The Surprising Technological Revolution Launched by the Air Bag | Retro Report
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The Surprising Technological Revolution Launched by the Air Bag | Retro Report

December 2, 2019


The Transportation Department announced plans
today to require installation of airbags in starting 1972. In an era when auto accidents were killing 1,000 a week, air bags were a high tech solution, promising to protect drivers from the carnage on America’s highways. Show me anybody in this country who would
rather go into steel and glass in an automobile collision
instead of a cushioned air bag. But automakers fiercely resisted installing the devices, claiming they were too expensive and too experimental. Certainly it is not economical to spend a
lot of advertising dollars on the air bag, that people don’t want anyway. It was a battle that spanned nearly three
decades and seven presidencies. There aren’t a great many arguments in this
country which can get any more heated than those about the safety of cars and driving. In the end, airbags not only became standard
but helped launch a technological revolution, which has made driving
more automated and safer than ever. But as cars themselves do more of the driving, how smart is too smart when it comes
to keeping us safe? You can see the car just slammed on its own brakes. It was the mid-1960s, Detroit’s golden age, when the car was America and America was the car. Detroit was king. The economy was based
around the American automobile. And things that could impact the sales of that automobile, didn’t receive a lot of attention. The focus at that time, all the marketing, all the effort was on the sex appeal, the speed, the power. No emphasis on safety. Yet getting behind the wheel back then was risky. 52,000 people a year were dying in auto accidents. We’ve lost more Americans on the highways than we’ve lost in all the wars that we’ve ever fought. And so many of those losses have been young people. Texas collision takes five lives. Crash kills six on Chicago highway – and on and on. In 1965, a young Washington lawyer named Ralph
Nader wrote a book, “Unsafe At Any Speed,” which accused Detroit of designing cars that
were outright dangerous, and of ignoring technology that would make them safer. The auto industry didn’t want to mention auto safety because it didn’t want to alarm people, it didn’t want to give the image of their beautiful vehicles ever being in bloodied crashes. We protected pottery and shipping pottery far more safely than we did human beings in those days. Ralph Nader has launched
a new attack against General Motors. Nader often pointed the finger at GM,
the biggest auto maker in the US. The company responded by trying to intimidate him. GM had a hidden practice of putting private
detectives on anyone who criticized them prominently to find dirt, to find a way to shut ‘em up. Because I was a bachelor, they tried to trap
me with attractive women. It was almost out of some slapstick movie. Public outrage over GM’s tactics and the
industry’s safety record prompted President Johnson to sign legislation in 1966
that led to a revolution in auto safety. Nader had become a hero,
and every new car sold in America would now have standardized
safety devices like seatbelts. But there was one big problem. An estimated 70% of all motorists do
not use lap or shoulder belts. And so Nader pushed a promising new safety device:
the air bag. Seat belts require an action by the passenger or driver. Whereas, air bags don’t rely on driver or passenger behavior and that’s why they’re superior. Federal officials believe the airbag is one
of the most promising means of cutting down the 55,000 traffic deaths a year. By ’72 or ’73, the airbags will be mounted
in the steering wheel and the rest of the car, protecting everybody. But by the early 1970s,
the automakers were fighting back. Hard. They argued that airbags were unproven and
customers would balk at the extra cost. Nader vented his frustration to Congress. The major safety features put in automobiles
went in in ’67 and ’68, and there’s hardly been a whit of progress since then,
when there should be more progress. It turned out that at a private meeting at
the White House in 1971, Detroit had been flexing its political muscle
over the air bag requirement. Lee Iacocca raised the issue with Nixon, about, “Can’t you do something about this air bag nonsense?” Seat belts were enough, air bags were ridiculous. And that started the whole process of delay
year after year, year after year. Air bags were going nowhere until in 1977
the Carter administration ruled that they or automatic seat belts
begin appearing in all new cars in 1982. But the next administration had other ideas. The automobile industry was overjoyed today
at the latest Reagan Administration rollback on federal regulations, an announcement it
was abandoning the requirement for air bags or automatic seat belts altogether. This is a very tragic day for the American motorist. In 1983, Nader was vindicated when the Supreme
Court ruled unanimously that the requirement for air bags or automatic seat belts be reinstated. Within a few years Chrysler and others began
installing airbags in some models. It’s been a long time coming, but the automobile
air bag has finally come into its own. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader looking on as Ford introduced air bags as standard equipment on the 1989 Lincoln Continental. It has been a 19 year fight, and it just shows
you got to have persistence when you’re dealing with
the likes of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. We knew it was only a matter of time before you began
having side and rear protection. Sort of like an enveloping cushion that protected
people from crashes on the highway. By the mid-1990’s, tens of millions of cars
were equipped with air bags, saving an estimated 1,200 lives and selling cars. But it soon became clear that automakers and regulators had overlooked a serious risk to children. Air bags can also kill. The force of passenger-side airbags, designed
to cushion 165-pound adults, proved deadly for dozens of children. The airbag was not child-friendly. They were being killed in low-speed accidents,
which anyone else would walk away from. They ended up creating an airbag that killed
the most vulnerable in our society. All of us, the federal government and the
industry, have failed to move as timely as we could. The solution called for more software, more
sensors, and a complex algorithm to determine who was sitting in the passenger seat. Grown men, highly trained engineers, are throwing
plastic dolls around car interiors to develop an advanced air bag, one that can sense the
weight of the front seat passenger and how far they are from the dash. I can tell you during this time myself and my colleagues were working 70-hour weeks almost non-stop. We went from crude electromechanical, single-stage,
driver-passenger systems in 1992 to a full-blown, does-everything-for-everybody, dual-stage,
advanced airbag, smart airbag system in 2001. Technology had won and “smart” air bags
were finally much safer for all occupants. By 2014, some models had as many as 11 air bags. Even the seatbelt has one. But problems persist. 14 million cars have been recalled for faulty
air bags that could explode. And 33,000 people a year still lose their
lives to auto accidents, the leading cause of death for young people in America. The sheer numbers of people we’re saving,
is amazing with this system. But the air bag technology really has plateaued. Ultimately, we’re going to need not an evolution
but a revolutionary change. And that revolution is coming from the same kind of sophisticated technology that developed the “smart” air bag. Embedded sensors and computer chips are now
helping drivers avoid accidents. These and other electronic gadgets have transformed
cars into “computers on wheels,” with some containing more software code than an
F-35 fighter jet. We’re talking about a level of sophistication and a level of testing that is beyond almost anything you’ll see in any other commercial
product or military defense project for that matter. All this sophistication comes at a cost. Cars are now being recalled for electronic and software glitches at the rate of a million a month. A software problem A software problem A software glitch can cause those vehicles
to shift into neutral on their own. Some of these glitches
have not only prevented airbags from deploying, but caused cars to do everything from shut down on the highway to accelerate uncontrollably. It was thirty-five minutes of sheer terror. And in the case of Chris and Michelle Cerino’s 2005 Honda Pilot, slam on the brakes without warning. You can hear that groaning noise every time
the brakes were applied. I just came to a complete stop. You’d never touch the brake, which was the
weirdest part of the whole thing. You see the car lurching forward again repeatedly. We were not in control of when those brakes would slam on, and it was–that was very frightening. It got to the point that we just didn’t
feel safe with our kids in the car. We got lucky that it—that we didn’t get killed. Honda ultimately found several flaws in its
“vehicle stability assist system,” which caused the brakes to suddenly engage. The errors were so widespread, the company had to recall more than half a million of its vehicles. Every manufacturer is trying to come up with some new wrinkle in terms of keeping us all safe, but in the pursuit of safety
are we making things so complex that maybe are we making things not as safe as they should be? Essentially your car becomes just another
extension of your digital lifestyle. But defects aren’t the only issue. As cars become less Detroit and more Silicon Valley, they are becoming just another device on the Internet. Always on, always connected,
a tempting target for hackers. Tesla cars are being targeted for possible
security flaws. New research shows that the Tesla can be located
and unlocked remotely by hackers. They can get in through your tire sensor,
your CD player, your bluetooth connection. A car is about as secure as your PC is. And just as full of your personal data, which allows auto companies to know intimate details about you and the car you drive. We tend to think of the inside of our cars
as being private. But as we start to move to a digital world in cars there’s much more data that’s generated and collected. Once that data exists, other companies spring up that find a way to monetize it and want to use it. Imagine your car could sense your desires. Cars are sort of the last anonymous way to
travel and we’re about to lose that. Automakers, insurance companies and marketers
are all investing heavily to capitalize on the stream of personalized data
coming off each car. Turning your ignition key will soon mean a
whole lot more than you ever imagined. What if you had the ability to peer into the
car from anywhere in the world using an Intel phone. What if we could identify different drivers
with face recognition automatically. We’re all going to be under constant surveillance. And whether someone decides to use that data and how they decide to use that data will be opaque to us. We will look back and say “Remember what
we were concerned about?” and it will seem quaint. Obviously air bags and seat belts – these were really significant changes in terms of protection of motorists. The question today is are we going to spin
off into more and more remote – what I call Silicon Valley electronic trivia? Automakers say the promise of the technology
far outweighs the risks. And they are rapidly approaching the automotive
holy grail – cars that can drive themselves. Forty-five years after the fight over air bags began, engineers say they can finally see the day when the air bag will become obsolete. Imagine never losing someone
to a traffic accident again. When self-driving cars are a reality,
it’s going to be amazing. This is a huge opportunity to save lives and
make the world a better place.

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  1. Seriously, if you need to go on social media in your car then something is wrong with you. Like really, come on now.

  2. 8:12 i think government should do this:put an unbelted child dummy in front seat with SITTING position crashed at a speed that airbag can comes out,not hanging on dash waiting the damn airbag comes out

  3. This video conspicuously failed to mention the 1973-74 mandated starter interlock or airbag requirement under Nixon. GMs ACRS airbag was used in 1973 as a result and pulled a year later when the rule was reversed in Congress….

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