DETROIT – Sensor technology advancements continue to drive market penetration of active safety systems such as stability control, but passive systems will see the most significant near-term growth, says General Motors Corp.

And side-impact airbags will lead this expansion, says Bob Lange, GM executive director-vehicle structure and safety integration.

“Passive systems are more likely to be added as standard equipment and active systems are more likely to be added as optional equipment,” Lange says after addressing the Automotive Press Assn. “As the penetration increases, I think the demand is very quickly going to require that (active systems) become standard.”

Side-impact airbags are having an impact on the market. Most applications feature this technology as standard equipment, Lang says.

“They’re not fully applied across the entire fleet, yet. But by 2010, they probably will be.”

For Lange’s prediction to come true, there will have to be a trend reversal. Ward's data show the rate of integration for domestic cars and light trucks fell dramatically last year compared with 2004.

Last year, side-impact airbags were available on 24.8% of U.S. cars and 15.5% of U.S. light trucks. In 2004, those installation rates were 27.7% and 26.9%, respectively.

Related document: % Factory Installed Equipment on U.S. Domestic Cars and Light Trucks, '05 Model Year

“Fifty percent of the nation’s fleet in 2008 will have inflatable head restraints,” Lange says, adding the technology will be available on every GM vehicle by model-year ’10.

He also reveals GM will expand availability of its dual-depth passenger airbag. But he declines to say when or which vehicles will benefit.

Currently available only on the Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS, the device tailors an airbag’s deployment according to the occupant’s stature.

Stabilitrack, trade name for GM’s electronic stability control (ESC) system, also will become standard across the auto maker’s lineup by model-year ’10. The growing sophistication of sensor technology enables this trend, Lange says.

“What we’re seeing is that most technologies develop as standalone sensor devices to begin with. And then as we look at our list of (opportunities), we find it expanding. So what we end up doing is integrating most of the functionality in single sensors, sometimes through software in the sensors, sometimes through software in the control devices.

“Sensors are advancing as rapidly as we can put them into the vehicle development process. The real effort is in integrating sensors so we can minimize the number that we have to add.”

Meanwhile, Albert Ware, director of vehicle safety and GM’s crashworthiness lab, tells Ward's the auto maker’s dedicated rollover research facility in Milford, MI, will be up and running by September.

The $10 million, 38,000 sq.-ft. (3,530 sq.-m) site will conduct 150 tests annually, Ware adds.

ESC has shown to have a major impact on the incidence of rollover. A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests it can reduce single-vehicle rollover fatalities by 56%.

And with suppliers expecting ESC installation rates to reach 50% by 2008, why is cash-strapped GM investing so much to investigate rollovers?

“We’d like to have zero fatalities,” Lange says. “There’s a whole bunch of causes for rollover. Even with electronic stability control, half of them still occur.”

emayne@wardsauto.com