German firm tests external airbag for side-impact crashes

German automotive supplier ZF revealed its external airbag system Wednesday and said that the experimental safety feature has the ability to shield passengers and protect them to a greater extent in a side-impact crash.

The system operates exactly like how it sounds. External airbags deploy on the exterior of the car should the system determine a crash is imminent. ZF said the extra crumple zone exterior airbags provide helps reduce passenger injury severity by up to 40 percent. The company didn’t detail the particulars surrounding the system but said unique algorithms along with radar, cameras, and lidar help predict a crash.

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The prediction method happens quickly as the system goes through an internal checklist of sorts to determine if the airbags should deploy. Foremost, the ZF system checks to see if a crash is unavoidable. If it’s not, the system then quickly determines if airbag deployment is possible and beneficial in the scenario. If the algorithms give a green light to everything, the systems ignite the inflators and the airbags deploy in about 150 milliseconds—the same amount of time it takes a human to blink.

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Not only does the external airbag system help reduce injury severity, but it also helps minimize the chance of injury at all. ZF found the external airbags reduced vehicle protrusion by up to 30 percent. That is, the colliding car entering passenger space, which increases the risk of injury.

ZF didn’t provide a timeline for when it may put its prototype system into production, but it will offer the technology to automakers.