updated 2/9/2005 10:52:21 AM ET 2005-02-09T15:52:21

General Motors Corp. is introducing a new front passenger air bag that deploys differently, based on the severity of the crash, where the seat is and whether the passenger is wearing a seat belt.

The world’s biggest automaker planned to unveil the new air bags Wednesday at the Chicago Auto Show. They will be standard on two luxury sedans, the 2006 Buick Lucerne and the 2006 Cadillac DTS, which will go on sale this fall. GM spokeswoman Meganne Hausler said the company eventually plans to introduce the air bag on other vehicles.

The government is requiring all vehicles made after Sept. 1, 2006, to have advanced air bag systems, which determine how much to inflate the frontal air bags based on the passenger’s weight, seat belt use and seating position.

While conventional advanced air bags inflate to a single size but adjust the air pressure according to the passenger’s weight, position and belt status, GM said its new air bag goes further by adjusting the size of the bag as well.

GM’s new air bag has a tether that holds the bag back to a smaller size if it detects the passenger is seated too close, unbelted or could otherwise be injured. The tether releases if the passenger is far enough back and belted. GM said it takes the vehicle’s sensors only milliseconds to determine whether to unleash the full pressure.

Robert Lange, GM’s director of structure and safety, said early testing indicates the air bags could improve GM’s ratings in frontal crash tests.

Advanced air bags cost automakers about $127 per vehicle, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. GM isn’t revealing the added cost of installing the new air bag system, Hausler said.

Several GM vehicles already have advanced air bag technology, including the Cadillac Escalade, the Chevrolet Avalanche, Silverado and Suburban and the GMC Yukon.

Brian O’Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said he hasn’t seen technology like GM’s and the automaker said the new bags are the first of their kind in the industry.

O’Neill said one issue with advanced air bags has been false signals — such as a heavy bag on a seat — which automatically turns the passenger air bag off. He said manufacturers are so wary of harming passengers that they may err on the side of not letting bags deploy.

He said GM’s option of a smaller air bag could help that problem.

“It will more often be able to deploy the passenger side air bag without doing harm, so there’s a safety gain where it might have been turned off,” O’Neill said.

Wednesday’s unveiling was GM’s second major safety announcement in two weeks. The company said on Jan. 31 that it plans to put two safety features — OnStar and electronic stability control — in all of its vehicles by 2010.

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