Airbags are made to protect the passengers inside vehicles. However, some automakers believe airbags can work equally as well on the exterior of vehicles to protect pedestrians.
General Motors received a patent last month for an outside-the-vehicle airbag to help safeguard pedestrians in a crash, according to the Detroit Free Press. It is the latest action in an industry effort to address a growing problem that accounts for roughly one in seven U.S. traffic deaths.
The initial impact by a vehicle is usually not what kills a pedestrians, but rather the secondary impact when the pedestrian flies over the hood hitting their head on the frame that holds the vehicle’s windshield, according to an analyst with an automotive product consultant agency. The pedestrian airbag would be adjacent to and below the vehicle’s hood. Upon impact, the airbag would pop out of the A-pillar (the foremost pillar of the car, the one that holds the windscreen and covers the windshield) and cushion the car’s hardest points - windshield, windshield wipers, and "other sharp pieces," softening the impact.
GM is not the first automaker to make strides in pedestrian protection technology. In 2012, Volvo released the first-ever pedestrian airbag, although the company has decided to stick with advanced pedestrian detection systems instead of external airbags, at least for now. Mercedes-Benz also has a patent for an external airbag, and Subaru debuted its pedestrian airbags in Japan in October 2016. Even Google has a pedestrian airbag patent for its self-driving car, even though this type of car is supposed to be smarter than average when it comes to avoiding accidents. And, auto supplier ZF TRW is working on an external airbag system that would deploy from the side of the vehicle after a side impact crash.
More and more safety features are being added to vehicles than ever before. New cars today are equipped with an entire suite of airbags - frontal airbags, side curtain airbags, rear curtain, and more. Many vehicles have automatic braking systems, lane-departure warning, rear-view and 360-degree cameras, and blind-spot detection. Yet traffic fatalities from preventable causes continue to rise across the U.S.
While technological advances are helpful, the biggest challenge is changing human behavior. Ninety-four percent of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error, such as decisions like drinking and driving, speeding or distraction behind the wheel, according to Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Although we can expect automakers to continue developing new safety measures both inside and the outside of vehicles, we must all do everything in our power to protect ourselves today, and those steps go beyond dressing ourselves and our cars like the Michelin Man.