NEW YORK - During the 2011 Edison Awards ceremony April 5, Ford Motor Co. received three Gold Awards and one Silver Award for the automaker's MyKey, MyFord Touch, Rear Inflatable Seat Belts and SYNC AppLink, respectively.

In addition, Ford CEO Alan Mulally walked away with the prestigious 2011 Edison Achievement Award.

The annual awards ceremony, held at the historic Capitale Ballroom in New York City, sets out to recognize the most innovative products and services introduced to the marketplace in the past year. The awards are sponsored by the Nielsen Co., Discovery Communications, Science Channel, Spencer Trask and USA Today.

Ford's Rear Inflatable Seat Belts received the Gold Award in the applied technology category. The advanced restraint system is designed to help reduce head, neck and chest injuries for rear seat passengers -- often children and older passengers who can be more vulnerable to such injuries.

Ford introduced inflatable rear seat belts on the 2011 Ford Explorer. Over time, Ford plans to offer the technology in vehicles globally.

Advances in airbag inflation and seat belt construction methods have enabled Ford and its suppliers to develop inflatable seat belts that are designed to deploy over a vehicle occupant's torso and shoulder in 40 milliseconds in the event of a crash.

In everyday use, the inflatable belts operate like conventional seat belts and are safe and compatible with infant and children safety car and booster seats. In Ford's research, more than 90 percent of those who tested the inflatable seat belts found them to be similar to or more comfortable than a conventional belt because they feel padded and softer. That comfort factor could help improve the 61 percent rear belt usage rate in the U.S., which compares to 82 percent usage by front seat passengers, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data.

In the event of a frontal or side crash, the inflatable belt's increased diameter more effectively holds the occupant in the appropriate seating position, helping to reduce the risk of injury.

Vehicle safety sensors determine the severity of the collision in the blink of an eye and deploy the inflatable belts' airbags. Each belt's tubular airbag inflates with cold compressed gas, which flows through a specially designed buckle from a cylinder housed below the seat.

The inflatable belt's accordion-folded bag breaks through the belt fabric as it fills with air, expanding sideways across the occupant's body in about the same amount of time it takes a car traveling at highway speed to cover a yard of distance.

The use of cold compressed gas instead of a heat-generating chemical reaction -- which is typical of traditional airbag systems -- means the inflated belts feel no warmer on the wearer's body than the ambient temperature. The inflatable belts also fill at a lower pressure and a slower rate than traditional airbags, because the device does not need to close a gap between the belt and the occupant.

"It's a very simple and logical system, but it required extensive trial and error and testing over several years to prove out the technology and ensure precise reliable performance in a crash situation," said Srini Sundararajan, safety technical leader for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.

The inflated belt helps distribute crash force energy across five times more of the occupant's torso than a traditional belt, which expands its range of protection and reduces risk of injury by diffusing crash pressure over a larger area, while providing additional support to the head and neck. After deployment, the belt remains inflated for several seconds before dispersing its air through the pores of the airbag.