MEMMINGEN, Germany—On an unusually hot day in southern Germany, engineers scurried around ZF Friedrichshafen's test track to demonstrate one of the biggest potential game-changers in automotive safety in a long time.
The external airbag.
For three decades, auto makers, 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.
Over the past four years, ZF has been transforming into a purveyor of advanced technologies. In 2015, it bought the U.S. airbag and safety company TRW Automotive for $13.5 billion. It has acquired all or pieces of technology companies that know how to see in the dark, weave radar into safety systems, monitor vehicle passenger movement and analyze and fuse data from different sources.
And how to predict a crash.
Prediction instead of reaction
Last month in Memmingen, ZF's crew was trying, with the seriousness of a rocket-launch team, to ram a lightweight dummy car into the side of a speeding remote-controlled Opel Insignia wagon at a precise spot in a mock intersection.
It took a few tries.
The dummy car and the Opel were not ending up in the right spot at the right time. As the engineers set up the simulated crash a second time and then a third, ZF executives cleared their throats and issued apologies and requests for understanding that research and development is a science of laboratory precision and engineering persistence.
Then, it happened: A dummy car rushing into the side of the fast-moving, empty Opel triggered an airbag detonation on the Opel that was nothing like the thousands of airbag deployments that go off every year in the real world of driving.
ZF's external airbag didn't react after an impact. It correctly predicted it. Instead of exploding like a shotgun when metal hit metal, it detonated milliseconds before contact. And that heralds a new age in automotive safety.
"The exterior airbag is a whole new frontier for the industry," said Scott Upham, CEO of Valient Market Research in Downington, Pa., and a consultant, executive and market forecaster in vehicle safety systems for decades. "It is predictive crash sensing, and that's a cornerstone for autonomous vehicles in the future."
ZF's executives are fully aware of the implications of their creation. But they say the exterior airbag—which they call Proactive Side Impact Protection—has a more urgent role in the here and now: The company simply wants to help create a safer automobile.
Indeed, in designing the system, ZF could have put the outside bags anywhere around the body of the vehicle—in the front bumpers, in the vehicle corners, in the rear. But it sees huge benefits in reducing the severity of side-impact crashes, Kagerer said.
"More than a third of all vehicle fatalities occur in side collisions," he said at ZF headquarters in Friedrichshafen, a picture-postcard town near Germany's border with Switzerland. "That's a very large area of safety that urgently needs to be addressed by the industry."
ZF's bag is housed along the bottom sill of a vehicle's body, below the doors. It is substantially larger than bags inside the vehicle, spanning from the A-pillar to the rear wheel well.
When it inflates—a process that requires far more gas than an interior bag—it immediately reaches the size of a life raft.
The bag had to be engineered differently than those inside the car. Instead of stopping a moving human body, the exterior bag has to soften the blow of a much heavier and more rigid vehicle.