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The Evolution of Airbags and What We Can Expect in the Future

Airbag Safety - Audi Mission Viejo

Image via Flickr by adam*b

Cars prioritize safety now more than ever, and technological advances that support this trend in safety are constantly on the rise. Much like the seatbelt, airbags are an early safety development that have evolved to become one of the most effective injury prevention tools, and most cars now feature a large array of airbags. Since their initial use, airbags continue to develop as a car’s top safety feature.

The First Airbags

In 1953, an industrial engineering technician named John Hetrick adapted Navy torpedo technology to patent a car “safety cushion.” However, it wasn’t until 1998 that the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act went into action, requiring all cars and light trucks sold in America to install front seat airbags.

Between 1953 and the 1980s, airbags underwent many adaptations. Seatbelts beat airbags in the federal race for required installment; however, they weren’t popular to use. As many car companies decided airbags would make up for the slack in seatbelt use, airbags showed some flaws. Small children and people of smaller stature often reported serious injury from impact, yet researchers found that by the late 1980s, improvements in air bag technology had saved more than 100,000 lives.

Side Airbags

The next popular implementation of airbags were side deployments, with the goal of further protecting the head and chest. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), side-impact airbags reduce fatality risk to drivers from driver-side crashes by thirty-seven percent, with a fifty-two percent reduction for SUV drivers. Popular side-impact airbag adaptions include torso airbags and side curtain airbags.

While not federally mandated like frontal airbags, national government requirements for a particular head and chest protection level in all vehicles led to an eighty-four percent standard use of side airbags by 2012. Plus, by 2017, all cars must feature side airbag deployment in rollover cases.

Knee Airbags

One of the latest hot-ticket safety features, the knee airbag, protects the lower limb from dashboard impact as leg injuries prove some of the most painful and long-term. Knee airbags sit in the footwell, under the steering column on the driver’s side, and under the glovebox on the passenger side.

Inflatable Seatbelts

Ford created their own breed of airbags with the inflatable seatbelt, introduced in the rear seats of the 2011 Ford Explorer. Now, many other Ford models and even Lincolns feature the safety airbag-belt hybrid, designed to reduce head, neck, and chest pain, along with back injury to passengers. Considering that the children and elderly, when sitting in the back row, need more protection, such adaptations make sense.

External Airbags

The future of airbags looks a bit less contained than before. Instead of hiding in the interior, airbags may eventually find a home in the exterior of cars, potentially saving the lives of both passengers and pedestrians.

TRW Automotive, with some funding by the European Union, is currently developing external airbags. Using radar-based sensors or cameras (much like the lane departure warning and accident prevention technology presently on the market), external airbags would deploy within twenty to thirty milliseconds.

Pedestrian Airbags

At the 2012 Geneva Motor Show, Volvo debuted the 2013 Volvo V70 with pedestrian airbags. Volvo’s technology deploys a U-shaped bag from beneath the car in instances of pedestrian collision. Such technology garners mass support for its promise of fatality prevention to pedestrians and cyclists. These pedestrian airbags may only be an option in Europe at the moment, but with success, they’ll like spread to U.S. manufacturers.

Airbags were invented from one man’s own brush with a frightening car crash. Since then, engineers have overcome and succeeded in creating a substantial life-saving aid for all drivers. The future holds more lives securely with prevention-minded advancements in airbag production.