Car companies have been working on external airbags to make roads safer. We hope that that day never comes, but sometimes accidents happen. An estimated 5,808,272 car accidents happen in the US every year – that’s about 15,913 accidents per day! When accidents do happen, people can suffer heavy injuries or even death. If you’re lucky enough to walk away unscathed the car is often a write-off or at least requires heavy repainting and bodywork. With the introduction of external airbags all that could change.

Side-impact airbags

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Reducing the crash impact by just 2.5 cm ( 1″) can save lives. Image credit ZF

German company ZF claim that the development of autonomous driving vehicles will change the interior usage of a vehicle. People may rotate their chairs 180 degrees or lie down during longer journies. Traditional safety features would become redundant in these new positions. If this happens, car manufacturers will need to rethink safety features. That’s why ZF have developed external airbags. They claim these reduce injuries by 40%.

They also think that, as the number of electric vehicles on the road rises, increasing concern must be placed on protecting car batteries. These are often stored in high-risk impact areas of vehicles. Furthermore, batteries pose an additional fire risk. In the event of a crash preventing or reducing damage to batteries greatly reduces potential complications.

LIDAR and radar sensors are used to deploy the airbags milliseconds before an imminent crash. This is in contrast to the current system where airbags are triggered by impact. Given that sensors are being introduced into vehicles for autonomous driving or as parking sensors, it makes sense to use a technology that is already contained within a vehicle to improve safety, without the need of adding additional components and weight.

These airbags could be coming to car near you soon as TRW Automotive hopes to have external bags fitted to their high-end, German saloons by 2020.

E-Rubber

Toyoda Goesei Flesby II. Image credit: Toyoda Geosei

ZF aren’t the only ones on the external airbag bandwaggon. The Flesby II by Toyoda Gosei was debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2017. It features external airbags that give the car a particularly adorable look, not suitable for a muscle car, but hey, it may be endearing to small car users.

The “airbags” are made from a specialized rubber called “E-rubber”. It expands and contracts with the introduction of an electric current. As with ZF’s design, the car uses sensors to deploy the airbags slightly before impact. With this type of design, there is no need to replace the airbags after every impact and no need to repaint! The airbags turn the vehicle into a somewhat oversize bumper car. Surely something of a godsend to anyone that has ever tried to drive around the streets of a densely populated city!

E-rubber. Image Credit: Toyoda Goesei

 

Pedestrians lives matter too

Most car designs have a focus on protecting those inside the vehicle. Excitingly, an additional benefit of external airbags might be the reduction of injuries to luckless pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists!

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The Volvo V40 pedestrian airbag. Image credit: Volvo

In 2012 Volvo, seemingly far ahead of the pack when it comes to car safety, released the world’s first pedestrian airbag on its V40 model.

Google Patient design. Image credit: Google

Google also have an airbag system developed. They filed a patent for an autonomous vehicle with an inflating airbag at the front of the vehicle in 2015. It is again designed to prevent injury to pedestrians. The design could be retrofitted to other vehicles, although no indication is given as to how this feature would impact the vehicle’s overall look. Many, small air sacs make up the bumper design that compresses and burst on impact to convert the kinetic energy and prevent injury.

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TL;DR

LIDAR and radar sensors are used to deploy external airbags before impact. ZF’s side impact, external airbags could reduce injury by 40% and be fitted to cars by 2020. The Flesby II by Toyoda Gosei uses E-rubber, that expands with the introduction of electricity. External airbags might also prevent injury to pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists!

 

Header image credit: ZF