What Are Undercar Airbags?
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
- Sir Isaac Netwon, 1675.
This poetic quote from the father of the laws of motion and universal gravitation elegantly sums up humanity’s drive for innovation.
We build on the ideas of those who came before us.
We refine, we redesign, reimagine and revolutionise.
Humans, in our purest form, are predisposed to strive to make things better.
The humble braking system is no exception and even to this day continues to be enhanced and improved to make vehicles as safe as possible.
Brakes aren’t just good when you’re about to hit the tree, they are designed to slow the vehicle in a controlled way to maximise traction and power to each wheel.
Wheel lock, loss of traction (and by extension control) is when collisions turn especially nasty so maintaining it isn’t just important, it’s everything.
However, what happens when brakes aren’t enough? The conditions are too oily or another driver cuts across your lane in a bid to make the exit?
It takes the average driver between 0.7 and 3 seconds to respond to an emerging hazard. If you’ve read our blog on closing distances [insert link] you’ll know that a lot can happen in that time.
It can be the difference between life and death.
However, car manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz believe they have a solution based on a well-established, well understood technology.
Airbags have evolved a great deal since the early adoption by Ford and General Motors in the 1970s.
Cars can now be fitted with a range of single use airbags raging from curtain airbags to protect against side impacts, to airbags that protect your knees and lower legs.
This same technology could be used to save you when you can’t be saved.
However, the twist is that Mercedes-Benz is developing an active safety system based on the technology instead.
The under-car airbag is designed not to deploy in the event of a collision to protect you but in the event of what the car perceives to be an inevitable collision to prevent it. Or in the worst case scenario, dramatically limit damage and injury.
The airbags will be situated to deploy between the front axle and underbody panelling and act effectively act as an anchor to provide significant emergency braking on top of the existing braking system.
The inventors of the technology claim the system will halve the stopping distance which could in the worst case scenario, turn a fatal collision into a minor shunt.
What makes this innovation so clever is the positioning the airbags at the front of the car counteracts the ‘dipping’ motion that occurs under hard braking, making any impact bumper-to-bumper, allowing the kinetic energy to be absorbed through crumple zones.
WHERE IS THIS TECHNOLOGY?
It’s been a number of years since this technology first made industry headlines in the hope of becoming part of Mercedes-Benz’ PRE-SAFE system and as of yet, it hasn’t come to fruition. Mercedes makes it clear in their description of the PRE-SAFE system that all safety features are reusable.
Traditionally airbags have been one-use so solving that particular problem could explain the delay.
However with the move towards increasing autonomy, is the answer to protect individual from the bad decisions of others or remove the bad decision making altogether.
It is little surprise that 90% of all collisions are caused by human error.
ACTIVE ROAD SAFETY
Many active safety systems give us some level of warning before an incident, giving the driver a split second to make a decision before the computer takes over.
Whilst there is an argument for the computer taking over altogether, it remains to be seen if a computer has the processing capacity to improvise the kind of manoeuvres required to get its passengers out of a tight spot.
Plus the cold hard logic of automated cars [insert link] may conclude that the best course of action is to let you die.
It seems reasonable, whilst the coders do their best to instil comparative survival instincts to humans, that technology is developed to save us from ourselves.
Because preventing the unpreventable could save a lot of lives.
We might see undercar airbags on the next generation of cars, or something may come along that works better. All we know is that anything that saves lives has got to be a good thing.