbags Work

Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get to prove what an ignoramus you are -- even in your chosen field of expertise. This was one of those times.

I assumed that a center-mounted airbag would be in the center of the dashboard. Like, where the LCD screen is. When I emailed the kind folks at GM about an interview for this article, I tried to sound all smart, and as if I'd done tons of prep work. In truth, I'd only heard of center-mounted airbags about twenty minutes before. So I was all, "What might the drawbacks of such an airbag be? Does it displace the LCD screen or cause a major redesign of the air vents?"

The GM guy was all, "Um, no. It doesn't come out of the dashboard. It's mounted in the seat."

Which, once I'd actually looked at the press release I held in my hand and the pictures that came with it, was painfully obvious. The upshot was that when I finally did get an interview with the guy who kind of invented this thing, I didn't pretend to know any more than I did, and I made sure to review all the materials I had before talking to him. Lesson learned.

Related Articles


  • Basel, Sharon. Manager of Environment and Energy Communications for General Motors. Telephone interview conducted on Jan. 10, 2013.
  • General Motors press release. "GM Introduces Two Industry-First Safety Features." Sept. 30, 2011. (Jan. 16, 2013)
  • Thomas, Scott. Senior Staff Engineer for General Motors. Telephone interview conducted on Jan. 10, 2013.

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