The automotive airbag turns 25 years old
By Mike Hanlon
October 28, 2005
October 29, 2005 It is now 25 years since the first production car to be fitted with an airbag, an S-Class Saloon, rolled off the production line at Mercedes Benz in Sindelfingen – the culmination of over 13 years of development work and the beginning of a new era in vehicle safety. According to accident research, the airbag has saved over 14,200 human lives in the USA to date; in Germany, meanwhile, the airbag has prevented over 2,500 fatal injuries to car occupants since 1990. Mercedes-Benz offered the airbag long before any other car manufacturer and has so far equipped more than twelve million vehicles with this safety innovation. It has been fitted as standard in all passenger cars displaying the Mercedes star since October 1992. In recent years, Mercedes engineers have continued to develop airbag technology, for example by introducing side airbags and systems that adapt in line with the severity of the accident. Airbags are also set to become an integral part of the PRE-SAFE anticipatory occupant protection system, equipped with new, anticipatory sensors which will enable them to deploy in advance of a possible accident so as to reduce the forces exerted on the car occupants both before and during any impact. For the same reasons, the airbags of the future will also take into account individual parameters such as the body size, sex and age of the occupants.
The airbag is very much a part of Mercedes history. Like the crumple zone, safety steering system, seat belt tensioner, anti-lock braking system and other Mercedes inventions, it is a testament to the pioneering role played by the Stuttgart-based manufacturer in the field of passenger car safety.
The development of the airbag began in 1967 and required pioneering achievements in numerous fields. Although the idea for an air cushion of this kind had been around since the early fifties, engineers had been unable to come up with a solution to transform the vision into reality. However, the Mercedes team had made great progress with a discriminating sensor system and a gas generator capable of deploying the airbag in just 30 milliseconds. They also developed the tear-resistant airbag fabric, improved the airbag's inflation characteristics and finally made it possible to house the entire system in the impact-absorbing boss of a steering wheel.
After more than 250 vehicle crash tests, 2,500 sled tests and over seven million kilometres of trials in test cars, the airbag was finally ready for production in December 1980 when it celebrated its world premiere together with another innovation, the seat belt tensioner, in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. As early as 1991, some 28 percent of all Mercedes passenger cars were equipped with a driver's airbag. And it has been fitted as standard in all cars displaying the Mercedes star since October 1992.
US statistics: airbags have saved over 14,200 human lives since 1987
Right from the start, Mercedes-Benz had designed the airbag to supplement the three-point seat belt whose primary function was to provide additional protection in the event of a frontal impact. Accident research results confirm the wisdom of this approach: back in the seventies, around 30 percent of Mercedes car drivers wearing seat belts involved in very severe frontal collisions suffered life-threatening injuries; however Mercedes experts can confirm that serious injury rates of this magnitude are firmly a thing of the past thanks to the excellent interaction between the airbag, seat belt, belt tensioner and other protection measures.
If these Mercedes accident research results are projected to take into account all passenger cars, it emerges that the airbag has helped to save over 2,500 human lives in Germany alone since 1990.
The American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has calculated that airbags protect one in every three car occupants against serious injury in an accident. Furthermore, around one in six drivers and front passengers involved in road accidents owe their lives to airbags. Since 1987, the airbag has saved the lives of over 14,200 car occupants in the USA.
Mercedes innovations: sidebags and windowbags for supplementary protection
The Mercedes engineers built on their big lead in the airbag development stakes and continued to further improve the system. The world premiere of the driver's airbag was followed by the launch of the front-passenger airbag in 1988 and, in 1995, the introduction of one of the first side airbags for passenger cars. The latter has been supplemented by the windowbag since 1998. This was also the year in which Mercedes-Benz introduced adaptive airbags that deploy in two stages, depending on the severity of the accident, thus providing even more effective occupant protection.
In addition, the PRE-SAFE® anticipatory occupant protection system – unveiled by Mercedes-Benz in 2002 and still not available in this form from any other car manufacturer – further enhances the protective effect of the seat belt and the airbag. Advance tensioning of the front seat belts and repositioning of the seats ahead of a potential accident prepares the occupants for a possible collision, meaning that the seat belts and airbags offer the highest possible level of protection when activated.
State-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz passenger cars like the new S-Class are equipped with a total of eight airbags: two adaptive front airbags, four sidebags and two windowbags. As well as being able to test itself, the airbag technology is maintenance-free and remains functional for the entire lifetime of the Mercedes Benz passenger car.
Vision for the future: an airbag that is triggered before impact
Airbags will continue to play an important role in passenger car safety in years to come. Mercedes engineers are looking into the possibility of a protective system that automatically adapts itself to take into account the current accident situation and the car occupants. Sophisticated radar technology of the kind recently introduced in the new S-Class could help in this respect. If developed a stage further, this radar technology and other anticipatory sensors could provide the data needed to calculate the severity of an unavoidable accident before actual impact. Airbags could then become an integral part of the PRE-SAFE® system, deploying before impact in several slower stages and with a greater volume of air in order to protect the occupants for a longer period of time.
Another priority for the airbags of tomorrow is to provide even more personalised protection. By way of example, it should be possible to program the on-board computer with information such as the age, sex and biometric data (e.g. body size and weight) of the occupants in order to tailor the protection system to individual requirements.