General Motors lays claim to manufacturing the first commercial automotive airbag. But GM couldn't have done so without ideas and solutions that surfaced far from the r&d offices.
According to GM history, the company's Delco division - now Delphi Corp. - produced the industry's first airbag in 1974 for the Oldsmobile Toronado. That was three years after the original U.S. patent for airbags expired. The patent was held by an independent Rhode Island inventor named John Hetrick.
According to the story that Hetrick told for decades, the idea for an inflatable safety cushion came to him in 1952. He was on a country drive with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. Cresting a hill, Hetrick saw a large rock in the road and braked hard. He and his wife both instinctively reached out to prevent their daughter from hitting the instrument panel.
Hetrick made drawings for his "safety cushion" assembly that night. With patent in hand in 1953, Hetrick began calling on automakers and suppliers to sell the idea. There were no takers. Years later, the inventor would complain that executives repeatedly told him that safety devices would not sell. Consumers wanted to pay for speed and creature comforts. They did want not expensive safety features.
Both GM and Ford Motor Co. did kick the idea around, though. Both did research on the airbag and ran tests in the late 1950s, although the results did not impress the automakers.
Safety hits fever pitch
But by the mid-1960s, the industry was on a collision course with safety.
Thirteen years after Hetrick began pitching the idea, following the rise of industry critic Ralph Nader, the Johnson administration signed the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. That created an ongoing source of pressure for the industry to adopt safety features, such as mandatory seat belts. One feature that didn't make it onto the table at first was the airbag.
|Top global airbag suppliers|
|SUPPLIER||2004 PRODUCTION*||ESTIMATED VALUE|
|1. Autoliv||60.2 million||$2.8 billion|
|2. TRW||26.3 million||$1.2 billion|
|3. Takata||22.7 million||$1.07 billion|
|4. Toyoda Goesi||14.4 million||$641 million|
|5. Delphi||8.28 million||$418 million|
|Source: CSM Worldwide|
The patent expired in 1970 without one commercial application. Federal regulators attempted to mandate airbags in the mid-1970s. But they ended up backing away for another 15 years.
But even as other automakers, such as Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar, began voluntarily embracing airbags as a luxury feature in the 1980s, the technology was still being perfected. One issue was the early gas propellant required to inflate the bags - sodium azide. The substance was prone to explosions in the factory and limited in production. The second issue to be sorted out was an industry standard for trigger mechanisms. Another independent inventor, Allen Breed, influenced that debate.
Breed makes his mark
Breed had made his mark in the 1960s with a patent for an electromechanical device used to trigger missile detonations. He realized the similarities between a missile explosion and the detonation of a sodium azide-powered airbag inflator, and spent the 1980s marketing his technology through Breed Technologies Inc of New Jersey. Breed became a primary supplier of airbag parts.
Over the course of the decade, the more simple Breed approach gave way to purely electrical methods of inflating bags. Those favored suppliers with expertise in sensor technology.
Airbag systems have become increasingly sophisticated since becoming standard components in the 1990s. Current technologies are moving toward smart airbags that anticipate the position and size of vehicle occupants.
Using sensors embedded in the cabin and seats, onboard computers can track the posture, mass and angle of a passenger. They can then direct the bag's inflation to absorb a passenger's impact where it is most needed.
Airbags also continue to proliferate in the vehicle. Since first being offered only as a driver-side feature, and then also for front-seat passengers, systems include rear-seat protection and side-impact curtain bags.
As the placement of bags increases, so does the need for better system integration. Safety systems must link front, side and rear passenger seating and external vehicle sensors on all four sides of the body. The integration reaches into seating components, adding tension to seat belts prior to an impact. Advanced restraint systems also communicate with the vehicle's intelligent braking and steering components.