Attack of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man: external airbags are coming

Volvo External Airbag
It's not the Michelin Man's car, but it is what an external airbag might look like.

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night in a sweat, hot with anticipation, because you’ve conceived of the first-ever external automotive airbag?

Well, then, I have bad news because someone already aims to make money off of your idea. TRW, a supplier to the auto industry, has revealed that this new, and frankly bizarre looking, technology will be on a German luxury car by the end of the decade.

In its revelation to Auto Express, TRW explained that the airbags would deploy from under the door sills in the moment before the crash. Just like internal airbags, the inflation of external airbags will act to disperse the force of the crash more slowly, however, rather than directly protecting the occupant, they prevent collision force from ever reaching the car.

There is no word on what technology will be used to predict the imminent accident, but existing optical, laser, or millimeter wave radar sensors could all be possibilities. Whatever tech is used, I hope that it is accurate, because having your car spontaneously turn into the Michelin Man is bound to be embarrassing.


Volvo has already pioneered the use of external airbags in other applications. The Swedish automaker turned its cars into bubble dwellers in pursuit of pedestrian safety. Like the TRW system, the Volvo pedestrian airbags inflate moments before the gentlemen strolling home from the bar walked in front of your car.

It just might be another car maker with a reputation for safety breakthroughs that gets the first external airbags to protect occupants. While it has not yet been revealed, it seems very likely that the TRW system is destined for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Mercedes’ largest car has already been first on everything from crumple zones in the 1950s – when most automakers were unaware that safety was a thing – to anti-lock brakes in the 1970s. More recently, the S-Class received the first active brake assist and collision warning technology.

No wonder the S-Class has been a favorite of dictators and dentists alike.

However, even if you can’t afford an S-Class, history has shown us that safety systems like this make their way into other cars pretty quickly. And that’s fortunate because side impacts, like the one that this external airbag is designed to negate, still make up 40 percent of accidents and are frequently the most deadly.

While we like the idea of external airbags, we can’t help but notice what a stark shift the technology represents in automotive attitudes from just six years ago. Seems like only yesterday that the door sills of German sedans, as you can see in the video below, were used to deploy another vehicle protecting technology: fire.

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