Why you should care
Gunnar Engellau passed his company’s “safest” secret — the seat belt — on to others for free.
Picture yourself getting into a car: What’s the first thing you do? Plop down, fasten your seat belt. Now imagine if that seat belt were merely a single strap across the waist, or diagonal belt across the torso: You don’t feel entirely protected, do you? Before the late 1950s, that was a reality — until Volvo, and Gunnar Engellau, came along.
The Volvo brand has long branded itself as obsessed with safety. Just last month, CEO Håkan Samuelsson warned against the hazards of rolling out self-driving vehicles before they’ve been fully proven to be safe. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’re going to kill a technology that might be the best lifesaver in the history of the car.”
These days, Volvo’s using technology like in-car cameras to tackle scourges such as drunk and distracted driving. Half a century ago, it was all about the three-point seat belt — an invention the company, led at the time by CEO Engellau, gave away for free. That’s why more than 1 million people owe Volvo a pretty significant debt of gratitude: By institutionalizing the seat belt, the carmaker believes it saved that many lives.
Engellau was motivated by a deeply personal factor: A family member had been killed in a car accident.
Although it was Volvo’s single most important contribution to car safety, the three-point seat belt wasn’t the first groundbreaking safety feature the company produced. Already in 1944, the company was installing laminated windshields to prevent shards of glass from flying at passengers during an accident. A padded dashboard and collapsible steering column — meant to absorb the energy of an impact, instead of effectively impaling a driver — were other innovations introduced around that time.
But a seat belt was next-level stuff, even if it already existed. Engineers from Sweden’s national power company, Vattenfall — reportedly taking research cues on the effect of force on humans from the American space program — were actually the first to invent the diagonal safety belt. The company ordered them in the mid-1950s to develop an effective restraint after an inordinate number of employees were dying in car accidents on their way to and from work. But while it was a commendable first step toward safety, the buckle in that two-point safety belt was positioned across the rib cage in such a way, Volvo claims, that it could effectively crush a passenger’s soft organs. Or the passenger might simply slide right through the belt.
Then Engellau caught wind of Vattenfall’s project. The former chief of Volvo’s aircraft engine subsidiary, and a graduate of Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, he immediately ordered a subordinate to develop the technology further. “He was not the sort of person you say no to,” Nils Bohlin, the man Engellau asked to develop the new safety restraint, reportedly remembered. Besides being driven by a fundamental need to build a better product, Engellau was motivated by a deeply personal factor: A family member had been killed in a car accident.
So Bohlin, who until then had designed ejector seats for aircraft, got to work. He implemented a simple, yet highly effective design by factoring in both maximum protection and passenger comfort. “Bohlin’s belt was in fact an effective demonstration of geometrical perfection rather than a cutting-edge innovation,” the company wrote in 2009. He patented his design in 1958, and a year later, it made its way into the Volvo Amazon and PV 544 models. But the more remarkable part was that — presumably under Engellau’s direction, according to chief company historian Per-Åke Fröberg — Volvo kept its patent open, meaning anyone could benefit from the life-saving innovation. Call it an act of altruism, one that led car manufacturers around the world to adopt the design in their own products.
It was a prudent and far-sighted move by a business leader who would help introduce Volvo to the rest of the world through its industry-leading safety standards and a massive leap in global sales. By the end of Engellau’s 22-year tenure at the carmaker, he would oversee a more than 700 percent boost in annual production. “During the Engellau years,” says Fröberg, “Volvo became a truly international company.”
By 1968, the U.S. had a federal law on the books requiring all passenger vehicles to offer seat belts, and these days, use rate is approaching 90 percent, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2017, seat belts saved nearly 15,000 lives, the NHTSA says, while 47 percent of those killed that same year weren’t buckled up.
So next time you strap in, spare a thought for Gunnar Engellau — he died in 1988, but he might just save your life one day.