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The creation of the airbag

Creation of the Airbag

Airbags have become staple in the advanced car safety arsenal. Once only available as a premium option, they now come standard on new base models. We often take them for granted, giving little thought to their operation or how they came to be in our vehicles. Learn more about these ingenious safety systems as we explore below.

What Exactly Are Airbags?

An airbag is a driver safety device, supplementary to our seatbelts. Airbag systems use rapid inflating fabric bags as a driver/passenger restraint. In operation, airbags will inflate instantaneously once a collision is detected. Acting as a cushion, the bag absorbs crash energy passing through the occupant. Airbags can prevent a person from coming into contact with the interior of the car. Primarily these areas include the steering wheel, instrument panel and windscreen.

How Are They Used in Modern Cars?

Airbag technology has advanced tremendously over the last decade.  The most recent cars use airbag systems with an array of independent modules. These configurations can target specific areas such as driver, passenger, seatbelt, knee and side impacts.

Crash scenario data is monitored through numerous sensors integrated in the vehicle body. This data is fed to a computer controller allowing for calculation of crash severity, angle and type. Firing circuits are triggered to initiate the required airbag modules. These systems are designed for one-hit, the system will need replacing after each accident.

What Are Their Origins?

Experiments with car airbags can be traced back as far as 1941. Yet it wasn’t until 1953 that the first patents were filed. German engineer Walter Linderer and American John W. Hetrick claimed patents in their respective countries. Linderer’s system based on compressed air would inflate upon bumper contact or driver initiation. Although innovative, by the 1960’s further testing proved it was an ineffective system.

Hetrick developed his system with a desire to protect his own family. Whilst working in General Motors he dreamt of achieving it. Sadly his company did not want to invest in his patent. It wasn’t until after it had expired in 1971 that Ford began experimenting with their use.

A Japanese engineer, Yasuzaburou Kobori, developed an airbag safety net during 1964. It gained some traction with patents granted in 14 countries. Unfortunately he passed away on 1975 without seeing widespread use of his idea.

During 1967, Allen K. Breed had stumbled upon a breakthrough. He was the first to use a ball-in-tube system for detecting crashes. Using an electromagnetic sensor as a trigger, the system fired within 30 milliseconds. Instead of using compressed air, he used a small explosion to inflate the bag more effectively. Breed went on to market his innovative system to Chrysler.

Next, Easton, Yale & Towne developed a similar system “Auto-Ceptor” for Ford and General Motors. Initially it was offered for their US fleet vehicles in 1970s. Then the GM Oldsmobile Tornado became the first of the domestic vehicle to offer an airbag system.

Widespread adoption of airbags was still strongly opposed for a many years. They were largely considered unfeasible and unnecessary. It wasn’t until early 1990’s that airbags became commonplace in the American and European markets.

published: 06/10/2015 10:56:57

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