Thirty years ago on this month of September, at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, Mercedes-Benz introduced a W126 generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class fitted with a front passenger airbag – claiming it to be a world’s first. The same W126 model had also introduced the driver’s airbag six years earlier in 1981, also claimed to be a world’s first.
This message of Mercedes-Benz introducing the world’s first airbag was repeated by the Stuttgart’s public relations machinery often enough that all but the nerdiest car enthusiast genuinely believed that Mercedes-Benz was the inventor of airbags.
The image below is taken from an options specifications book for all 1974 model year Cadillac cars, 7 years before airbag was offered in the S-Class. The term Air Cushion Restraint System (ACRS) is General Motor's (GM) marketing speak for airbags.
So how then could Mercedes-Benz repeatedly claim that it produced the world’s first series-production car with an airbag?
The answer lies somewhere between continuity of offering, legal definitions of airbags used in today’s cars and well-honed, consistent public relations.
The title to the world’s series-production automotive airbag could’ve easily gone to General Motors. In many ways, GM holds legitimate claim over Mercedes-Benz in offering the world’s first airbag.
GM had already introduced airbags (marketed as ACRS) to a small number of Oldsmobile Toronado sold to fleet customers in 1973, nearly a decade before Mercedes-Benz.
The public was offered ACRS-equipped cars from 1974 onwards in a variety of full-size Buick and Cadillac models, but within a few years GM’s management balked at the cost, backtracked and discontinued the option in 1976. GM would spend the next 20 years lobbying against proposals by the US Federal to make airbags a compulsory feature.
When Mercedes-Benz installed a driver’s airbag into a series-production W126 S-Class in 1981, eight years after GM's pioneering Oldsmobile Toronado, the American giant was busy resisting proposals by the US government to make airbags compulsory. GM funded public relations campaign and lobbyists to discredit the safety potential of airbags, describing it as unproven, dangerous 'trial balloons.' In doing so, GM lost all moral high ground for it later claim credit that it was the first to introduce airbags.
Image from CurbSideClassic.com.
Airbags only became mandatory in the US in 1997, much of the delay was believed to be due to resistance from American Big-3 car makers.
GM’s resistance was partly due to their opinion that safety features don’t sell (at that time). Their own market research pointed that consumers want a good looking large car with a large powerful engine. In GM’s opinion, spending money to develop airbags was simply not a good idea.
GM’s claims against airbags weren’t entirely untrue, as there have been fatalities caused by the airbags (this was pre-Takata crisis days) and their own market research showed that American buyers don’t trust airbags, and are concerned of accidental deployment if the car hits a pothole. GM was also right about three-point seat belts being a far more important safeety feature to promote than airbags.
The early GM cars equipped with ACRS were legally sold without seat belts – something that is unimaginable today but GM is allowed to do so because ACRS was legally defined as a restraining system, a replacement for the then-standard two-point seat belts, and early test results showed that it was effective enough.
As many American drivers and passengers of that era weren’t using seat belts anyway, the always active nature of the ACRS was seen by both GM and the US government as a potentially better solution than cajoling states to pass seat belts laws.
The US legal system can be rather peculiar. The Federal government doesn’t have the right to enforce seat belt laws. Instead, seat belt laws are voted and passed by individual states.
Somehow, a government forcing its citizens to wear seat belts can in the USA, be seen as interfering with the freedom and individual rights of its citizens. Until today, the state of New Hamsphire for example, have successfully resisted against passing seat belt laws.
USA’s unique regulatory and legal landscape played a big part in influencing GM’s approach to using airbags as a primary rather than a supplementary restraint system, stalling its progress.
Mercedes-Benz was not exactly a late comer that stole the title from GM. It had been conducting studies on airbag technology since 1966. The first crash test with a prototype airbag was done in 1968. The German car maker would later file a patent for its own version of airbag technology in 1971, one that operates on a slightly different concept from GM’s.
What made Mercedes-Benz’s solution different (and eventually succeeded) was that the Germans viewed airbag as a complementary feature to three-point seat belts, rather than as a replacement.
One of the main obstacles that frustrated GM in perfecting airbag technology was how to contain the high pressure compressed air safely, and how to control the airbag’s explosive inflation in a safer manner.
By viewing airbags as a complement to three-point seat belts, Mercedes-Benz was able to side-step the problem. The company’s own tests showed that trying to contain the high pressure compressed air was futile, as airbag only achieved maximum effectiveness when used in combination with a three-point safety belt.
Instead, Mercedes-Benz’s alternative was to use an inflator that rapidly inflates the airbag on-demand by igniting a propellant charge, thus side-stepping the issue of containing high pressure compressed air.
The image below is a sample of an early airbag crash sensor, an exhibit at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
In technical terms, Mercedes-Benz’s airbags are defined as Supplemental Restraint Systems (SRS), meaning that it must be used together with seat belts (rather than replace seat belts). SRS is the airbag operating concept used by every car maker today.
Mercedes-Benz also based its claims on being the first on the the continuity of its airbag offering in its cars, hence they often qualify their claim as first in a 'series-production car.'
While Mercedes-Benz often include the claim to the world’s first airbag in its marketing materials, the company tones down the message somewhat for the US market. Instead, it communicates a slightly different message that says ‘1971 – World’s first airbag patent’ rather than Europe and other market’s ‘1981 – World’s first airbag.’
Between 1966 and 1981, Mercedes-Benz’s trail blazing efforts encountered several unexpected challenges. One of them was that German regulations defined airbags as an explosive device and thus engineers working on it had to obtain the necessary certification, certification to work on bombs!
In 1972, the company had to even built a detonation chamber to legally test airbags. The facility is literally a mini bomb test lab, with reinforced walls and roof that could lift off if there was too much pressure inside the chamber.
At that time, crash labs and even crash test dummies didn’t exist yet. Prior to airbags, Mercedes-Benz had been studying on crumple zone structures. Before they could develop and test crumple zones, they had to develop a way to accelerate the vehicle without a driver, and ways to record crucial engineering data.
Without high speed winches and control systems available in modern crash labs, early crash testing was done outdoors using hot water propelled rockets. Without crash test dummies, engineers resorted to using mannequins from clothing shops! The exhibits below are on display at Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
Controlling the hot water rockets was difficult. Occasionally, the rockets will push the car elsewhere, on in this particular case documented in the image below, down into a stream beside the test track!
Mercedes-Benz’s first crash test facility would only come in 1973, in Sindelfingen.
It is unfortunate that the pioneering work of GM engineers in developing airbags were not sufficiently credited. It’s a classic example of how short-term minded, flip-flopping management decisions could negate the first-mover advantage of any company.
Mercedes-Benz on the other hand, despite not having the first mover advantage, was consistent in its work and was willing to commit over 20 years to perfect the technology. Once they've decided to work on something, they followed it through, and strived to find solutions to problems encountered rather than abandoning the entire project.
As we've read, many of the tests required to develop airbags could not be conducted as the necessary instruments/tools have yet to be invented, and German regulations were complicating matters too, but the team improvised. The consistency and dilligence are what won Mercedes-Benz the public relations battle. Today, few would argue against Mercedes-Benz's pioneering status in developing airbags.
Contrary to popular opinion, Europe does not have any regulations requiring airbags to be fitted. European regulation regarding supplemental restraints is technology-neutral and if a car company is able to achieve the same level of crash protection using alternatives that are cheaper than airbags, it will be acceptable.
Audi for example, had for a short period of time, achieved this via its Procon-ten airbag-less safety steering wheel, which was cheaper than airbags and are just as safe.
The features uses the vehicle's engine as a lever to retract the steering wheel into the dashboard in the event of a frontal collision. However its success was short lived as it could only work with longitudinally mounted engines.
Another example is the Volkswagen XL1, which don’t require a front passenger airbag as the passenger seat is positioned further behind than the driver's seat, thus creating a sufficiently large distance between the passenger and the dashboard. The seat belt alone is good enough.
It is important to remember that airbags are explosive devices and are only safe when used as directed. If precautions are not followed, airbags can hurt you more than it can save you. Read our Do's and Don'ts of airbags safety here.