Groundbreaking Airbag Technology Earns Honda Safety Engineer the Highest Safety Engineering Excellence Award from U.S. Government

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Honda safety engineer Eric Heitkamp today received the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Department of Transportation for his work in leading the creation of a groundbreaking front passenger airbag design. Heitkamp accepted the U.S. Government Award for Safety Engineering Excellence at the 2023 Enhanced Safety of Vehicles (ESV) conference in Yokohama, Japan. Designed to decrease the chance of serious brain injury, the new passenger front airbag technology is now standard equipment in the Acura MDX, Acura TLX and Honda Pilot.

Eric Heitkamp at Honda

The U.S. Government Awards for Safety Engineering Excellence recognize individuals who have made exceptional scientific contributions in the field of motor vehicle safety engineering and for distinguished service to the motoring public. This is the 2nd consecutive excellence award won by a U.S.-based Honda engineer, with Sue Bai recognized at the 2019 ESV conference, the last time these awards were presented, for industry-leading efforts in connected vehicle technology.

Honda’s new front passenger airbag technology is designed to better manage lateral collision forces that can cause an occupant’s head to rotate severely at high velocity and slide off a conventional airbag, increasing the chance of serious injury. Heitkamp led development of the new airbag utilizing new research measuring brain injuries in vehicle collisions, including a landmark study of brain injuries led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Transportation.


Rather than the single inflatable chamber of conventional front passenger airbag systems, the new airbag operates something like a baseball catcher’s mitt, with an uninflated panel first catching and decelerating the occupant’s head with less force, while also directing it inward between two inflated chambers to cradle and protect the head. Specifically, the new passenger front airbag uses four major components: three inflated compartments consisting of a center chamber and two outward-projecting side chambers that create a wide base across the dash and the uninflated “sail panel” that stretches between the two side chambers.

The new airbag technology debuted in the 2021 Acura TLX, and this video about TLX safety advancements helps explain its operation:

The Enhanced Safety of Vehicles (ESV) conference is the most-prominent international safety technical event and is held every two years, hosted by an ESV member country selected by the participating international safety regulatory agencies. The global pandemic necessitated a one-year delay of the latest conference, originally set for 2022. ESV attendees include members of Governments, automobile manufacturers, technology companies, suppliers, academia – including safety researchers, students, safety advocates and other motor vehicle safety professionals, medical, insurance, legal and policy professionals, consumers, and media.


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