TEXT ON SCREEN: March, 18, 1970
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, EVENING NEWS, 3-18-70):WALTER CRONKITE: The Transportation Department announced plans today to require installation of air bags starting in 1972.
NARRATION: 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 Americas highways.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-06-76): RALPH NADER (AUTO SAFETY ADVOCATE): Show me anybody in this country who would rather go into steel and glass in a automobile collision instead of a cushioned air bag.
NARRATION: But automakers fiercely resisted installing the devices, claiming they were too expensive and too experimental.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-02-1976): ELLIOTT ESTES: Certainly it is not economical to spend a lot of advertising dollars on the air bag, that people dont want anyway.
NARRATION: It was a battle that spanned nearly three decades and seven presidencies.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 7-11-84):PETER JENNINGS: There arent a great many arguments in this country which can get any more heated than those about the safety of cars and driving.
NARRATION: In the end, air bags 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?
ARCHIVAL:CHRIS CERINO (FORMER 2005 HONDA PILOT OWNER DEMONSTRATING HOW THE BRAKES JAM):You can see the car just slammed on its own brakes.
THE PROMISE OF THE AIR BAG
ARCHIVAL (CHEVROLET AD, 1961):DINAH SHORE (SINGING): Oh, when the fall comes along, and the leaves
NARRATION: It was the mid-1960s, Detroits golden age, when the car was America and America was the car.
ARCHIVAL (CHEVROLET AD, 1961):DINAH SHORE (SINGING):Detroit town, thats where the cars are
JIM HALL (CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL TRANSIT SAFETY BOARD, 1994-2001): Detroit was king. The economy was based around the American automobile. And things that could impact the sales of that automobile, didnt 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.
NARRATION: Yet getting behind the wheel back then was risky. Fifty-two thousand people a year were dying in auto accidents.
JIM HALL: Weve lost more Americans on the highways than weve lost in all the wars that weve ever fought. And so many of those losses have been young people.
ARCHIVAL (UNREASONABLE MAN): RALPH NADER: Texas collision takes five lives. Crash kills six on Chicago highway and on and on.
NARRATION: 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.
RALPH NADER (AUTO SAFETY ADVOCATE): The auto industry didnt want to mention auto safety because it didnt want to alarm people, it didnt 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.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 9-04-70): ANCHOR: Ralph Nader has launched a new attack against General Motors.
NARRATION: Nader often pointed the finger at GM, the biggest auto maker in the US. The company responded by trying to intimidate him.
RALPH NADER: 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.
NARRATION: Public outrage over GMs tactics and the industrys safety record prompted President Johnson to sign legislation in 1966 that led to a revolution in auto safety.Nader had become a heroand every new car sold in America would now have standardized safety devices like like seat belts. But there was one big problem.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-02-76): BERNARD GOLDBERG: An estimated 70 percent of all motorists do not use lap or shoulder belts.
NARRATION: And so Nader pushed a promising new safety device the air bag.
RALPH NADER: Seat belts require an action by the passenger or driver. Whereas, air bags dont rely on driver or passenger behavior and thats why theyre superior.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 1-19-72): BARRY SERAFIN: Federal officials believe the air bag is one of the most promising means of cutting down the 55,000 traffic deaths a year.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-25-69): JULES BERGMAN: By 72 or 73, the air bags will be mounted in the steering wheel and the rest of the car, protecting everybody.
NARRATION: But by the early 1970s, the automakers were fighting back. Hard. They argued that air bags were unproven and customers would balk at the extra cost. Nader vented his frustration to Congress.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 5-10-71):RALPH NADER: The major safety features put in automobiles went in in 67 and 68, and theres hardly been a whit of progress since then, when there should be more progress.
NARRATION: 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.
RALPH NADER: Lee Iacocca raised the issue with Nixon, about, Cant 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.
NARRATION: 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.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 10-23-81): ROGER MUDD: 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.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 10-23-81):RALPH NADER: This is a very tragic day for the American motorist.
NARRATION: 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 air bags in some models.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 6-22-88): PETER JENNINGS: Its been a long time coming, but the automobile air bag has finally come into its own. BETTINA GREGORY: Ralph Nader looking on as Ford introduced air bags as standard equipment on the 1989 Lincoln Continental. ROBERT MUNSON FORD: Three, two, one. [AIR BAG EXPLOSION]
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-22-88): RALPH NADER: It has been a 19 year fight, and it just shows you got to have persistence when youre dealing with the likes of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
RALPH NADER: We knew once the air bag was in front of the driver, once it was in front seat passenger, 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.
NARRATION: By the mid-1990s, tens of millions of cars were equipped with air bags, saving an estimated 1,200 lives
ARCHIVAL (ACURA AD, 1992): ANNOUNCER: The Acura Legend is more than a luxurious choice
NARRATION: and selling cars.
ARCHIVAL (ACURA AD, 1992):ANNOUNCER:its also a rather safe one.
NARRATION: But it soon became clear that automakers and regulators had overlooked a serious risk to children.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-10-97): FORREST SAWYER: Air bags can also kill.
NARRATION: The force of passenger-side air bags, designed to cushion 160-pound adults, proved deadly for dozens of children.
JAMES HALL: The air bag was not child-friendly. They were being killed in low-speed accidents, which anyone else would walk away from. They ended up creating an air bag that killed the most vulnerable in our society.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-10-97):JAMES HALL (CHAIRMAN OF THE NTSB): All of us, the federal government and the industry, have failed to move as timely as we could.
NARRATION: The solution called for more software, more sensors, and a complex algorithm to determine who was sitting in the passenger seat.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-10-97):JIM AVILA: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.
CHRIS CARUSO (AIR BAG ENGINEER, GENERAL MOTORS/DELPHI, 1986-2006): 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 air bag, smart air bag system in 2001.
NARRATION: Technology had won and smart air bags were finally 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. And33,000 people a year still lose their lives to auto accidentsthe leading cause of death for young people in America.
CHRIS CARUSO: The sheer numbers of people were saving, is amazing with this system. But the air bag technology really has plateaued. Ultimately, were going to need not an evolution but a revolutionary change.
NARRATION: 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.
ROBERT CHARETTE (CRITICAL SYSTEMS/SOFTWARE RISK ANALYST): Were talking about a level of sophistication and a level of testing that is beyond almost anything youll see in any other commercial product or military defense project for that matter.
NARRATION: 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.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 5-09-14):ANCHOR: A software problem.
ARCHIVAL (AL JAZEERA AMERICA, 5-26-14):ANCHOR: A software problem.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-28-14):ANCHOR: A software glitch can cause those vehicles to shift into neutral on their own.
NARRATION: Some of these glitches have not only prevented air bags from deploying, but caused cars to do everything from shut down on the highway to accelerate uncontrollably.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, THE TODAY SHOW, 8-27-12)MARA SCHIAVOCAMPO: It was thirty-five minutes of sheer terror.
NARRATION: And in the case of Chris and Michelle Cerinos 2005 Honda Pilot slam on the brakes without warning.
ARCHIVAL:CHRIS CERINO (FORMER 2005 HONDA PILOT OWNER DEMONSTRATING HOW THE BRAKES JAM): You can hear that groaning noise every time the brakes were applied. I just came to a complete stop.
CHRIS CERINO: Youd never touch the brake, which was the weirdest part of the whole thing.
ARCHIVAL:CHRIS CERINO (FORMER 2005 HONDA PILOT OWNER DEMONSTRATING HOW THE BRAKES JAM):You see the car lurching forward again repeatedly.
CHRIS CERINO: We were not in control of when those brakes would slam on, and it wasthat was very frightening. It got to the point that we just didnt feel safe with our kids in the car.
MICHELLE CERINO: We got lucky that itthat we didnt get killed.
NARRATION: 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.
ROBERT CHARETTE: 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?
ARCHIVAL (INTEL ARCHITECTURE GROUP, AUTOMOTIVE SOLUTIONS, 2012): ANNOUNCER: Essentially your car becomes just another extension of your digital lifestyle.
NARRATION: But defects arent 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.
ARCHIVAL (KICU NEWS, 4-02-14): ANCHOR: Tesla cars are being targeted for possible security flaws.
ARCHIVAL (KOFY NEWS, 3-28-14):ANCHOR: New research shows that the Tesla can be located and unlocked remotely by hackers.
ROBERT CHARETTE: They can get in through your tire sensor, your CD player, your bluetooth connection. A car is about as secure as your PC is.
NARRATION: And just as full of your personal data, which allows auto companies to know intimate details about you and the car you drive.
ALEECIA MCDONALD (DIRECTOR OF PRIVACY, CENTER FOR INTERNET & SOCIETY, STANFORD UNIVERSITY): 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 theres much more data thats generated and collected. Once that data exists, other companies spring up that find a way to monetize it and want to use it.
ARCHIVAL (BMW BRING YOU THE CONNECTED CAR):ANNOUNCER: Imagine your car could sense your desires
ALEECIA MCDONALD: Cars are sort of the last anonymous way to travel and were about to lose that.
NARRATION: 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.
ARCHIVAL (FORD/INTEL, PROJECT MOBII, 2014):TIM PLOWMAN (EXPERIENCE SOLUTIONS ARCHITECT, INTEL LABS): 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.
ALEECIA MCDONALD: Were 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.
RALPH NADER: 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?
NARRATION: 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.
CHRIS URMSON (GOOGLE ENGINEER, FORMER DARPA/CARNEGIE-MELLON): Imagine never losing someone to a traffic accident again. When self-driving cars are a reality its going to be amazing. This is a huge opportunity to save lives and make the world a better place.