The Evolution of Airbags

May 18, 2017

airbag pixabay
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Most of us who drive don't even give the airbags in our vehicles a second thought. We know they're there and we especially hope we'll never have to see them. But what about the people whose lives they've saved? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, airbags have saved the lives of over 39,000 people from 1987 to 2012. As technology advances and airbags improve even more, this number will certainly rise. So, who's to thank for this?

Who invented the airbag?

Originally created by Walter Linderer from Germany and patented in 1951, the air bag (at the time it was called a safety cushion) made its way into cars. Unfortunately, Linderer's method of inflating the airbag - compressed air - didn't work well enough to completely inflate it. Another fallible quality of this air bag was that it either required a signal from the driver to inflate or impact from the bumper.

Working off Linderer's idea, American John Hetrick developed his own patent in 1953 after he was in a car accident with his family and is responsible for the term "airbag". Having been in the Navy, Hetrick's idea for the airbag used technology inspired by compressed air torpedoes. Even though it was appealing to the automotive industry at the time, the airbag continued to elude development and production for over a decade.

It wasn't until 1968 when a man named Allen Breed patented a design for a sensor that could better detect a crash. A different propellant was also used to speed deployment of the airbag, making it a realistic safety feature for use in vehicles.

How have airbags evolved?

As airbags became more prevalent in the 1970s, they were often considered an alternative to seat belts. However, it was during this time that automobile safety was becoming an international issue. As a result of this, more emphasis was put on wearing seat belts for safety, with airbags as a supplement.

By 1984, the government mandated that cars manufactured after April 1st of 1989 must include a driver's side airbag or automatic seat belt. The automatic seat belt is now a thing of the past, but the airbag remains. In fact, by 1998, dual front airbags became a mandate and in order to reduce the number of injuries sustained from them, they were also redesigned.

By now, the airbag is leaps and bounds beyond where it began. Side-impact airbags aid in protecting occupants from collisions that occur on the side of a vehicle and offer additional protection in a rollover accident. Even more impressive are the sensory technologies that adjust where and how the airbags in a vehicle inflate. Able to detect things such as occupancy, posture, and weight of occupants, whether seat belts are in use, and how severe a crash is, airbags are "smarter" now. Thanks to these advancements, the risk of injury from airbags is less now than it was in the past.

What does the future hold for airbags?

The future of airbags will continue to improve. New technologies that detect accidents before they happen that either alert the driver to danger or deploy the airbags sooner are in the works. Injuries are still possible and do occur with their use. However, the amount of research that's done, coupled with new developments, is certain to enhance the effectiveness of airbags while bringing down the risk of injury.

About the Author

Kimberlea Buczeke is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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