Check out this external side airbag system that deploys before you crash

Newer cars on the road today are chock full of airbags designed to deploy in a split second to save you and your fellow occupants in a crash.

All that protective kit is embedded in the vehicle’s interior, but late last year German components manufacturer ZF revealed it had developed an exterior airbag designed to protect the side of a vehicle, an area that’s particularly vulnerable due to its smaller crumple zone.

This week the company gave its first live demonstration of the technology, which you can see in the video above. In the clip we can see the impact from multiple angles, with the airbag deploying at lightning speed from the base of the car.

It’s certainly impressive, especially when you consider the two main challenges that ZF engineers had to overcome — namely timing and reliability. Whereas conventional airbags deploy a split second after impact, this one has to inflate before the collision occurs. That’s important on two counts — one, because you don’t want it to fail in an accident, and two, because you don’t want it to fire up every time something like a bike shoots by.

To ensure the reliability of the technology, ZF developed a system that uses car-based cameras, radar, and lidar in combination with software that works out when to deploy the airbag.

“The system has approximately 150 milliseconds to make the decision to deploy the airbag and fill it — roughly the amount of time it takes a person to blink,” ZF said in a release.

The airbag has a capacity of between 280 and 400 liters — five to eight times the volume of a driver airbag depending on the vehicle — and expands upwards from the side sill to form an additional crumple zone in the door area.

The company notes that side impacts are among the most dangerous kinds of vehicle accidents, and claims its external airbag can help save lives and reduce injury severity among the car’s occupants by up to 40%.

ZF hasn’t said anything about when it might commercialize its pre-crash external airbag, but looking at the demonstration, safety-focused automakers will likely be knocking at its door to learn more about the technology.


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