How Iacocca Became A Fervent Air Bag Evangelist
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How Iacocca Became A Fervent Air Bag Evangelist
August 31, 1989By Don Oldenburg Washington Post
Probably the greatest irony in more than two decades of national debate over automotive safety is that Chrysler Motors Corp. next month will be the first American auto maker to install driver side air bags in all of its new models. The company’s abrupt reversal on air bags is indicative of the tempest that has surrounded these safety devices since their invention in the mid ’60s.
Only five years ago, in his bestselling autobiography, Chrysler Corp. chairman Lee A. Iacocca boasted of his fight against air bags from the start. For more than two decades, he rhetorically pounded the device as if it were a punching bag. And in his chapter titled ”How to Save Lives on the Road,” the longtime seat belt advocate aimed well below the belt. I’m not sure I’d want one of those gizmos in my car.”
In fact, Iacocca was certain he didn’t want one in his or any car he made. In 1971, he and Henry Ford II (then the top executives at the Ford Motor Co.) met secretly with President Richard Nixon to persuade him to kill a pending Department of Transportation regulation requiring air bags in every new car sold in the United States.
As disclosed nike a decade later in one of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, Iacocca argued the economic dangers of air bags, even bad mouthing shoulder harnesses and headrests as ”complete wastes of money.” The regulations were quashed.
Since then, Iacocca has regularly repeated his anti air bag message. At a news conference in 1983, he admitted, ”I’m so tired of talking about air bags. the last 20 years, I don’t know what to say anymore.”
In his autobiography, Iacocca summed up the standard criticisms that people will think they can replace using seat belts, that they don’t work well by themselves, that they’re dangerous because they can inflate when they should nike n’t or not inflate when they should.
”A bag blowing up at the wrong time can throw back the driver and lead to an accident,” he wrote. ”Even in relatively innocuous cases, an air bag blowing up prematurely can be very expensive to fix. Besides, sodium azide (used to ignite the inflation) isn’t the kind of chemical I want to be riding around with.” Iacocca predicted that ”10 years after this book is published, the government will still be debating air bags. When the crusaders get on their high horses, it’s impossible to stop them. ”
Four years later, Iacocca made a U turn. Announcing a year ago in June that Chrysler would install air bags in all its 1990 models, he stated in a two page newspaper ad: ”You can teach an old dog new tricks. You won’t hear any more beefs abou nike t air bags from me.”
Initially, word out of Detroit was that Iacocca’s old bromide that ”safety doesn’t sell” finally proved wrong in the late ’80s, when pollsters and buyers were indicating that safety had become a real concern. A salesman, if nothing else, did Iacocca change his mind on air bags to match his market’s?
”I can’t speak for the state of Lee’s mind, as it may have changed throughout the years,” says Chrysler Motors chairman Bennett E. Bidwell. ”I would hypothesize that his original position had been influenced by Henry Ford’s position, nike saying that air bags are full of baloney.”
The way Bidwell explains it, however, the biggest problem with air bags for auto manufacturers has had little to do with cold cut philosophy. The problem has been pragmatics, logistics. Detroit, he states matter of factly, always has believed air bags were feasible technologically. But could they be produced in mass volume? What happens if they inadvertently inflate? Who is liable if they prove unreliable? Who pays for the high ticket bags of air?
”They’ve been kind of a great unknown, a technically feasible device that seems to pose a hell of a lot of risks,” says Bidwell. Testing and research reduced some of those doubts. But nothing eased Chrysler’s corporate fears more than the fact that 200,000 Chrysler models, already installed with air bags and on the road, have proven reliable, even beneficial.
”We’ve got a body of experience right now which is fairly comforting,” says Bidwell. In 1,600 of those cars, air bags have been employed. Bidwell reports no evidence of fatalities occurring as a result of air bag failure in those instances, and no evidence of inadvertent deployment.
”There have been a half dozen or more cases where the individual involved states flatly that their lives were saved by the air bag,” he says. ”So we’re gaining confidence in it, and we hope over time the American public will say it is a damn good thing.”