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External Airbags: Vehicle Safety in the Future




Airbags are the norm in cars today. They started in the steering columns and dashboards and now include those in the doors and throughout the vehicle—all positioned to lessen the impact of a collision on occupants. In the future, air bags may not be limited to inside the car.

External airbags are coming. A CNN special report on the “Future of Driving” says that airbags surrounding the exteriors of vehicles could be deployed when an accident is imminent, absorbing some of the impact before it even reaches your car.

TRW Automotive is the company leading the way in external airbag technology. Last year, Digital Trends profiled the company’s plans and said the technology will be in some luxury vehicles before the end of the decade.

External Bags Reduce Impact Significantly

Crash tests reveal these external airbags could reduce the impact of an accident by up to 35 percent. This could mean the difference between a large dent and a door being pushed completely into the driving compartment.

The airbags being developed would fit into the rocker panels on the sides of cars, in the beam just underneath your doors. TRW Automotive is working on cameras and radar that would sense the imminent crash, triggering the deployment of the bag.

The side-impact crashes that would be affected by these external airbags are responsible for close to 40 percent of all auto accidents, says TRW spokesman Norbert Kagerer. By lessening the blow of these common accidents, automakers are hoping they can keep their drivers and passengers safer.

The bags themselves will deploy in 20 to 30 milliseconds, just a fraction of a second. The bag holds 200-liter of air and is 15-20 cm deep, 70 cm high, and 200 cm long. It deploys and rotates upwards, covering both the front and rear doors at the same time.

Currently, TRW is working to perfect the technology that tells the system when an auto accident is imminent and when to deploy the bag.

Kagerer says there needs to be a “high level of confidence” that the accident is coming because once the airbag is deployed, it can’t be “undone” by the driver.

It’s believed the technology will first be applied to high-dollar luxury cars like the Mercedes Benz S-Class, which was the first to get anti-lock brakes in the 1970s and the first with brake assist and crash warning technology.

In March 2013, Volvo debuted a pedestrian airbag at the Geneva Motor Show. That bag, smaller and designed for slower impact speeds, detects whether it is about to hit a pedestrian and deploys at the base of the windshield. As pedestrian accidents often result in a person being thrown over a car, the bag lessens the impact at the common point of contact—the front of the windshield.

Yet another possible use of the technology—Mercedes Benz has developed an external airbag that is actually underneath the vehicle, which when deployed drags the road and acts as an anchor, slowing the vehicle.

Vehicle safety is constantly changing. It’s this progression towards the safest vehicles that has helped reduce the rate of fatal traffic accidents over the past several years. While the technology can seem strange and futuristic before it is put into play, this type of cutting-edge safety feature could be mainstream in just a few decades.

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