Pretensioners secure occupants, arrive in big numbers in '01 As the 2001 models arrive in showrooms, buyer expectations are high. It's not enough to recycle last year's product or dabble with cosmetic tweaks.

If a value-minded buyer can't find something that performs better, feels more substantial, gets better mileage and - perhaps most importantly - is safer than the car he's driving, then he'll shop the competition. And probably find what he wants.

Suppliers will play a key role in delivering some of these goodies to consumers. In the area of safety, the seat belt pretensioner is a feature that celebrates a coming-out of sorts in the 2001 model year.

A pretensioner, placed at either the buckle or retractor, hugs an occupant into position by removing seat belt slack during a collision. Keeping a front-seat occupant from lurching forward is crucial to minimizing injury when the air bag deploys. It takes about 60 milliseconds for an air bag to fill up - a pretensioner can do its job in 10 to 20 milliseconds.

Limited in the past to applications on expensive luxury cars in the U.S., the pretensioner arrives now in serious numbers across multiple platforms in every price category.

Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., which is making major inroads in the low-priced car segment, will install pretensioners on every car it sells in North America in the new model year, even the $9,000 Accent. Toyota Motor Corp. already has pretensioners on all its North American vehicles.

Every automaker is using more of the devices, and some supplier sources suggest it won't be long before the domestic Big Three have pretensioners standard on U.S. vehicles as well.

The U.S. loves to think of itself as a trendsetter, but in seat belt pretensioners, it plays follow the leader, way behind the Europeans.

The devices first arrived in Europe (courtesy of TRW Inc. and Swedish competitor Autoliv Inc.) in 1987 model luxury cars. The product was a natural fit for Europe, where seat belt usage is extremely high, which is one reason why air bags have had slower adoption there than in the U.S. By the mid-1990s, pretensioners were installed on 75% of new cars in Europe.

Japan got its first pretensioners (supplied by Takata Inc.) on the 1992 Acura Legend. The first U.S.-built vehicles with pretensioners arrived in 1995, with buckle pretensioners from TRW.

Last year, about 91% of new vehicles in Europe were equipped with pretensioners, compared with 56% in Japan and a paltry 14% in North America, according to TRW.

The North American percentage may sound low, but three years ago, industry sources estimated that only 6% of U.S. vehicles would be equipped with pretensioners by 2000. Helping the market is the fact that seat belt usage is up in the U.S., to about 71% today.

Some cars today in Europe, including the Mercedes M-Class sport/utility vehicle, have four pretensioners - two in the front and two in back.

But now the rest of the world is embracing pretensioners. In 2000, TRW pretensioner production shot up a whopping 60%, from 8.8 million units worldwide in 1999 to more than 14 million units this year.

Next year, output should reach 19 million units, a level that should remain stable for a few years, says Roger Garrell, manager of product planning for TRW Occupant Safety Systems. TRW is preparing to launch 24 North American vehicle platforms with pretensioners between 2000 and 2004.

TRW and Autoliv dominate the pretensioner market, but Mr. Garrell concedes that Autoliv has a slight market edge. "We're hoping to correct that," he says. While the U.S. appears to be the hot emerging market, Mr. Garrell says there is still growth projected in Europe.

Between May 1999 and May 2000, Autoliv was sourced for pretensioners on at least 16 programs launching in 2001 or 2002. "In all these cases, the car companies decided to switch out regular retractors and put in pretensioning retractors," says Patrick Jarboe, Autoliv's director of marketing and investor relations.

Switching from a standard retractor to a pretensioning unit adds about $20 per car for two seat belts, Mr. Jarboe says. "It will be standard equipment at that point," he says.

Also boosting Autoliv's fortunes is the bankruptcy case of competitor Breed Technologies Inc., which has lost a number of pretensioner contracts to Autoliv, Mr. Jarboe says.

Delphi Automotive Systems, which exited the seat belt sector in 1989, put itself back into the business by teaming up last year with Ashimori Industry Co. Ltd., a prominent Japanese air bag and seat belt supplier.

Delphi is launching its first North American seat belt contract this fall, says Bob Wellens, Delphi's product team leader for seat belts. Delphi will launch its first pretensioner job in North America in the near future.