He was an Industrial Engineer and had served in the United States Navy. He used his insight into air pressure based on how torpedoes were launched out of submarines along with knowledge about various materials (like rubber used in rafts), including how much air pressure these rafts could take before exploding.
At this point he had four key elements to figure out: 1) How quickly could an airbag fill without becoming as hard as a rock and hurting the passenger? 2) Where could the bag fit? Steering wheels didn’t look the same back in the 1950’s because most cars had a small plastic casing at the top of the wheel so there wasn’t a place to insert the bag unless the steering wheel was redesigned to hold it. 3) How could the bag be activated? He came up with a way to do it through impact on the front bumper and a way that a driver could manually release the bag by pressing a button. 4) What were the costs implications and logistics of replacing an airbag that was deployed in an accident?
He solved these problems but as with all inventions they’re only successful if they’re marketable and in this case his airbag wasn’t. Automobile manufacturers didn’t see where it would help them sell more cars, just the opposite, as it was extremely expensive and in a lot of cases would increase a vehicle’s cost by roughly 25% at the time. They certainly weren’t going to absorb the cost. Investing in new manufacturing equipment wasn’t appealing plus the cars would have to be special ordered which would slow down their manufacturing plants; definitely not an attractive investment in the 1950’s.
As with all technology, costs eventually came down and in this case higher-end automobiles like Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals began offering air bags in the early 1970’s. Chevrolet had a contract with the Federal Government so their cars had airbags. Forget about taxpayers, as long as our government employees are safe. But the bottom line is it wasn’t a popular car option at the time because most consumers didn’t feel it was worth the costs. I remember when my dad wouldn’t pay for automatic windows or air conditioning because he thought they were too expensive.
It wasn’t until 1989 when the Federal Government issued a law that all cars and trucks must have either seatbelts or an airbag for the driver. Of course seatbelts were still the preferred safety method because of costs but it was the first time the Federal Government gave airbags credibility.
In 1998, automobile manufacturers were required to provide airbags for both the driver and front passenger. Since this time, airbags provide impact safety for all passengers from being hit from practically all angles. These extra airbags aren’t required by law but the costs have come down enough to where at the very least, side airbags are extremely popular.
What’s amazing is that airbag technology has made its way to the motorcycle industry as well. I had a special jacket for riding my Harley that would inflate in less than a second if I was ejected from my motorcycle seat during an accident. The jacket would blow up around my torso to protect me from internal injuries. Having broken a couple of ribs before in a motorcycle accident, the jacket made perfect sense for me. It did costs over $400 dollars but the peace of mind was worth it and it was certainly less expensive than my previous emergency room visit.
By the way, Mr. Hetrick didn’t become rich off his invention as his patent expired in 1962 but that wasn’t his goal in the first place. He died around 20 years ago. I wish I would’ve known his story before he died so I could’ve thanked him not only for his military service but also for saving so many lives.