Check out the first external airbag system


Automotive supplier ZF has shown a prototype of what it claims to be the world’s first pre-crash external side airbag system. Yes, an airbag on the outside of your car. The idea isn’t as silly as it might sound, because if it works, ZF says the concept could reduce the severity of injuries from side impacts by up to 40 percent. ZF gave a live demonstration of the system at its Memmingen test track and has since released video of the test.

The predictive system works somewhat like the self-defense systems of tanks and other military vehicles, wherein an incoming missile is detected and then destroyed with a cloud of rapid-fire shots. In this case, that round of defensive fire is replaced with an inflatable fabric bag (intended to stop a car or truck, not a warhead).

ZF’s side airbag system is integrated with the vehicle’s cameras, radar, and lidar sensors. When the associated algorithms detect an imminent and unavoidable side collision, an external side airbag deploys milliseconds before the crash, creating an additional lateral crumple zone and protecting the vehicle’s passengers.

ZF external airbag

Uwe Class, the chief of ZF’s Advanced Engineering team’s Safe Mobility Systems group, said in a statement: “We highlighted that this safety system has the potential to significantly reduce occupant injury severity in cases of side impact collisions. Our deep understanding of the entire ’see. think. act.’ process enables us to conceptualize and realize integrated vehicle safety solutions such as the new pre-crash safety system.”

ZF says that it is the only company in the world with a range of vehicle safety technologies broad enough to accomplish this task—an array that includes sensors, algorithms, control units, and both active and passive actuators.

The system has about 150 milliseconds to determine whether a collision will occur and, depending on that decision, whether to activate the external airbags. (That’s literally the blink of an eye.) Depending on the vehicle equipped with the system, the experimental side airbags have an inflated volume of 280 to 400 liters—about five to eight times the capacity of a conventional steering wheel-mounted interior airbag and big enough to slow down a car. The exterior airbag inflates between the A and C pillars, protecting the cabin and reducing a breach by the colliding vehicle by up to 30 percent. That should significantly reduce injuries to the upper body and chest, which are at particularly at risk in side collisions.

While the system appears to be fairly far along in its development, ZF has not indicated if and when it might come to production and be fitted onto new cars.

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