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Safety first: A look back at the firsts in auto safety

Safety first: A look back at the firsts in auto safety image

Anton Andres / Mercedes-Benz, GM Archives, Volvo | November 03, 2016 18:00

Looking back at the pioneers of automobile safety

There's no denying it, cars are a lot safer than ever. We live in an age where you can get traction and stability control in cars less than a million pesos and we are now entering an age where safety is a lot more active than passive. How did we get here? Let's take a look back at milestones in safety.

At the dawn of motoring for the masses, automobile safety was practically unheard of, with the public barely grasping the concept of driving. Granted, speeds were low but roads were practically lawless during the 1910's and the early half of the 1920's. Laws were eventually set in place such as traffic lights and speed limits but it took a while before vehicle safety became a thing.

Safety glass was first installed standard in Ford cars

Pre-war innovations

Perhaps the first bit of safety equipment in cars would be shatterproof glass. In the past, windshields were practically the same as the glass panels fitted at home, shattering rather quickly as soon as there's an impact. In the 1900's French chemist Édouard Bénédictus discovered laminated glass, albeit by accident. In a laboratory, he dropped a glass flask containing plastic cellulose nitrate and instead of shattering into small pieces, it stayed in shape with a spider web pattern emanating from the point of impact. In the early 1910's, he formed Société du Verre Triplex, now known as Triplex glass, but it wasn't widely used in cars due to cost. Widespread use of this 'Safety glass' began in the late 10's, with Henry Ford making it a standard feature in his cars.

While safety glass prevented drivers and passengers from being thrown out the windows, there was no way to prevent them from being flung forward in the first place. By the 30's, manufacturers offered lap seatbelts (at extra cost) but with no mandate in place. Few customers bought them and took their chances. Even some race cars didn't have them installed. As cars got faster and the masses caught on to the idea of motoring, more and more people died on roads at an alarming rate. It would take another decade before people started doing serious studies on vehicle safety.

Mercedes-Benz Fintail demonstrating crumple zones

Post-war passenger protection

Meanwhile at Germany, the folks at Mercedes-Benz worked on a concept called the crumple zone. We have to credit Béla Barényi, an Austrian engineer at Mercedes-Benz. At the time, the notion of a safe car is that it had to be rigid, but Barenyi saw that it sent impact forces straight to the driver. As a solution, he divided the car's structure in three: the front crumple zone, safety cell, and rear crumple zone. Designed to absorb the impact in a collision, it softened the forces that were transferred to the occupants. The first car to fully employ this feature was the 1959 Mercedes-Benz W111, also known as the Fintail.

Over in Sweden, officials were also alarmed at the high number of fatalities on the road. Two engineers, Bengt Odelgard and Per-Olof Weman, started development that would hold drivers in place better than the then traditional lap belts. The two then presented their idea to Volvo which was further developed by Nils Bohlin, who developed the three-point seatbelt as we know it today. Since 1959, the three point seatbelt has been standard in Volvos as the rest of the world made do with optional lab belts.

GM introduces airbags to the masses

Softening the blow

On to the 60's and safety was starting to be taken more seriously. American lobbyist, Ralph Nader, criticized the automotive industry for not making safety equipment — such as seatbelts, collapsible steering columns and padded dashboards — standard in cars. He published Unsafe At Any Speed, chronicling the lapses in safety in current vehicles, and became the catalyst for change in the standardization of safety equipment in the US. As a result, padded dashboards, collapsible steering columns and seatbelts became de rigeur. It was also in the 60's where the airbag was at its infancy. Japanese inventor, Yasuzaburou Kobori, first developed it in 1963, which uses compressed air to inflate the bag quickly. It was further developed by Allen K. Breed by integrating a mechanical component for crash detection.

Ford and General Motors tried to adapt these systems by the early 70's, by offering them as options. GM called the system the “Air Cushion Restraint System” and was an option in 1974. With the driving public still not warming up to the concept of seatbelts, the first airbags were dismissed as, “expensive and unnecessary”. Later in the decade, the US National Highway Transport Safety Administration pushed for the compulsary use of seatbelts in cars in America. 

Mercedes-Benz with ABS

The dawn of Active Safety

The 70's also saw the beginnings of active safety, starting with anti-lock braking systems. It's difficult to believe that there was a computerized system for ABS as early as the then but In 1970, Ford introduced 'Suretrack' as an anti-lock system for the rear brakes. Chrysler, together with the Bendix Corporation, developed 'Sure Brake' for the Imperial, again, for the rear wheels. GM followed suit with 'Trackmaster' for Cadillacs and some Oldsmobile models. Japanese automakers were also getting in on anti-lock brakes as well. The Toyota Crown had it as an option in 1971, as well as the Nissan President. It was also in the 70's that the first generation of traction control systems would be available, namely in Cadillacs and Buicks.

Further advancements in ABS would happen in the mid-70's. Mercedes-Benz, along with Bosch, made the first electronic four-wheel multi-channel anti-lock braking system, which is now the system used in cars with ABS. It was first an option for the W116 S-Class in 1978 and spread throughout the range later on.

As we transition to the 80's, processing speeds went up and we were soon looking at a new aid that helps drivers avoid accidents more effectively. It would be Toyota to be the first to offer electronic anti-skid control in the Crown in 1983. BMW would also offer it as an option for the E32 7 Series. It would be in 1990 that advances in stability control came to market. Mitsubishi developed a rudimentary form of the system called TCL. TCL handled traction control and trace control, which reels in engine power but does not apply the brakes individually. By 1995, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz made stability control standard in select models in their respective ranges.

Volvo Blind Spot Monitoring

Collision Mitigation

More collision avoidance and mitigation systems would appear by the 2000's. While adaptive cruise control was an option in some Japanese cars in the 90's, it was Mercedes-Benz that would make the feature more mainstream when they introduced it in 1999. Blind spot indicators appeared as early as 2004 with Volvo offering it as an option throughout its lineup. In 2006, Mercedes-Benz revealed Brake Assist BAS plus in the W221 S-Class. It was the first of its kind wherein the system would warn the driver of a collision and eventually apply full pressure if no action is taken.

As you may have noticed, a lot of these firsts in safety started in flagship cars, out of the grasp of the masses. These days, you can now buy a car with some of these advanced systems for less than a million pesos. Stability control is standard on some B-Segment cars while other C-Segment cars offer even more advanced safety systems. We are now in an era where safety is a must and not a luxury. So what's next for automotive safety?

By the looks of things, manufacturers are looking at semi-autonomous driving and will eventually shift to full automation. While public opinion on self-driving cars is divided, the move is similar to the aircraft industry shifting to autopilot and glass cockpits, minimizing operator error as a main cause of an accident. Who knows, perhaps in the next century of motoring, autonomous driving will be better accepted. After all, we've come this far in the aspect of vehicle safety.