The History of Airbags

The History of a Pioneering Safety Technology

A crash test dummy impacting an airbag

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Like seatbelts, airbags are a type of automobile safety restraint system designed to mitigate injury in the event of an accident. These gas-inflated cushions, built into the steering wheel, dashboard, door, roof, and/or seat of your car, use a crash sensor to trigger a rapid expansion of nitrogen gas contained inside a cushion that pops out on impact to put a protective barrier between passengers and hard surfaces.

Types of Airbags

The two main types of airbags are designed for front impact and side impact. Advanced frontal airbag systems automatically determine if and with what level of power the driver-side frontal airbag and the passenger-side frontal airbag will inflate. The appropriate level of power is based on the readings of sensor inputs that can typically detect occupant size, seat position, seat belt use of the occupant, and severity of the crash.

Side-impact airbags (SABs) are inflatable devices designed to help protect the head and/or chest in the event of a serious crash involving impact with the side of a vehicle. There are three main types of SABs: chest (or torso) SABs, head SABs, and head/chest combination (or "combo") SABs.

The History of the Airbag

At the dawn of the airbag industry, Allen Breed held the patent (U.S. #5,071,161) to the only crash-sensing technology available at the time. Breed had invented a "sensor and safety system" in 1968. It was the world's first electromechanical automotive airbag system. However, rudimentary patents for airbag predecessors date back to the 1950s. Patent applications were submitted by German Walter Linderer and American John Hetrick as early as 1951.

Linderer's airbag (German patent #896312) was based on a compressed air system, either released by bumper contact or by the driver. Hetrick received a patent in 1953 (U.S. #2,649,311) for what he called a "safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles," also based on compressed air. Later research during the 1960s proved that compressed air was not capable of inflating the airbags quickly enough to be effective.

In 1964, Japanese automobile engineer Yasuzaburou Kobori was developing an airbag "safety net" system that employed an explosive device to trigger airbag inflation, for which he was awarded patents in 14 countries. Sadly, Kobori died in 1975 before seeing his ideas put into practical or widespread use.

Airbags Are Introduced Commercially

In 1971, the Ford Motor Company built an experimental airbag fleet. General Motors installed airbags in a fleet of 1973 Chevrolet Impalas—for government use only. The 1973 Oldsmobile Toronado was the first car with a passenger airbag sold to the public. General Motors later offered an option of driver-side airbags in full-sized Oldsmobiles and Buicks in 1975 and 1976, respectively. Cadillacs became available with driver and passenger airbags options during those years as well. General Motors, which had marketed its airbags as the "Air Cushion Restraint System," discontinued the ACRS option for the 1977 model year, citing a lack of consumer interest.

Ford and GM subsequently spent years lobbying against airbag requirements, arguing that the devices were simply not viable. Eventually, however, the automobile giants realized that the airbag was here to stay. Ford began offering them again as an option on their 1984 Tempo.

While Chrysler made a driver-side airbag standard for its 1988–1989 models, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that airbags found their way into the majority of American cars. In 1994, TRW began production of the first gas-inflated airbag. Airbags have been mandatory in all new cars since 1998.