During a Sunday afternoon trip with his family in 1952 to the Pennsylvania countryside, an accident inspired John W. Hetrick to design, what will become, one of the most important inventions in automobile safety.
Hetrick was a retired industrial engineering technician, who received a patent in 1953 for what he called a “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles”. The first prototype for today’s modern airbags, was his U.S. Patent No. 2,649,311. The idea for this invention was to reduce injuries during emergency braking and frontal collisions, according to a story in American Heritage about his invention.
This is how that story goes: “In the spring of '52, my wife, my seven-year-old daughter, Joan, and I were out for a Sunday drive in our 1948 Chrysler Windsor. About three miles outside Newport, we were watching for deer bounding across the road. Suddenly, there was a large rock in our path, just past the crest of a hill. I remember hitting the brakes and veering the car to the right. We went into the ditch but avoided hitting both a tree and a wooden fence.
"As I applied the brakes, both my wife and I threw our hands up to keep our daughter from hitting the dashboard ... during the ride home, I couldn't stop thinking about the accident. I asked myself: 'Why couldn't some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?'"
After returning home, Hetrick immediately started sketching designs for his “safety cushion”.
On August 5, 1952, he filed his disclosures and waited more than a year for his patent. The process cost him about $250. German inventor Walter Linderer also received a patent in 1953 for an "inflatable cushion" to protect drivers in accidents. Their early airbag designs inspired others in the automotive industry to work on this safety feature. Ford and General Motors, for example, started experimenting with inflatable restraints in the late 1950's.
As the car companies started adopting this safety feature, they also discovered many challenges associated with it, such as, it must be able to sense a collision quickly and accurately, inflating in less than 40 milliseconds. Another challenge with airbags was that they could cause secondary injuries when passengers come in contact with them.
Mercedes-Benz started developing airbags on 1967, because of two advances: the rapid increase of accidents during the 1960s, and a new federal law for every car in the USA that was established in 1969 mandated ‘automatic occupant protection systems’. Then President Lyndon B. Johnson has said,” We can no longer tolerate unsafe automobiles,".
A mechanical engineer named Allen K. Breed from New Jersey invented a device that many believe gave birth to the airbag industry in late 1960s. The invention was reliable, with a five-dollar crash sensor. His crash sensing technology – being the only one of its kind – is considered the world’s first electromechanical automotive airbag system. Breed also helped design more than two dozen other car safety inventions, including an airbag that vents air as it inflates. This 1991 invention -- patent No. 5,071,161 -- was designed to "reduce the risk of secondary injuries by reducing the inflated bag's rigidity."
Breed later started his own company, which became the world's top manufacturer of crash-sensor supplies and inflator-modules. Today his company, Key Safety Systems, Inc., designs and produces airbags, seatbelts, steering wheels, and other safety systems.
The first car equipped with passenger airbag was the Oldsmobile Toronado. In 1980, Mercedes-Benz introduced the airbag in Germany as an option on its high-end model W126. IN 1990, Ford established airbags as a standard equipment in all its vehicles. The first accident between two vehicles where the airbag deploys to protect each driver occurred on March 12, 1990. By 1995, Volvo had started to offer side airbags and torso side protection airbags as options on its 850 models. The year 1998 is established as the year when the federal government made it mandatory to use dual frontal airbags on all passenger vehicles. The first airbags system for motorcycles came in 2006 on American Honda Motor, Corp.