ZF’s external airbag predicts crash-Anticipating the future of safety.


MEMMINGEN, Germany — On an unusually hot day in southern Germany, engineers scurried around ZF Friedrichshafen’s test track here to demonstrate one of the biggest potential game-changers in automotive safety in a long time, ‘The external airbag’

For three decades, automakers, suppliers and consumers have been blithely accepting of a neatly concealed technology that explodes into action inside a speeding vehicle to prevent passengers’ bodies and heads from smashing into hard surfaces in a crash. Since the 1990s, the airbag has proliferated from steering columns to seats, side pillars and elsewhere to counteract the Physics 101 laws of motion.

Now, ZF is making a pitch that all of that is no longer enough.Those devices react to being hit. ZF’s new airbag deploys when it predicts a hit is coming and aims to prevent the impact from delivering the full blow. And to do that, a whole list of advanced technologies is coming into play.

“We have been working on this for some time,” said Norbert Kagerer, ZF’s senior vice president for integrated safety. “But in the past, we didn’t have the technology that we needed.”

How ZF arrived at this point is a testament to what has been going on all over the world’s supply base. ZF is a privately owned German giant with 2018 revenue of $41.5 billion. Only a few years ago, it was primarily engaged in making such hardcore 20th-century parts as axles, transmissions and brakes.

Future vehicles, including autonomous cars and robotaxis, are roiling the world of airbags.Autonomous driving theoretically will allow nontraditional seating in a vehicle, allowing occupants to recline or turn sideways. Airbags have been engineered to deploy precisely where an occupant should be sitting. That would have to change.

The rise of such creatures as robotaxis also is expected to unravel the usual design of vehicles, such as where doors are positioned and where structural pillars are placed. Such mundane issues have a big effect on airbags, since they are designed to use the vehicle’s structure for placement and to inflate in such a way as to protect the occupant from that same structure.

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