Airbags are one of the things you need, but hope to never use. Of course, no one with the right mind would like their car to crash for the airbags to blow up. But still it gives us the feeling of safety and protection while driving – thanks to their inventors. Here’s how this gas-inflated, built-in cushions were developed through the years to bring us protection from an impact in case of car accidents.
As with many good inventions, the idea of the airbag began with a good story. One Sunday afternoon in 1952, a retired American industrial engineer named John W. Hetrick was out driving his 1948 Chrysler Windsor to Pennsylvania countryside with his wife and seven-year-old daughter in 1952. About three miles outside Newport, they were watching out for a deer bounding across the road. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a large boulder appeared, causing Hetrick to hit the brakes so hard and veer the car into a ditch. As he did, both he and his wife instinctively threw their arms in the air to shield their daughter from hitting the dashboard. After they have calmed down and found out no one was hurt, Hetrick could not stop thinking of the accident.
When they returned home, Hetrick thought about a way to shield passengers from a sudden stopping of a car. He started sketching designs for his “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles” and patented it in 1952. His design included an underhood tank for compressed air and front passenger inflatable bags located on the steering wheel, the middle of the dashboard and the glove compartment. For passengers in the rear, the airbags were located on the back of the front seat. A valve would open in the compressed air tank and inflate the bag whenever a spring loaded weight would sense a sudden deceleration.
Hedrick waited for one year to receive his patent. He didn’t have the money to further develop his invention, so he pitched his idea to big car companies. Unfortunately, he got no response.
In Germany, inventor Walter Linderer got his German patent for the same idea three months after Hetrick got his American patent. Linderer’s airbag was based on a compressed air system, either released by bumper impact or by the driver himself. After proper research and testing on the technology in the 60s, it was found that compressed air cannot inflate airbags fast enough for maximum safety, making Linderer’s airbag an impractical system.
During the late 1950s, both Ford and General Motors started experimenting on an inflatable restraint system. They found that an airbag would be effective if only a sensor could detect a collision accurately and reliably, and if could inflate within 40 milliseconds or less. This was not how Linderer’s airbag works. Meanwhile, Hetrick’s compressed air idea does not work that fast enough, and his sensors were not that refined. The companies quickly discovered challenges associated with adopting this safety feature.
Airbags as alternative to seat-belts
In 1967, a mechanical engineer named Allen Breed created the first reliable airbags with sensors, which many consider as the start of the airbag industry. His crash sensing technology was considered as the first electromechanical automotive airbag system in the world, and he sold it for $5 then. His airbags used two layers of fabric that were vented in a way that when a passenger would come into contact with the airbag, some gas would escape, providing a less rigid and safer cushion. That same year, Mercedes-Benz also started to develop airbags for its vehicles.
The government began to become more involved in car safety issues because of the because of the rapid increase in accidents during the 60s. Jim Hall, National Transportation Safety Board said that the country have lost more Americans in the highways than in all the wars the country have fought. So in 1968, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required all cars to have seat belts. By the next year, the government proposed using passive restraints in cars to protect passengers not wearing seatbelts, but GM warned about serious injuries airbags can pose to children. It’s because the early fleet of experimental GM vehicles with airbags experienced seven fatalities, one of which was suspected to have been caused by the airbag.
The mandate for airbags were repeatedly being prevented and delayed, but it was finally ordered by the 1970s. By 1974, carmakers must either install automatic seatbelts or airbags, but these manufacturers opposed either option. Ford and GM were among the auto makers who lobbied against airbag requirements, claiming that the devices were unnecessary, impractical and inappropriate. However, the ruling only got delayed, not stopped.
In 1973, GM’s Oldsmobile Toronado became the first car ever with a passenger airbag. Later on, GM made its own air cushion restraint system (ACRS) available as an option for regular production cars such as Cadillacs, Oldsmobile and Buick models during 1974. They made cars equipped with ACRS on the driver side, driver-side knee restraint, and the passenger side. The passenger side airbag protects front passengers, and also included a dual stage deployment, which depended on the force of impact.
Airbags as supplement to seat-belts
During the 1980s, car manufacturers began to move away from their initial view of airbags as an optional thing to install or as a seatbelt replacement. The airbags became designated as supplemental restraint system (SRS) or supplemental inflatable restraints.
In 1981, Mercedes-Benz reintroduced the airbag in Germany as an option on its high-end saloon model, W126. Mercedes’ airbags use sensors that automatically pre-tension the seatbelts to reduce the passenger’s motion on impact (which is a common feature nowadays), and then deploy the airbag on impact. They made airbags and seatbelts to complement in a restraint system, rather than the airbag being considered as another option in the absence of seatbelts.
Airbags as standard safety equipment
Porsche built 994 Turbo with driver and passenger airbags as standard equipment in 1987, making it the first car to do so. The first Japanese car to have airbags is the Honda Legend. Meanwhile, in 1988, Chrysler became the first automaker in the US to offer airbag restraint systems as standard equipment, and later on, became the first American auto manufacturer to install driver-side air bags in all its automobiles built in the US. In 1991, all versions of the Chrysler minivans came with airbags. The 1992 Jeep Grand Cherokee was the first SUV with airbags available in the market, and the 1993 Dodge Rams became the first pickup trucks with airbags.
By 1990, Ford also made airbags as standard equipment in their vehicles. That same year, the first known accident between two cars in which an airbag deployed to protect each driver happened in Virginia, USA. A 1989 Chrysler LeBaron crossed the center line and hit another car of the same model head-on. Despite extensive damage to both vehicles, the drivers suffered only minor injuries because the airbags had deployed.
In 1991, a law required passenger cars and light trucks built after September 1, 1998 to have airbags for the driver and the front passenger. The NHTSA has mandated new rules for advanced airbags to give auto manufacturers more flexibility, and has required improved protection for passengers of different sizes regardless of whether they use seatbelts, while minimizing the risk to children, infants and other passengers caused by airbags. By 1999, the agency recorded that airbags already saved more than 4,600 lives in vehicular accidents.
In Europe, mainstream cars do not have airbags until the early 1990s. In 1991, only BMW, Volvo, Honda and Mercedes-Benz are offering the airbag, and only on higher end models. Then shortly after, airbags became a common feature on more mainstream cars.
Most early airbags were located in the front. In 2000s, more airbags began to appear even on budget cars. There are knee airbags, side curtain airbags, side torso airbags, seat cushion airbags, center airbag, rear airbags and rear curtain airbags.
Also available nowadays are the seatbelt airbags, in which the seatbelt itself inflates during a crash to reduce possible injuries to the rib cage or chest. The first automobile with a seatbelt airbag is the Mercedes-Benz ESF 2009 Experimental Safety Vehicle.
There are also vehicles with pedestrian airbags, which are mounted on the exterior to reduce injuries in the event of a vehicle to pedestrian collision. It was introduced in 2012 by Volvo V40.
Motorcycles are now built with airbags too. In the mid-70s, the UK Transport Research Laboratory tested various types of airbags on motorcycles, but the first with airbag safety systems are Honda’s Gold Wing motorcycles.