In December 1980, a safety innovation that would be adopted by most automotive manufacturers in the following years made its debut. Forty years ago, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the airbag, a joint development between Daimler-Benz AG and Bosch. More than 100 S-Class vehicles were fitted with the new safety system, rolling off the assembly lines in January and February 1981.
The system, which included the seat belt tensioner — at the time called a belt tightener — was soon made available in 1982 as options for all Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. Ten years later, the driver’s airbag was standard equipment on all of the brand’s models, followed by a front passenger airbag as a standard safety feature in 1994. Since then, numerous other airbags have been added to vehicles, including a new rear airbag, which made its world premiere in the 223 model series S-Class in 2020.
The basic idea of the airbag is attributed to, among others, a hobby inventor, Walter Linderer. In the 1950s, he had designed what he described as an “inflatable container in a folded state, which automatically inflates in the event of danger.” On Oct. 6, 1951, the Munich-born inventor filed for a patent for his “device to protect persons in vehicles against injury in the event of collisions” from the German Patent Office. Although in his application Linderer precisely described the principle of an airbag, the technical requirements for the sensors, as well as those for rapid gas generation, simply did not exist in those days. Conventional compressed air was not suitable for generating pressure because it took far too long to inflate the airbag. The elastic and tear-resistant material required to make the airbag also was not available at the time.
Mercedes-Benz returned to the idea of the airbag in 1966 and started the initial trials in 1967. The patent for an “impact protection device for vehicle occupants” was filed by Daimler-Benz AG in October 1971.
After 250 crash tests and more than 2,500 sled tests and thousands of trials on individual components, the Mercedes-Benz safety engineers managed to bring the technology to series production maturity over the next 15 years. “SRS airbag” — standing for supplemental restraint system — was the abbreviation initially to be seen on the steering wheels of Mercedes-Benz models.
Continuous improvement of the airbag system has continued, with components becoming smaller, thus making it possible to incorporate the airbag in other places within the vehicle.