The history of automotive safety engineering is a reflection of society. As society has changed, evolved, advanced and reassessed its values, so too were those values foisted, painfully, upon automotive engineers.

From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

Once upon a time, safety was an afterthought. When Carl Benz invented the first automobile in 1885, society paid no mind to the concept of safety. A seat that didn't have razor blade and plague-impregnated upholstery was safe enough. Those early, prototypical automobiles were nothing more than amusements, and were considered as such. Though the well-off bought them, they weren't used for daily transport as the roads weren't exactly able to cope with speeds above that of a horse-drawn carriage. About the only concession to safety in this era was the inclusion of basic headlights to see at night, scrub brakes to slow the vehicle, and human-eviscerating mechanical bits which weren't in constant contact with the occupants.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

As the new century dawned, competition in the realm of the automobile began to heat up. Hundreds of garage tinkerers like Ransom Olds and Henry Ford started their own manufacturing companies, both of those more than once. The focus of the era was cut-throat competition in its purest form. The increasingly popular automobile was gaining ground as a transportation method. They didn't require the quarter and care a team of horses did, and they offered a modern panache the carriage could not. They also afforded the safety of cabins closed to the elements, windows heated in the winter to avoid frost, and starter cranks designed to pull away rather than break the starter's wrist upon a back fire.

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Photo credit: SeriousWheels

From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

By the late nineteen teens the myriad automakers began consolidating into a powerful group of centralized corporations, some of which survive to this day (some barely). Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, Packard, Hudson, Nash, and more had emerged from the brutal competition of the beginning years and established their niche with the buying public. Mass production was increasingly the order of the day and Americans proved very good at it. Building cars in this time was like printing money. Perhaps the most important development in the history of the automobile took place in this era Charles "Boss" Kettering developed the automatic starter, which freed motorists from the constant danger of hideously mangled limbs from starting accidents. It allowed female motorists independence and democratized the idea of a car in every carriage house. Sounds simple today, but the electric starter was and remains one of the most important innovations in automotive history.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety


And so things went for the better part of three decades. The newest model would supplant the last in power, performance and style. Innovations like the keyed ignition made it safe to park your car street side following the invention of the starter. Vehicles reached gargantuan proportions but innovation came in the form of refinement, luxury, and increased power, but not really safety. Then the depression happened, killing off all but the strongest brands. Then the second world war happened.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety


The war effort saw a halt to the large scale production of cars in favor of tanks and planes. But it was also a period of frenetic advancements in technology and material science, and that would show when the war ended. The returning GI's brought with them pent up demand for new cars but there hadn't been a new design penned since 1941. Most returned with antiquated designs but one plucky upstart named Tucker had safety innovations that wouldn't be standard for many years. It featured a cabin with a padded dash far away from the front seat occupants and free from protrusions which caused a great deal of injury during car crashes of that era. It also had a center headlight that turned with the wheels, but alas, Preston Tucker overextended himself and the old boys club wasn't interested in new competition, after 48 units the company closed down, but the ideas were slowly adopted. Sealed beam headlights came along in the forties and provided a huge improvement to road lighting at the time. That invention also provided the impetus for some of the first automotive standardization legislation in the US.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

As the babies of the baby boom generation came along, parents became more concerned with safety, as did the Federal Government. By the 1950's rudimentary seat belts became optional on some Ford models and three point safety belts were pioneered at Volvo. However, the thinking behind engineering hadn't yet changed much, it took Ralph Nadar's inflammatory book Unsafe At Any Speed to raise the public awareness of some of the safety problems which came from old fashioned production and the car's high speed capabilities. While it made an example of the Chevrolet Corvair, it was an indictment of the industry as a whole and the book served as a lightning rod for Washington, where legislation was passed establishing the embryonic elements which would become the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Front and rear seat safety belts were made mandatory equipment in 1966.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

The first Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) were introduced in 1967 and vehicles not complying with FMVSS and NHTSA standards were not legal for sale in the US. Along with rising pressure from the OPEC oil embargo came mandates for laminated safety glass, bumpers designed for low speed impact, seat belt warning lights and a host of other items. Together they served to result in the overweight, under-performing, and frankly undesirable cars of the 1970s and early 80's.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety


The 80's saw it's own kind of innovation however. The crumple zone concept had first been implemented in the 1959 Mercedes Fintail, but it was not widely adopted until mass market unibody vehicles became popular in the 1980s. The concept involved a reinforced safety cell surrounding the passengers and a front and rear structure designed to absorb and disperse crash force, protecting the passengers by sacrificing the vehicle. The advent of mainframe supercomputing capabilities made it possible to engineer these structures with a data driven method rather than guess and check. Also, in 1984, and FMVSS rules change allowed for lighting elements other than sealed beams. Though the change wasn't readily adopted then, it made the compound refractor and HID systems of today possible.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

Another important advancement of the era came not from the vehicles themselves, but from the method of crash testing. Rather than base crash performance on the damage to the car, the advent of data collecting crash test dummies put the focus on the passenger. "Vince and Larry"-like crash test dummies changed the way cars were designed in more ways than one. It was no longer good enough to restrain the passengers, the seat belts and automotive structure needed to be designed in a way to limit contact with the vehicle and control the passengers rate of deceleration, avoiding internal injuries as much as external. This is where the concept of passive restraints came to the forefront.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

Initial legislation towards passive restraints was vague, and led to the utterly silly door-mounted motorized seat belts, which became useless if the door came open during an impact, but eventually the rules were tightened and drivers side airbags became mandatory, followed by passenger side. While those remain the only required airbags, the continued commoditization of cars has led to an intense focus from a buyers perspective on overall safety. This in turn spawned something of a safety arms race through the latter part of the 1990's. Torso, side curtain, knee bolster, and smart airbags have become common equipment across the price spectrum. As in-car computational power and sensor technologies improved, systems like ABS became very common, followed then by various iterations of stability control.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

Following the disastrous Ford Explorer and Firestone rollover recall, and the then-popularity of the high-center-of-gravity SUV, focus was placed on roll mitigation and rollover safety. Testing for roof strength has actually been recent standardized. Another recent avenue of improvement has been side impact safety. If crumple zones worked for the front and rear, they should work for the sides. The only problem is there's not much energy absorbing space between the passengers and the skin of the doors, so the issue has presented some challenges. Side intrusion beams and multi-point door retention points as well as the aforementioned side airbag strategies have gone a long way to improving side impact safety. One of the more interesting innovations has been active vehicle monitoring by way of systems like OnStar, which is alerted by the vehicle of a possible crash condition and calls the vehicle via embedded cellular phone and sends emergency responders if necessary.

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From Benz To Bumpers: A Brief History Of Auto Safety

The latest frontier in safety is augmenting the driver's focus on the road. It's now not uncommon for radar or camera based sensor systems to monitor forward traffic and adjust cruise control or apply the brakes to avoid a collision, watch the road markings to alert the driver if they drift from a lane, and monitor the car's blind spots for unseen danger.

While purists will grumble at the increasing heft of vehicles because of all these regulations, it's important to keep in mind the survivability of accidents has increased many times over since the 1960's despite considerably higher average speeds, denser road networks and more average miles driven. Going forward will undoubtedly see further innovation, and improved crash performance, and despite engineer's best efforts, all the safety equipment in the world won't remove the largest source of dangerl: the one behind the wheel.