Pedestrian airbags are now a reality and it’s looking likely external airbags will be developed to deploy moments before a side-impact collision to keep occupants safer.

IN 2009, MERCEDES-BENZ demonstrated an airbag that deployed under the front of a car milliseconds before a frontal collision to one, act as an anchor and improve the vehicle’s stopping performance and, two to lift the front of the car to avoid it diving under hard brakes. Called the braking bag it was predicted to become a feature on all new-generation Mercedes-Benz vehicles. It didn’t.

Fast forward to now, and pedestrian airbags on vehicles are becoming more common, indeed EuroNCAP is including them as a consideration in testing and ratings. But now researchers and automotive components manufacturers, like ZF TRW, are demonstrating external side airbags.

Indeed, ZF TRW took part in a research consortium that’s revealed the fruit of its labor and that is an airbag that’s stowed in the frame rails beneath the doors. This presents obvious problems, like, exposure of the airbag to the elements, but in testing the airbag, via on-board sensors, was timed to deploy just before impact, and testing involved a side impact, or T-bone, scenario.

Because the external airbag was about twice the size of a regular airbag (200 litres), it required two inflators to fill the bag. Over the course of crash testing, it was revealed the side airbag reduced the severity of the impact by a staggering 30%. 

Steve Peterson, ZF TRW’s director of global systems engineering for occupant safety told Automotive News (subscription required): “It’s definitely intriguing,” Peterson said. “I think it could make sense – especially for a small car that sits low to the ground.”

According to Peterson, the company has also been working with some automakers on other developments that could see a pyrotechnic device used to push the car seat away from the door and the void filled by an airbag in the event of a side impact. Other developments involve airbags being forced into spaces inside the door frame to improve the rigidity of the door at the time of impact.

Cushioning the blow of a side impact, and collisions in general looks like becoming big business.


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