Airbags in cars are nothing new but now Volvo is showing that airbags can be used to protect pedestrians, too. The new Volvo V40 is the world’s first mass-produced passenger car with an external airbag that deploys in front of the windshield if a car hits a pedestrian.
Volvo’s system places an external airbag in front of the windshield in the recess that hides the wipers. There are seven forward-looking sensors mounted in the front bumper that look for something the size and shape of a human leg. When it sees one, it sets off charges that raise the rear of the hood and deploy the airbag. It all takes a few hundredths of a second.
The result is the pedestrian slides up the hood and lands on the airbag that covers the lower portion of the windshield and A-pillars. Those are the hard surfaces that otherwise do the most damage and cause serious head injuries. You can’t make windshields any softer and the big, strong A-pillars help protect passengers if the car flips over. Hence, an airbag is the only feasible way to cushion a pedestrian’s impact.
It is set only to work at speeds between 20 and 50 km/h to reduce the risk of false deployments and has been shown in countless tests to be able to distinguish between things like bouncing soccer balls on the road and a real pedestrian.
Volvo stands alone with the pedestrian airbag, which is in line with Volvo’s positive safety reputation as the company that first introduced the safety cage in 1944, the three-point seatbelt in 1959 and the side impact airbag in 1994.
Other auto makers have steered away from the pedestrian airbag, saying that an accidental deployment would obscure the driver’s view of the road. However, even if it did go off accidentally, the Volvo air bag still leaves the upper part of windshield uncovered.
A Volvo Canada spokesman said the pedestrian airbag has been well received by customers in Europe, the only place it is available, and that the company “is a little embarrassed they didn’t bring it over here” and is now examining the business case.
This Volvo safety advancement, like the others it has made, is putting pressure on the industry as a whole. When Volvo was flying high, it had the reputation of building the safest car in the world. Now, as it tries to figure out what “Scandinavian Luxury” means for a Chinese-owned company, it should perhaps do everything it can to be leaders in the safety field again. The pedestrian airbag shows it’s trying.