GM Reportedly Gets Patent for Airbag on the Outside of Vehicle

Pedestrian protection in mind as automaker takes on an issue behind about one in seven U.S. traffic fatalities, Detroit Free Press says.

Sunset in New York City
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General Motors was granted a patent this month for an outside-the-vehicle airbag to safeguard pedestrians, the Detroit Free Press reported Friday.

It's another step in an industry move to tackle an issue behind about one in seven U.S. traffic fatalities, as pedestrians usually aren't killed when first hit by a vehicle, but by the secondary impact that occurs when they fly over the hood and smack into the windshield frame, one expert told the newspaper.

A total of 5,987 pedestrians were killed by vehicles in the U.S. in 2016, a 9 percent increase from the year before and the highest number since 1990, according to federal data

"As vehicles have become more protective of their occupants in crashes, pedestrians represent a growing share of the overall traffic safety problem," Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, told The Drive. "Pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have risen 46 percent since 2009," he added.

So far, the issue has garnered much more attention from regulators in Europe than in the U.S., said Rader, who added that external airbags are one strategy, while another "is to use crash avoidance technology to try to prevent the collision from happening altogether."

Many of the systems apply the brakes when a crash is imminent, and some are designed to detect pedestrians, said Rader. 

An Institute analysis of 2005-2009 crash data estimated that pedestrian detection systems might prevent up to 65 percent of single-vehicle crashes with pedestrians in three of the most common crash scenarios and 58 percent of pedestrian deaths in these crashes.

"However, their real-world effectiveness depends on how they function at high speed or in low light, situations that account for the majority of pedestrian deaths." 

While IIHS hasn't tested pedestrian airbags, Rader noted news reports that said Volvo views crash prevention technology as more promising than external airbags after introducing the latter in Europe. 

The paperwork filed by GM with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office involved dozens of pages of various applications and 90 technical sketches, according to the Free Press. The idea seemed to center on an airbag in a fender area near the vehicle's hood, the newspaper said.

“The pedestrian protection airbag could become an important engineering solution in the future,” Tom Wilkerson, safety communications spokesman for GM, told the Free Press.

Another spokesperson for GM told the newspaper the company views the technology as promising but that it has no specific production strategy in mind.

The patent granted Dec. 5 was one of at least 80 received by GM during the month.