(upbeat music) – Most new cars are already
really safe from the factory. Things like modern computers,
combined with decades of car design experience
have made modern cars safer than ever before. But experience doesn’t come
without making mistakes. And computers haven’t always existed. Were cars death boxes of
metal in the early years? Well… (car screeching) Yeah. So how’d we go from
unsurvivable death traps to the cars we know today? When the first automobiles
arrived in the 1880s, inventors like Karl Benz weren’t concerned about the safety of their creations. Instead, these early
vehicles focused on more important things, like running
around without falling apart. And getting out of the
poop stream of a horse. (retching) Just take a look at the
Benz Patent-Motorwagen, a very early motorized vehicle. This thing is basically a bench on wheels, with an engine strapped on for kicks. By the early 1900s, more
and more of the well-to-do were purchasing cars to replace
their horse and carriage. Out of self-preservation, these early cars had some concessions to
safety, like brakes and lights. But the brakes was just
a stick with some wood that pushed against your
wheel and the lights were less powerful than
the one on your phone. For the most part though, safety was left in the hands of the automakers alone. Some speed limits were imposed,
but those were more or less to look out for the people not in cars. With few developed roads
and rudimentary technology, these early cars didn’t often
travel at high speeds anyway. As the technology matured
and companies like Ford started to introduce more
efficient construction methods, more people could actually
afford to buy cars. This increase in drivers
forced governments to start building infrastructure,
such as paved roads, which did improve safety for drivers, but automakers and safety equipment were completely unregulated. (musical horns blaring) – [Announcer] May of 1945
saw the lights go on again. – The second World War
proved to be a reset button for the car industry. With no cars produced
for almost five years, automakers had to fill empty dealer lots for the returning G.I.’s,
anxious to spend their pay. In designing these new models,
developments from the war, such as improved
manufacturing and materials, could be applied to the cars being built. These improved materials made
the car stronger and safer. But for the most part,
automakers returned to building along the same formula as before, with safety as an afterthought. It wasn’t long ago until
the returning G.I.’s began having families and wanted
to protect those families. This led many automakers to begin offering optional safety equipment on their models. Ford introduced optional lap
belts, and Volvo introduced the first three-point seat belt in 1959. After seat belt legislation
was introduced in the U.S., the ability to survive a crash
uninjured increased by 40%, and mild injuries decreased by 35%. That’s a big deal. With seat belts, manufacturers
figured they had done enough. But a guy named Ralph Nader
published a scathing report in 1965 on the lack of safety,
titled, Unsafe At Any Speed. This was the book that killed the Corvair. For a number of reasons,
the Corvair had particularly horrible safety statistics. Some of this had to do
with a unique design that required underinflated
tires for proper handling. But the rest of the safety
issues were just because it was a car and cars weren’t safe. Nader’s book took a deep
dive into every aspect of design that made the car unsafe. What made the book revelatory, however, (gentle music) was the fact that Nader
exposed the fact that Chevy knew the car was unsafe
and didn’t make it safer because making it safer
would cost them money. People didn’t like the idea that companies placed more value on
profits than human life, and soon, public demand
forced government regulations, regarding safety to be
implemented in America. Two short years after Unsafe At Any Speed, the U.S. government formed the National Highway Transportation
Safety Administration, and introduced the first Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. These new requirements on automakers selling cars in the U.S. coincided with OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo. While it may seem that these two would not influence one another, the timing of these two
events proved to have some not great effects on the auto industry. All that safety equipment,
which weighed a ton, combined with the miserly
fuel-sipping engines proved to create an entire decade of slow, lethargic, 1970s American metal, wearing terrible low-impact bumpers. This period of malaise, which
is what it’s now called, finally came to an end,
thanks to the biggest thing to happen to cars since cars. (upbeat music) By the 1980s, automakers
had access to the levels of computing power that would allow them to digitally design a car
and model its crash behavior without having to actually
build and crash an entire car. Computer-aided design or
CAD led to the development of new ways to meet government regulations on passenger vehicle safety. The most impactful of these
was the widespread adoption of crumple zones. Car companies build a
super strong center cell around the passenger compartment, while designing the
front and rear sections to manage as much impact as possible. This is still largely how we design and build our cars today. After a crash, cars can
be absolutely mangled, but the people who walk away can survive relatively unharmed. To prove that crumple zones
worked, automakers started using crash test dummies borrowed
from the aerospace industry. These dummies measured
the force of impacts, and while they showed
that the center section in the new construction method
was sufficiently strong, the restraints on the occupants were not. This led to the introduction
of passive restraints. Or airbags. Because a seat belt is always holding you, and will be used no
matter what in a crash, it is considered active, while the airbag is considered passive, because it deploys only during a crash and may not ever be used. The design and testing
methods pioneered in the 1980s led to an exponential
improvement in car safety, that may not have been
possible without computers. In the 1990s and the early 21st century, computers would continue to provide the main increase in automotive safety. But now, it’s because the computers are fitting inside the cars. – [Narrator] A shadowy
flight into the dangerous. – In the beginning,
computer-controlled driver aids mainly consisted of anti-slip
traction control systems. They were primitive compared
to modern technology. But technology quickly increased and cars today are safer than ever. Systems like Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac’s Super Cruise
are hinting at the future. Allowing the car to guide itself using onboard sensors and computers for short distances and times
under certain conditions. And the best part is that
if your car kills you in autopilot, you
weren’t paying attention, so you died peacefully without
any fear of imminent death that wakes me every evening in a cold sweat from my nightmares. As these technologies
increase, less and less human intervention will be required. This will not only make for a more relaxed driving experience, but will also remove the most unpredictable
aspect of cars on the road, humans. – He ran me over, I jumped on the hood, call the police for me! – [Female] Okay! – Thanks to Garage Amino for sponsoring this episode of WheelHouse. Garage Amino is an app that
connects car enthusiasts from all around the world. Garage Amino lets you
connect and share pictures, get advice, and use public
chatrooms to talk cars, and find inspiration for
your next dream build. There’s blog posts, historical analyses, concept builds, new car reviews,
even parts and accessories. Garage Amino has it all. The app is like a car form
on a stage three tune. It’s got a featured feed
of all the best new content and the community is super
active, friendly, and welcoming. There’s always new stuff to check out and it’s super easy to
make posts of your own. Check out Garage Amino. Click this big ol’ yellow subscribe button so you never miss an
episode of WheelHouse. If you wanna know more about safety, check out this episode of
WheelHouse on speed limits, and if you like safe cars, check out this episode
of Up to Speed on Saab. Get a shirt at shop.donut.media, seriously, wear your seat
belt, I’ll see you later.