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Ford Considering Inflatable Bumpers on Trucks to Protect Pedestrians

As vehicles get larger, carmakers are looking for ways to improve pedestrian safety. But is this really the best option?
Ford / USPTO

There’s a ton of discourse surrounding the size of new vehicles and the safety issues they pose for pedestrians, and rightfully so. Some automakers are brainstorming ideas to mitigate the danger, and Ford has one potential solution for its trucks that it’s apparently pretty confident in: inflatable bumpers.

The Dearborn manufacturer filed a patent application for the technology that was first spotted by CarBuzz. You can tell just by looking at the illustrations that Ford is taking a pretty advanced approach to all this, and the description uses technical terms like “inflation chamber” and “thermoplastic elastomer.” Still, the concept is pretty simple at its core.

What’s most important to pedestrian safety, in this case, is preventing a person’s legs from going underneath the vehicle, so they’re not trapped below if they’re struck by a driver in a 6,000-pound behemoth. Ford’s efforts with this design apparently focus on deflection as a result.

Drawings of the proposed equipment detail multiple inflatable devices that both prevent the pedestrian from going under as well as lessen “the relative movement between the femur and the tibia.” In short, they appear to be like normal airbags that inflate upon impact. They also provide a rounded surface as the front ends of modern 4x4s are largely flat, potentially worsening the effects of an impact.

There’s no doubt this is designed for larger vehicles, either. Ford very clearly uses an F-150 for the design illustrations, and there’s language about this bumper still allowing recesses for tow hooks. It’s better to be straightforward and honest about which cars and trucks pose the highest risk to walkers, bikers, and other drivers—and that’s coming from someone who drives a pickup.

Interestingly, the patent application specifies that these inflatable bumpers could still be made of steel or aluminum. It seems, then, that the bags wouldn’t explode through the outer shell the same way an interior airbag does through a steering wheel. I can’t imagine that sending shrapnel through a pedestrian would be any safer than the alternative.

There’s no telling if this concept will ever become a reality. Honestly, it would be better if it didn’t need to. There has to be a better way, likely through automated driving features that prevent pedestrian collisions from happening in the first place. I won’t discourage a failsafe, but maybe Ford can work out something that’s a little less dystopian.

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