ZF Believes Self-Driving Cars Will Need a New Kind Of Airbag

The automotive supplier is rethinking airbags for an autonomous-driving future.

Tempe Police Department via AP

It's a common refrain that self-driving cars will change everything. Aside from being a good piece of forward-thinking ad copy, it represents a major challenge for suppliers. Consider the humble airbag. Current airbags are designed to work in cars where all occupants face forward and are restrained by seat belts. But none of that can be taken for granted when it comes to self-driving cars. Without the need for manual controls, future cars could have inward-facing seats, screens everywhere, and other features that make car interiors more like mobile living rooms.

German automotive supplier ZF is already trying to prepare for that future. It believes seat-mounted airbags may be the answer, according to Wired. ZF already has a seat-mounted airbag, which was designed to prevent occupants' heads from hitting things during a side impact. It hopes to adapt that design for future self-driving cars.

In theory, airbags on either side of a seat could prevent a person from flailing around in a crash, no matter which way the seat is facing. But this approach also presents a technical problem. Most airbags rely on a car's center console or pillars for structural support, but the seat-mounted airbags must rely on their shape and a higher inflation pressure for the strength to restrain a person. ZF will have to test them in a variety of scenarios to ensure they are as robust as they need to be.

Granted, many advocates of self-driving cars believe there won't be much need for airbags. Autonomous cars are primarily touted for perceived safety benefits, deriving from the fact that they don't get distracted and drive more consistently and predictably than human drivers. That doesn't mean self-driving cars are crash proof, however; no technology is perfect, and the real world presents too many variables to ensure total elimination of crashes. All of which means: ZF had better keep working on those airbags.