Airbags have been mandatory equipment on all passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. since 1998. The legislation requires both driver and passenger frontal airbags. The number of standard airbags has grown over the years. The cheapest car you can currently buy in the U.S., the $13,355 Nissan Versa S, comes with six standard airbags. Our 2018 Ford Focus RS came with seven and our 2011 BMW M3 has six. Now a German automotive parts company is testing external airbags that anticipate a crash and deploy instantly.

ZF external airbags
ZF Friedrichshafen AG

ZF’s press release cites side impact collisions among the most dangerous types of crashes. These types of collisions account for close to 700 annual deaths and a third of all occupant fatalities in Germany.

The company is testing a prototype “pre-crash safety system” that uses external airbags which deploy milliseconds before a crash. This adds lateral crumple zones, which are more substantial in the front and rear parts of the vehicle. ZF says this can reduce the severity of occupant injuries by 40 percent. The airbags communicate with a car’s sensors to anticipate a crash and deploy when needed.

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ZF posted a video demonstrating the external airbag system in action on an older Opel Astra wagon, which was rebadged in the U.S. as the Buick Regal. You can see the bulky testing equipment on the car’s bumper and mirrors.

“We highlighted that this safety system has the potential to significantly reduce occupant injury severity in cases of side impact collisions,”  Uwe Class, head of Safe Mobility Systems at ZF, said.

ZF external airbags
ZF Friedrichshafen AG

How does the system decide what to do in the same times it takes you to blink? The sensors use the car’s cameras, radar, and lidar to determine if a collision is unavoidable. If so, the system decides if deploying the airbag is even possible. Then it calculates whether or not it would be beneficial to the situation. When it gets the green light, the external airbag deploys upwards from underneath the vehicle to provide a cushion of protection from the car’s A pillar to the C pillar. The airbag itself is 5-8 times larger in volume than a standard driver’s airbag.

The sensors use the car’s cameras, radar, and lidar to determine if a collision is unavoidable

ZF hopes that this technology can help improve pre-crash safety systems already in place. The external airbag system would have to undergo extensive testing in various markets, but this safety feature might not be as far off as it seems.

We can’t help but wonder if these airbags could have spared Tracy Morgan a headache when his newly purchased 2012 Bugatti Veyron was involved in a collision in NYC yesterday.

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