TechZone Founder Looks Back at the History of Airbag Systems

TechZone Founder Looks Back at the History of Airbag Systems

In the early 1990s, an engineer named Douglas C. Hansen was working for an aerospace firm developing a solid propellant design for airbag inflators for a wide range of applications.

During this time, he discovered there was a lack of understanding regarding airbag systems, how they operated, how they should be correctly handled and how to repair them.

Driven by his discovery and pending legislation that eventually required all vehicles to be equipped with driver and passenger airbags, Hansen and his wife, Victoria, founded Airbag Service, known now as TechZone, in 1992.

Although inventors and car manufacturers began experimenting with airbag designs as early as the 1950s, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s they were widely used in passenger vehicles in the U.S., and not mandated until 1999.

Hansen opened his first TechZone location in Seattle, WA, and then franchised the business in 1995. At its peak, the company was active in 45 cities, and still operates in 10 to 12 cities through franchises and a handful of affiliates.

In the early years, there was literally no competition in the airbag service business, but those times have definitely changed.

“In the beginning, there were more cars on the road without airbags and there was a lot of fear and confusion,” Hansen said. “Shops were worried about how to fix them right and there were a lot of inaccurate repairs happening.

"This problem has re-emerged recently, with these new cars with ADAS systems, because they are highly complex and require a fair amount of training to work on them properly.”

Hansen saw an opportunity in this exploding market and jumped on it 28 years ago when it was in its infancy.

“We were early adopters back in 1992 and even earlier than that,” he said. “We discovered that most body shop owners or managers didn’t know how to fix airbags at that time and very few were even familiar with automotive diagnostics.

"We realized that a big part of our job was going to educate these collision repair professionals and gleaning as much information from the OEs as we possibly could. There was a lot of misinformation and guesswork out there about what was important to make these airbag systems work correctly.”

A lack of information from the car manufacturers was a huge problem during the formative years, but Hansen wasn’t easily dissuaded.

“We struggled to find out what was required to fix these systems. The OEs surely weren’t making it easy because they wanted the dealerships to get the work," Hansen said. "We had to make deals with our local car dealership networks and actually go to them and run copies of the OE repair information. They did not want the information out of their sight.

"So, we would sit in a van in their parking lot with a copy machine and an extension cord to build a good base of proper repair knowledge. Eventually, we were able to get the airbag manuals through the aftermarket, but up until then it was a struggle and most of the service manuals back then were pretty weak.”

Most shops are trying to do a good job on airbag systems, but they’re under a lot of pressure to deliver on time, Hansen said.

“Many techs will clear all the warning lights and they think the job is done, but it’s often incomplete. They fail to recalibrate everything and fail to test drive the vehicle," he said. "If the auto-braking or lane departure doesn’t work right, for example, that’s obviously crazy dangerous! We know that these shops are jammed with a backload of work and obviously concerned with their cycle time, so they rush it and that creates more issues down the road.”

The first big change with airbag systems happened when they got smarter and more complex as a result around 1996.

“In the early days, the single-point systems were very simple, with airbag sensors that consisted of a gold-plated ball sitting on a magnet. If you crashed with enough force, the ball left the magnet and touched two electrical contacts at the end of a 1-in.-long tube and inflated the airbag.”

Today’s modern airbags work a little differently. When a crash occurs, the crash sensors immediately measure the impact. If it’s severe enough, the sensors will signal the inflators within milliseconds to fill up with gas. The airbag will burst at a maximum of 200 mph, which is faster than the blink of an eye.

As airbags evolved even further, carmakers got into accelerometer-based systems that now included a computer controller in the vehicle, Hansen said.

“That allowed us to determine where the crash was coming from and how severe it was," Hansen said. "Now we have digital information about what’s happening during the collision and engineers can use that.

"That development changed the game completely because now we have systems that can make judgments based on the type of accident as well as what is happening to the car and the occupants.”

Today, there are more airbags than windows in most cars, including knee airbags for both the driver and passengers and inflatable seat belts, in addition to more frontal and side airbags.

How have airbags been so effective in saving lives, more than 3,000 lives annually, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration?

“Airbags are still here because they’re effective,” Hansen said. “In simple terms, they create a big cushion from you and the hard surfaces within the vehicle. What we’re trying to do is to reduce those shock pulses that happen to the human body.

"Before they had knee airbags, people’s legs were being shattered, which led to fatalities. But now, most people will suffer leg injuries after a serious crash, but at least they’re walking away from the scene.”

What does the future hold for airbag systems?

“They will undoubtedly become more and more sophisticated to work with ADAS systems and in autonomous cars, and undoubtedly get better at protecting people from serious accidents or worse,” Hansen said.

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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