The History of Airbags

The inventors that pioneered airbags

Inflated air bags
Patti McConville/ The Image Bank/ The Image Bank

Airbags are a type of automobile safety restraint like seatbelts. They are gas-inflated cushions built into the steering wheel, dashboard, door, roof, or seat of your car that use a crash sensor to trigger a rapid expansion to protect you from the impact of an accident.

Allen Breed - History of the Airbag

Allen Breed was holding the patent (U.S. #5,071,161) to the only crash sensing technology available at the birth of the airbag industry. Breed invented a "sensor and safety system" in 1968, the world's first electromechanical automotive airbag system.

However, rudimental patents for airbags go back to the 1950s. Patent applications were submitted by German Walter Linderer and American John Hedrik as early as 1951.

Walter Linderer's airbag was based on a compressed air system, either released by bumper contact or by the driver. Later research during the sixties proved that compressed air could not blow the bags up fast enough. Linderer received German patent #896312.

John Hedrik received U.S. Patent #2,649,311 in 1953 for what he called a "safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles."

Airbags Introduced

In 1971, the Ford car company built an experimental airbag fleet. General Motors tested airbags on the 1973 model Chevrolet automobile that was only sold for government use. 1973, Oldsmobile Toronado was the first car with a passenger airbag intended for sale to the public. General Motors later offered an option to the general public of driver side airbags in full-sized Oldsmobile's and Buick's in 1975 and 1976 respectively. Cadillacs were available with driver and passenger airbags options during those same years. Early airbags system had design issues resulting in fatalities caused solely by the airbags.

Airbags were offered once again as an option on the 1984 Ford Tempo automobile. By 1988, Chrysler became the first company to offer airbag restraint systems as standard equipment. In 1994, TRW began production of the first gas-inflated airbag. They are now mandatory in all cars since 1998.

Types of Airbags

There are two types of airbags; frontal and the various types of side-impact airbags. Advanced frontal airbag systems automatically determine if and with what level of power the driver frontal airbag and the passenger frontal airbag will inflate. The appropriate level of power is based upon sensor inputs that can typically detect: 1) occupant size, 2) seat position, 3) seat belt use of the occupant, and 4) crash severity.

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