Back in the 1980s, airbags weren’t very common and, even in cars that had them, suffered from reliability issues. Because of that, some automakers were hesitant to rely on them for the safety of their passengers. Audi was one such automaker and decided to try something different instead.
In fact, it was Audi engineer Elmar Vollmer that decided to go in a different direction. Instead of having an airbag react to a crash and inflate fast enough so that drivers’ faces weren’t’ crushed by steering wheels and the like, Vollmer decided to just move the steering wheel.
Essentially, Vollmer wanted a direct mechanical solution that couldn’t fail, regardless of circumstance. So he essentially connected the steering column to the transmission via a steel cable. See, Audis typically have longitudinally-mounted engines, which means their transmissions are mounted behind the engine. So in the event of a front-end collision, the engine pushes transmission backward. When that happened, the cable would pull the collapsible steering column inward, the front of the car, thus moving it out of the way of the driver’s face.
The system was called Procon-Ten (Programmed Protraction and Tension) and it worked well enough to actually reach production in some Audi 100 and 200 models. However, it wasn’t exactly as effective as Audi would have liked. While it certainly helped the driver keep their face in the event of a crash, it didn’t help the front passenger much. Plus, it was heavy and a bit complex and only really worked on longitudinally-mounted engines. So Procon-Ten didn’t last very long.
As airbags became more reliable and the tech improved, Audi eventually switched exclusively to airbags and the rest is history. Obviously, we’re thankful that Audi made the switch back to airbags, it’s interesting to see odd and innovative technologies like Procon-Ten and we’re happy it existed at all.