Automakers are on a quest to change every single part of the car as we know it, from how motorists acquire a vehicle to how they unlock and start it, but no one has dared to touch the seat belt. The basic design Sweden-based Volvo patented in 1958 is found in every single car and truck sold new globally. And yet, 70 years ago, many journalists wrote off the seat belt as a dumb and dangerous fad.
Seat belts in various forms equipped open-top horse-drawn carriages, planes, and race cars around the turn of the 20th century. No one believed they could do much for ordinary motorists until Nash, a now-defunct car company based in Wisconsin, began offering the feature in 1949. While it’s not around to tell its story anymore, historians widely credited it as the first automaker to install seat belts right at the factory; seat belts were available earlier, but they were often added as dealer-installed accessories, or sold through aftermarket vendors. Ford made the feature available on select models in 1955.
In both cases, the seat belts were lap belts that looked just like the ones found in modern-day airplanes. They reduced injuries, but they weren’t perfect. If the impact was powerful enough, passengers could slip over the belt and get thrown into the dashboard, or stuffed into the windshield. Research also proved the two-point belt could damage organs. When mounted diagonally rather than horizontally, as it sometimes was, it could cause injuries more serious than the ones it prevented.
In other words, there was no safe way to be involved in a car crash. And as reports of motorists getting killed or maimed by their seat belt made national news during the 1950s, the number of passengers and drivers that refused to buckle up grew at a shocking pace. The seat belt looked doomed.
Early seat belts were lap belts that looked just like the ones found in modern-day airplanes. They reduced injuries, but they weren’t perfect.
This is where Volvo, already a pioneer in the field of automotive safety, entered the picture. In 1958, the Swedish firm lured Nils Bohlin away from his job as an aircraft engineer at Saab by offering him a position as a safety engineer. One of his first tasks was to fine-tune the seat belt into a safe, useful device, which was more than a little ironic; he was developing catapult seats while working for Saab.
His new job involved finding ways to keep occupants in their vehicle, not figuring out how to pelt them into the atmosphere, but the human-centric thinking behind the research was the same. Volvo had spent most of the 1950s experimenting with ways to make its cars safer. Whether it was due to the icy roads, or due to the moose that tend to sprint across Swedish roads with no prior notice, the company was completely obsessed with helping humans survive a car crash. It notably experimented with the collapsible steering column and the padded dashboard. The seat belt was the next logical step in this quest; the dashboard wouldn’t need to be padded if there was zero chance of a human hitting it.
Bohlin knew the ideal seat belt had three anchor points, but arranging them in a Y with anchor points behind the shoulders and in between the legs – as some automakers had proposed – was ruled out to prevent Sweden’s birth rate from plummeting, if you catch our drift. He later explained the most challenging part of the project was to make the seat belt effective and simple to use, because he wanted motorists to be able to quickly fasten it with one hand. Months of research ultimately led him to the three-point belt as we know it, with anchor points arranged in a sideways V.
Volvo immediately made the seat belt patent available to all other automakers, and it encouraged even its rivals to use it.
He filed a patent application for this design in 1958. The following year, Volvo made the three-point seat belt standard on the Amazon and the PV544 in select Nordic markets, including Sweden. The firm immediately made the patent available to all other automakers, and it encouraged even its rivals to use it.
Many motorists hated the three-point seat belt and refused to wear it. They called it uncomfortable, they said it robbed them of their liberty, and widespread fears of injuries still lingered. After all, if the two-point belt damaged organs, wouldn’t adding a third point simply cause even more injuries? Volvo continued jettisoning cars into walls to prove its point, and all of its cars regardless of price or target market came standard with three-point seat belts starting in 1963.
Many motorists didn’t take seat belts seriously until the government forced them to. In 1961, Wisconsin officials ruled all new cars sold within the state’s borders needed to be equipped with front seat belts starting in 1962. In 1968, a law requiring front seat belts on new cars came into effect across America. The rule mandated seat belts in all forward-facing seats as well as shoulder straps in both front outboard seating positions. Remember, this was the 1960s; land yachts with three-person bench seats were common on American roads, hence why the text specified outboard positions. Those sitting in the middle could still eat the rear-view mirror if the driver went straight where the road didn’t.
Volvo’s invention went through many small but significant evolutions. Early three-point seat belts were fixed, again like the belts in modern airplanes, but locking retractors first appeared in 1967 on Shelby’s Ford Mustang-based GT350 and GT500 models, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Automatic seat belts that noisily traveled up and down a car’s a-pillars or window frames spread across the American automotive industry during the 1980s, and mercifully floated to the pantheon of automotive history when airbags became mandatory in 1995.
Ford took the seat belt to the next level when it introduced inflatable seat belts in 2009. As of 2019, the list of companies offering this forward-thinking technology is surprisingly small; Mercedes-Benz is one of the few automakers – in addition to Ford and Lincoln – that makes it available. Autonomous technology will force automakers to completely rethink how to pin occupants to their seat, however.
The seat belt hasn’t changed in over 60 years because how we sit in a car hasn’t drastically evolved, either. Whether you’re in a classic Volvo Amazon or in a Lamborghini Aventador S, you sit on a chair facing the direction of travel. What if you’re not driving, though? To keep their autonomous promises, the car and tech companies hoping to peddle self-driving cars in the not-too-distant future will need to let riders sleep, work, hold meetings, or sit back with their feet on the dashboard while eating a sandwich as they commute to work. Bohlin didn’t design the seat belt with these use cases in mind.
Here again, the solution could come from Volvo.
The 360c concept unveiled in 2018 comes with a cutting-edge blanket (seriously) that offers the same protection as a three-point seat belt during a crash. It sounds science fiction-esque, and it is, but it’s a technology a team within Volvo’s vast research and development department is actively working on.
Henrik Green, the mastermind behind Volvo’s R&D center, told Digital Trends that the company will build a fully autonomous car (one without pedals or a steering wheel) on the modular SPA2 platform the next-generation XC90 (due out in 2021) will inaugurate. When the model arrives, and Green didn’t give us a precise time frame, don’t be surprised if it makes Volvo’s greatest contribution to the automotive industry completely obsolete with an invention that looks like a humble blanket.
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