The inventor of the airbag was several people rather than one. American John W. Hetrick and German Walter Linderer filed separate and independent airbag device patents in the early 1950s. Alan Breed then filed a patent for a more advanced airbag device in 1968 as did Yasuzaburou Kobori from Japan in 1974.
If you’re interested in learning more about who invented the airbag and why, then this article is for you. Read on to learn some airbag facts and figures, including around its inventors, evolution and safety impacts.
What led to the invention of the airbag?
Airbags are an advanced form of passive car safety system. Understanding their history begins with understanding the history of the car and how human society has responded to driving dangers.
Invention of the car
The automobile arrived as a novel technology in the late 19th century and revolutionized life in the 20th century. Enhanced personal mobility opened up all kinds of economic, social, and leisure opportunities but also brought new risks.
Increasing car-linked mortality and injury rates
While sharply rising rates of road deaths and injuries were noted from the early twentieth century onwards, the causes and remedies for the problem were not so clearcut. There was no immediate demand for vehicle safety measures
Cars were seen largely as neutral tools which were not inherently dangerous in the right hands. Road accidents and car deaths tended to be attributed to problems with driver skills and behaviors rather than to deficits in automobile design. Lawmakers attempted to reduce car risk by outlawing dangerous driving, placing road signs to guide motorists, issuing fines for infringements etc..
Early disinterest in car safety features
Poor understanding of traffic accidents meant that for many years people couldn’t even see the value of key car safety measures. Apparently only 2% of buyers were willing to pay for the option of seatbelts when offered by Ford in 1955.
Eventual acceptance of car safety features
Eventually the tide turned. With clear evidence on the table, car manufacturers, governments and the public came to accept that car safety features could reduce traffic dangers. Laws mandating installation of seatbelts were introduced in the US and many other countries in the 1960s.
Throughout the 1980s countries including the USA brought in further laws enforcing use of seatbelts. Today there are public compliance rates of over 90% with seatbelt laws in the USA and UK. Seatbelts have been a public health success story. By 2002, Volvo estimated that their three-point seatbelt design, shared for free with other car manufacturers, had saved more than a million lives.
The demonstrable success of seatbelts in protecting drivers and passengers boosted interest and trust in other similar and complementary safety features, paving the way for later airbag research and adoption. Still, the road has not been entirely straight and smooth.
In 1965, Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” speculated that a combination of seatbelts and airbags together might prevent many thousands of car crash dates.
In the early 1970s, Ford and GM both installed experimental airbags in test vehicles or government-only cars. GM then offered the option of its own "Air Cushion Restraint System” in Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Cadillacs in the mid 1970s before discontinuing ACRS option in 1977 due to lack of apparent consumer interest.
Ford and GM went on to spend years in unsuccessful lobbying against the introduction of airbag requirements, claiming that they were not viable for general use. Eventually, seeing improvements in airbag technology and accepting that they were fighting a losing battle, Ford began offering airbags again as an option in the 1984 Tempo model.
By the early 1990s airbags were installed in the majority of American cars. Since 1998, they have been a mandatory safety feature for both front seats in all cars and light trucks in the US.
Who was the inventor of the airbag?
The basic airbag as a safety feature for cars was invented independently by two men, American John W. Hetrick, who filed a US patent on 5 August 1952, and German engineer, Walter Linderer, who filed a German patent on 6 October 1951. Both of these airbag models contained a compressed air system which would be released by car impact or driver action.
Others might also be said to have been the inventor of the airbag in a more advanced form. Japanese car engineer Yasuzaburou Kobori died in 1975, a year after inventing his airbag "safety net" system which used an explosive device to trigger inflation. Meanwhile, Allen Breed invented an advanced "sensor and safety system”, which was patented in 1968, along with a succession of related airbag patents over later years.
How have airbags evolved?
Research in the 1960s showed that compressed air was insufficient to inflate airbags at the speed needed to counter a car crash impact. This led to development of chemical and electrical airbags which inflate far faster. For example, airbags may be activated by a crash sensor, triggering rapid expansion of nitrogen in a hidden cushion which is ejected on impact as a shield between passengers and hard surfaces.
Early airbags in the 1970s were bulky items designed to emerge from the steering wheel area and cushion a car’s driver in case of a crash. Side-impact airbags were introduced by Volvo in 1994, as additional protection for car occupants and a complement to their side-impact bars.
In modern cars, airbags are often part of a Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) in which the seatbelt and airbag are connected by multiple sensors, coordinating deployment for maximum protection of car occupants. Cars today usually have a number of airbags, potentially including driver, passenger, shoulder, knee, curtain, and other airbags.
Advanced frontal airbag systems can automatically assess the power needed for inflation of front seat airbags. Power level is set according to sensor readings which typically capture information including seat occupant size, position, seat belt use, and crash impact severity.
What was the first car with airbags as standard?
In Europe, the 1980 Mercedes-Benz S-class (W126) was the first car sold with airbags as an option. The Porsche 944 and Honda Legend offered airbags as standard by 1987. Among US manufacturers, Chrysler was the first to make driver airbags standard in six of its 1988–1989 models.
When did airbags become a legal requirement?
Airbags have been mandatory in all new US cars since 1998. In New Zealand, all vehicles have been required to have at least one airbag since 2001.
While drivers are encouraged to check that their vehicle includes airbags, there are no legal requirements for airbags in the UK, Australia, Canada or the EU. (NB In Europe vehicle manufacturers install airbags voluntarily - almost every new car sold in Europe is equipped with both front and side airbags.)
A final word…
In head-on crashes, researchers have found that front airbag reduce driver mortality by 29% and front seat passenger mortality by 32%. The US National Highway Traffic Administration estimates that from 1987 to 2017, frontal airbags have saved 50,457 American lives.
As comporting power in cars continues to increase, the winning safety combination of intelligent sensors, seatbelts and airbags may well evolve further in the future to give even greater protection.