Posted on 26-09-2012
Filed Under (Industry News) by Chloe Davies

Airbags, after seatbelts, are probably the most valuable contribution to saving lives in car accidents.

But have you ever thought about where they came from, how long ago they were introduced, and how they’ve developed since?

Most car buffs will know that Mercedes-Benz introduced the first driver airbag in a 126 model series S-Class in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1992 that the driver airbag became standard equipment in all Mercedes cars. The first front passenger airbag appeared in the S-Class model series in 1987.

The principle had been patented as early as the 1950s.

The principal pioneers were a German, Walter Linderer, and American John W Hedrik – neither of whom were in the motor industry. Linderer was an inventor and Hedrik a retired industrial engineer.

Dubbed a Supplemental Restraint System (SRS), the technology consists of driver airbag and belt tensioner. When sensors detect a collision, a propellant charge is ignited and within a few milliseconds the nitrogen produced by this process inflates a bag made out of a special woven material. The resulting cushion protects occupants from impacting against the dashboard.

While the driver airbag is housed in the steering wheel, the front passenger airbag in its early manifestations occupied the spot where the glove compartment would normally have been. As airbag modules became smaller it was possible to incorporate them in other areas of the vehicle.

Swedish carmaker Volvo was the first to introduce side airbags as an option on its 850 models in 1994, while the first knee airbag was seen in 1996 in Kia’s Sportage.

In 1998 BMW introduced the head side airbag in the 7 Series.

It was designed to offer head protection in side-impact collisions and maintain inflation for rollover protection. This side airbag design was replaced by the curtain airbag – with Volvo showing its curtain airbags in the 1998 S80, which protected both front and rear passengers.

In 2009 Japanese carmaker Toyota developed the first rear-seat centre airbag, which deploys from the rear centre console.

Today even motorcycles have benefitted from airbag technology.

In 2006 Honda introduced the first production motorcycle airbag safety system on its Gold Wing. Honda claims that sensors in the front forks can detect a severe frontal collision and decide when to deploy the airbag, absorbing the forward energy of the rider and reducing the velocity at which the rider may be thrown from the bike.

The next step?

Inflatable seatbelts, with Mercedes-Benz becoming the world’s second automaker, after Ford with its Explorer, to introduce the inflatable technology in its cars. Designed to reduce head, neck and chest injuries for rear-seat passengers, it works much the same way as a traditional airbag. In a head-on collision the Beltbag fills with gas, ballooning it up to nearly three times its standard width. The larger surface area distributes force better over the whole chest, lessening the strain placed on the ribcage.

It will likely debut in the next S-Class, which is due for introduction in 2013.

Perhaps one day there will be an airbag that inflates around the entire car, protecting every part of it.

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