Donnelly Beats Federal Safety Regulators

June 5, 2002
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HOLLAND – A new federal safety regulation taking effect this summer could put Donnelly Corp. in the driver's seat with one its newest technological gadgets.

General Motors Corp. plans to debut the Holland-based automotive supplier's automatic trunk release in its 2002 Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo models that hit showrooms this summer.

Donnelly hopes to land several more customers soon, as automakers seek to comply with a new National Highway and Safety Administration regulation taking effect Sept. 1. The rule requires that all passengers cars sold in the U.S. to have a device installed that allows people trapped in the trunk to escape.

The NHTSA regulation does not dictate what kind of device automakers must use. But Donnelly is optimistic most automakers will choose its SmartRelease system that automatically opens a car trunk when somebody is trapped inside.

"The law brings the problem more to light and we believe that our solution is certainly the most elegant and probably the safest and most protective choice for children, given their cognitive abilities," said Eugenie Uhlmann, vice president of new product development at Donnelly Electronics, a subsidiary of Donnelly Corp.

Donnelly began developing SmartRelease after GM sought a device to address the growing problem of children becoming trapped and, in some cases, dying inside car trunks.

The Holland firm's awareness of the problem heightened in 1998 when five young children in Salt Lake City died after becoming locked in a car trunk.

They were among 11 children nationwide who died during the summer of 1998.

Contributing to the problem is a change in vehicles over the years that makes it easier for curious children to gain access to a car trunk and to accidentally lock themselves inside.

Years ago the only access to a trunk was by using a key from the outside. Today one can access the trunk with remote keyless entry, a button on the dashboard or folding rear seats in the vehicle.

Concern over the deaths prompted Donnelly engineers, even before a new regulation was an item on the safety administration's docket, to begin working on a trunk-escape system.

Their first result was a manual release with an illuminated handle a child could pull to open a trunk from the inside. GM now sells the trunk-release kits at its dealerships nationwide for installation in existing vehicles.

Research, however, showed that children trapped inside of a trunk tended to become passive and were reluctant to reach up and pull the handle.  Thus Donnelly engineers began working on an automatic release, Uhlmann said.

Their efforts led to the development in mid-1999 of SmartRelease, a system using infrared sensing technology to detect the motion and body heat of a person locked inside or a trunk.  When the sensor detects the presence of a human, it and automatically releases the hatch and the lid springs open.

"They do not have to do anything to gain release from the trunk," Uhlmann said.

The system's development grew out of Donnelly's previous research into using infrared technology for a vehicle anti-theft device. Donnelly found it easy to quickly adapt that experience to SmartRelease, Uhlmann said.

In addition to GM, Donnelly is talking to several other automakers about SmartRelease, she said.

"We are in discussions with basically every other manufacturers," Uhlmann said. "This is an issue that everybody feels very strongly about."

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