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Tuesday 12 December 2023


Autoliv Airbags on Bikes by 2025 By Ben Purvis

For more than 70 years, Autoliv (Stockholm, Sweden) has been manufacturing safety equipment for cars and in a landmark move it's turning to motorcycles with the aim of bringing airbag technology to the mass market in 2025.

Autoliv might not be a household name, but the company has been at the forefront of car safety for decades. It developed the first car seatbelt back in 1956, the seatbelt pretensioner in 1989, the knee airbag in 1995 and the side curtain airbag in 1998. In 2021, it signed a deal with Piaggio to develop an affordable on-bike airbag system for motorcycles and scooters.

Now the company says its on-bike airbags will reach production in the first quarter of 2025 as part of the company's ambitious goal of saving 100,000 lives per year by 2030. At the moment, Autoliv estimates its safety equipment saves around 35,000 lives per year, so the prospect of reducing motorcycle-related fatalities could be a significant step towards that target.

Although Honda has been equipping some Gold Wings with airbags across two generations of the bike, starting in 2006, the technology hasn't spread. Autoliv believes that by applying airbags to small-capacity bikes and scooters - the sort of vehicles that are vastly popular in places like China and India - there's scope to save a large number of lives. In those markets there's a lower use of helmets and a large proportion of motorcycle traffic is concentrated in cities, which means there are a lot of crashes where a car pulls out in front of a motorcycle, causing a direct frontal impact for the bike. It's in those circumstances that airbags promise to be particularly helpful.

'world's biggest automotive safety supplier getting on two wheels'

The Autoliv airbag system is generally similar to the one on the Honda Gold Wing, inflating a bag in front of the rider when it senses a frontal impact. It's suited to scooters and most motorcycles with upright riding positions (sports bikes with a forward-biased riding position are a tougher challenge because the rider's head is closer to the point of impact - reducing the time in which an airbag can be inflated). 

The system is made up of sensors, a wiring harness, an electronic control unit and the airbag itself - which uses an electric signal to start a chemical reaction that fills the bag with gas in milliseconds, just like those in cars. Because the technology is similar to car airbags, it can be cheap enough to be fitted even to low-cost bikes and scooters. 

The challenge, which Autoliv appears to have solved, is to get the airbags to react fast enough once an impact is detected: bikes don't have the long bonnets and crumple zones of cars, so the time between initial impact and setting off the airbag is extremely limited.

While airbags are only intended to be effective in frontal crashes, Autoliv sees them as part of a holistic safety solution. The company is also developing worn airbags, to be fitted in vests or even in backpacks, and has also teamed up with Airoh to develop a helmet-mounted airbag system. However, the motorcycle-mounted bags are likely to be the most effective in reducing deaths and injuries as they don't rely on the rider to make sure he or she is wearing all the right kit.

Given the existing relationship between Autoliv and Piaggio, it's likely that the first production versions of the airbag will appear on bikes from one of the Italian manufacturer's brands, which also include Aprilia, Vespa and Moto Guzzi. In 2022, Piaggio showed a prototype airbag-equipped version of the MP3 scooter at EICMA in Milan, so there's a strong chance that will be among the first models to get the system.

However, Autoliv is also expected to offer its airbag system to any other manufacturer that wants to adopt it, so in much the same way as many motorcycle brands use the same Bosch ABS braking systems, multiple companies could end up using the same Autoliv airbags in the future.