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This external airbag turns your entire car into a crumple zone to save lives

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By Ronan Glon


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ZF side airbagZF side airbag

German components manufacturer ZF has developed an innovative technology to reduce the severity of injuries linked to traffic accidents. Starting in 2018, every car sold new comes with an array of airbags integrated into the cabin. The firm envisions a safer car with airbags mounted externally, too.

As of writing, the external airbag was developed only for the side of the car, meaning it deploys when a car gets t-boned. It essentially turns the entire side of the car receiving the impact into a crumple zone that absorbs energy. It’s a technology that reduces the severity of an accident while keeping the occupants in both cars safe. ZF pointed out internal tests indicated that the side airbag reduces the severity of injuries by up to 40 percent.

The external side airbag works like internal airbags found in every late-model car. ZF explains they’re two or three times bigger than even the biggest side curtain airbag, however, and they consequently need to be filled by multiple inflators. The external airbag is made with the same type of fabric as regular airbags and inflated by the same type of inflator. In other words, much of the technology to bring the external airbag to production already exists. The challenge is being 100 percent certain that a collision is about to happen; you wouldn’t want your side airbag to deploy because you parked too close to a shopping cart at Target.

That’s where hardware and software comes in. ZF installed radar, lidar, and camera sensors to accurately detect an imminent collision. The airbag then deploys in 100 milliseconds to ensure it’s fully inflated before the impact.

“The system requires the ability to predict both impact direction and location. And, it needs to do this in a timely manner, as even a small vehicle movement in the final 500 milliseconds before the impact could make a significant difference,” explained Dr. Swen Schaub, the senior manager of engineering strategy at ZF.

ZF will begin testing the external airbag in 2019.

“ZF plans a live demonstration in 2019 with this external side airbag, the necessary sensor set and the intelligent algorithms to have a reliable pre-crash system,” a spokesperson told Digital Trends via email. It’s in development, but not in serial production. While car companies can purchase a license to use the technology, they would need to find a way to integrate the airbag and all of the related hardware into an existing car, which would be easier said than done. When and if production starts, ZF could use drones to deliver the parts needed to build them.


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