DETROIT -- Airbags protect passengers inside of vehicles. General Motors thinks they can work just as well on the outside to save pedestrians in crashes.
GM has received a patent for an airbag on the outside of vehicles designed to "provide protection to a pedestrian," the latest iteration in an industry effort to address a growing problem that accounts for roughly one in seven U.S. traffic deaths.
“The pedestrian protection airbag could become an important engineering solution in the future,” said Tom Wilkerson, safety communications spokesman for GM.
Other automakers are working on their own passenger-protection ideas. Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, has a patent for a way to install airbags in the framework at the sides of the windshield as a way to cushion the potential blow to pedestrians. Volkswagen has explored airbag alternatives, too.
Volvo deployed a pedestrian airbag on its V40 model. The technology takes a different approach than GM, seeking to cushion the windshield area.
It is not the initial impact from a vehicle that is most likely to kill pedestrians, but secondary impact when pedestrians pass over the hood and hit their heads on the heavy frame piece holding the windshield, said Maeva Ribas, manager of design analysis at The Carlab, an automotive product planning consultant.
In 2015, 5,376 pedestrians were killed by cars in the United States, 15% of traffic fatalities that year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition, 818 bicyclists died in auto crashes.
The number of pedestrians killed in traffic jumped 11% to nearly 6,000 in 2016, according to a report released in March 2017 by the Governors Highway Safety Association. It was the biggest single-year increase in pedestrian fatalities ever.
GM filed extensive paperwork with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that included dozens of pages of description, optional applications and 90 technical sketches. The focus is an airbag mounted in a “fender region” adjacent the vehicle's hood and before the side door "to provide protection to a pedestrian from impacting the frontal area of a vehicle structure.”
The company declined to discuss specifics of how the technology might change injury risks, saying a competitive research and development landscape requires discretion.
GM did not include how potential collisions would be detected to trigger airbag deployment. Use of cameras and sensors in the industry is established and growing. GM Global Technology Operations applied in April 2014 for the patent on a "fender located pedestrian protection airbag."
"It’s a promising technology but we have no specific production plans at this time," said GM spokesman Patrick Morrissey.
Standards related to pedestrian safety continue to change for automakers globally, with Europe among the most protective. China, the world's largest auto market where 63,000 pedestrians were killed by vehicles in 2016, also plans to to make pedestrian protection part of its new car safety rating system in 2018, according to ChinaDaily.com.
The patent granted on Dec. 5 was among at least 80 patents awarded to GM in December, many of which had been pending for years.
"GM is looking at the big picture," said Dave Sullivan, product analysis manager at AutoPacific. "The company has made a big deal about some of their small cars having 10 airbags to prove they're safer, (which) break the stereotype of small cars not being safe. GM continues to implement airbag technology in ways we haven't seen from other automakers."