It’s easy to be amazed at how good cars have become. Performance that would have been world-class a few decades back now leaves us yawning; for example, the first C4 Corvette that wowed the press and consumers alike in 1984 put out 205 horsepower and weighed 3,239 pounds. The current MX-5 Miata weighs just 2,400 pounds and puts out 167 horsepower; in other words, a 2006 Mazda Miata has a better power to weight ratio than a 1984 Corvette. It’s easy to judge this kind of improvement with your right foot, but it’s a bit harder to tell how much better cars have gotten in regards to safety. Options that were reserved for buyers of S-Class Mercedes sedans just a few presedential elections ago can now be found on entry-level Kias. Since drivers aren’t getting safer, it’s a damn good thing our cars are.
Below are five safety innovations that you benefit from every time you drive a new car. You probably don’t think much about them, but that’s the point; whether you realize it or not, they’ve got your back.
Seat belts were patented in 1885, but didn’t find their way into common use in automobiles until the late 1940s and early 1950s. Nash debuted seat belts as an option in 1949, with Ford following suit in 1955. In 1958, Saab became the first automobile manufacturer to include seat belts as standard equipment. U.S. automakers soon followed Saab’s example, pushed by 1959 legislation that required automakers to build safer cars.
The three point harness that we have today was originated by Volvo in 1959 (although, ironically, it was designed by a pair of American inventors). Manufacturers have tried various methods to get customers to buckle up, including ignition interlocks and the short lived (and potentially lethal) “automatic seat belts” that wrapped the sash belt around the driver and passenger but still required a manual lap belt. In the event of an accident with the sash belt only, victims could look forward to strangulation, ejection or a broken neck. Nice options.
Developed for use in aircraft, where threshold braking was all but impossible, anti-lock brakes were first adapted for automotive use in the 1960s. Efforts by manufacturers including Jenson and Ford to build a reliable system proved difficult, and the ABS idea was shelved until better technology could be developed. In 1971, Chrysler introduced an ABS system called “Sure Brake” on their flagship Imperial. Developed in conjunction with Bendix Corporation, “Sure Brake” proved to be a reliable (if expensive) anti-lock braking system. Cadillac followed Chrysler’s lead, introducing rear wheel ABS as an option on select 1971 models. The Mercedes Benz S-Class pioneered the first all electronic 4 wheel multi-channel ABS in 1978.
I should point out that ABS does not give maximum braking ability in all circumstances; instead, it allows a driver to retain steering control while simultaneously applying near-maximum braking effort. In certain situations, ABS can actually increase braking distances. On loose gravel, for example, the NHTSA documented that stopping distances with ABS were increased by some 22%. The good news is that you can steer around the tree and into the ditch; the bad news is, you’re still going to hit the ditch. Even with ABS, sometimes the best choice is the “least worst” one.
Components of the air bag system were developed as early as 1952, when inventor John Wenrick developed and patented an inflatable safety cushion. Lacking an inertial sensor design to trigger airbag deployment, Wenrick’s design went nowhere before his patent expired. Ford (in 1971) and Chevrolet (in 1973) began incorporating airbag systems in test fleet vehicles, and originally, they were seen as a passive alternative to seat belt usage. Seven fatalities in test fleet vehicles, one caused by the airbag itself, convinced engineers to incorporate airbags as part of a safety system that also included seat belts and shoulder harnesses. In 1974, GM introduced driver and passenger airbags as options on certain Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile models, and in 1980, Mercedes debuted seat belt pre-tensioners as part of an air bag option on S-Class Mercedes sedans.
The 1987 Porsche 944 Turbo became the first production car to offer driver and passenger airbags as standard equipment, and by the end of the decade airbags were prevalent across most manufacturer’s product lines. In 1990, Chrysler became the first automaker to include airbags as standard equipment on all passenger cars.
In 2008, the NHTSA released a study showing that airbag usages has saved some 6,377 lives in over 3.3 million deployments. Who knew that an explosive charge aimed at your face could turn out to be a good thing?
Although the first radial tires were designed in 1915, they did not see significant development until Michelin introduced the first commercially available radial tires in 1946. Earlier tires were bias ply, and the tread and sidewalls shared the same belts of fabric or steel. Why is this bad? First, all sidewall flexing is transmitted to the tread, which deforms the shape of the contact patch and builds up heat. Put into plain English, the harder you cornered on bias ply tires, the smaller the contact patch was likely to be. Bias ply tires also had shorter life spans, due mostly to their reduced contact area with the road (up to 40% less than radial tires).
Radials give us better ride comfort, better heat dissipation, longer tire wear and, most important of all, better handling.
Electronic stability control
Electronic stability control, or ESC, uses a series of sensors to detect a loss of steering control. Depending upon the type of system and the manufacturer, power can be reduced to the drive wheels, sent to wheels with more traction or braking can be applied to wheels that retain traction. In other words, as long as you stay within the laws of physics, ESC can correct a lot of driver mistakes.
ESC development began in the 1980s. By 1987, both BMW and Mercedes had unveiled traction control systems that reduced the loss of traction to the drive wheels. As these systems lacked steering angle sensor and yaw sensors and did not monitor non-driven wheels, they were only helpful in maintaining straight line traction. By the end of the 1980s, both Mitsubishi and Mercedes had developed an early stability control system for use on their respective flagship automobiles.
Today, ESC is available on a wide range of cars, trucks and SUVs. The NHTSA will mandate ESC for all model year 2011 passenger vehicles, and estimates that up to 9,600 fatalities will be prevented annually.
Now if we can just get working on the flying cars we were supposed to have by the end of the last century…