Ford Motor Co.'s new inflatable seatbelt, demonstrated by the auto maker recently, should help mitigate passenger injuries but also could hike the cost of car insurance, as well as the price of a vehicle offering the technology.

The safety option will debut on the '11 Explorer cross/utility vehicle next year.

The inflatable belt especially will be helpful in protecting young children and elderly passengers, who more often are seated in the rear and more susceptible to head, neck and chest injuries, Ford says.

In the event of a collision, the belt deploys over an occupant's torso and shoulder in 40 milliseconds, distributing the force of the crash across five times more of the body than a traditional belt. It also provides support to the head and neck.

However, the belt, which inflates with cold compressed gas during collisions at speeds of 8 mph (13 km/h) or more, must be replaced after deployment. Ford has yet to announce the cost of replacement or the price of the belt itself.

Such costs may be a factor in consumer acceptance of the feature, admits Steve Kozak, Ford's global chief engineer for safety systems. “There are no serviceable components in the system,” he tells Ward's at a media event showcasing the new belt.

“You'd have to go to a Ford dealer and get new seatbelts,” he says. “Of course it's going to have some impact on insurance costs because of the repair, but if you consider the coordinated medical coverage some insurance companies have, it may not.”

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the safety benefits provided by the inflatable belt may negate the additional cost of replacement following a collision.

An accident severe enough to deploy the belt likely would result in a “tow-away” scenario that would send the vehicle to the body shop, he says. “We won't know exactly what the costs on insurance will be until we get real-world evidence.”

In some cases, the belt may deploy while the front airbags do not, says Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president of Sustainability, Environmental and Safety Engineering.

“(The inflatable belts) go off when the pretensioners go off in a low-speed accident, and the front airbags will go off later in some cases but won't go off in low-speed maneuvers,” she says.

“We're working very hard to keep (belt replacement) affordable, because it would be an important consideration for people.”

Following deployment, the new belt remains inflated for six seconds before deflating via pores in the airbag. Kozak says the 6-second standard was set in accordance with research provided by the Michigan State Police.

“We want to keep (the belt) inflated to cover you in multiple-roll situations,” he says. “What we found in the state police data is in the most severe (case), the vehicle rolls about three and a half times.

“So we took a vehicle out to the test track and rolled it about three and a half times and took a stopwatch to it, and it's about 6 seconds.”

In addition to offering enhanced protection to rear passengers, Ford says some 90% of research participants indicate the inflatable belts also are more comfortable than traditional seatbelts, which could help increase rear-belt usage.

National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. data shows rear-seatbelt use in the U.S. is 61%, compared with 82% for front seatbelts.

When Ford's inflatable belts launch in the '11 Explorer next year, they only will be offered as optional equipment for the outboard second-row seats and not the middle seat, says Saeed Barbat, manager-Passive Safety Research and Advanced Engineering.

“The reason we have put the technology on the outboard seats is because of occupancy rate,” he says. “They're used more than middle (or third-row) seats. Eventually, (inflatable belts) could be migrated to other seats.”

While Ford's inflatable belt is targeted at both older adult and young children, the feature most likely will appeal to parents, analysts say.

“Even when you're taking care of your elderly parents, the (fact) they are more frail in an accident isn't stressed maybe as much,” says Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with AutoPacific, an automotive marketing research and product-consulting firm in Troy, MI.

“When you're told as a mom your 5-year-old is going to be safer with this (belt), you're all over it,” she says.

While Brinley says the inflatable belts will help cement Ford's image as a safety leader, she also admits the costs of replacing the belts will play a factor in consumer acceptance.

“Accident repair costs could impact insurance costs,” she says. “We'll have to see how that shakes out. It's one of the things (Ford) will have to manage, and watching that will determine how quickly consumers gravitate to (the technology) and how excited they get about it.”

Ford says it has worked the better part of a decade to perfect the inflatable belt, which was introduced as a concept at the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The auto maker says it worked with a number of suppliers in developing the belts, selecting Michigan-based Key Safety Systems Inc. to develop the end technology.

Following the inflatable belt's debut in the Explorer, Ford says it plans to offer the technology in its vehicles globally.