09 Airbag deploymentAirbags were first patented in 1951 (separately in both Germany and the United States) but didn’t turn up in cars until the early 1970s, first in an experimental fleet built by Ford in 1971, followed by General Motors putting them in Chevrolet Impalas in 1973; but these were restricted to government cars only. The first commercially available car with airbags was the 1973 Oldsmobile Toronado, fitted with a passenger airbag.

These airbags were different to the current technology in that they sought to provide a restraint system that would not require the wearing of a seat belt, but the idea could not be made to work as well. The first of the SRS airbags, SRS standing for supplementary restraint system or airbags designed for use with a belted person, were introduced by Mercedes-Benz in the premium S-Class in the late 1980s.

09 Airbag cThere were several associated technologies that had to be perfected before airbags could reach the market. One was electronic systems and sensors fast enough for the job, another was chemical inflators also fast enough to effectively deploy an airbag, which needs to be inflated in 60 milliseconds, or 0.06 of a second. Yet another was ventilation. In-car ventilation systems had to go through major overhauls to expel air fast enough from the cabin. Early experimental airbags not only blew out windows, they would have burst the eardrums of occupants.

All of this came together in the S-class and the tech quickly filtered down to other models and other brands, although some brands offered them as an option only. For example early Nissan Maximas were available with or without airbags, the airbagged model costing $1000 more. Take-up of the option was so poor that many dealers chucked the airbag in for free just to quit their stock of the unpopular model.

Posted August 2020.


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