Could airbags save pedestrians? GM patents idea



This will make you think twice before putting your feet up on the dashboard during your next road trip.

General Motors 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.

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.” 


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The company declined to discuss specifics of how the technology might change injury risks, saying a competitive research and development landscape requires discretion. 

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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 LLC 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,” noted 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 make pedestrian protection part of its new car safety rating system in 2018, according to

The patent granted on Dec. 5 was among at least 80 patents awarded to GM in December 2017, many of which had been pending for years. The subjects of interest ranged from sensors and torque to bumper design.

Patents keep design options open for companies as they develop new products. 

Bill Peirce, director of government collaboration at GM Research Development, told Crain’s Detroit Business in November 2016 that GM had about 45,000 patents on file and no intention of slowing down.


Scandal-plagued airbag maker Takata Corp. filed for bankruptcy in Delaware and Japan late Sunday, June 25, after paying out over $1 billion in fines for the largest auto safety recall in U.S. history.

Dave Sullivan, product analysis manager at AutoPacific Inc. said, “GM is looking at the big picture. The company has made a big deal about some of their small cars having 10 airbags to prove they’re safer, and break the stereotype of small cars not being safe. GM continues to implement airbag technology in ways we haven’t seen from other automakers.”

He pointed out that GM introduced the front center airbag that deploys to prevent the passenger and driver from smashing heads if their vehicle gets hit from the side. “That is something no one else has done.”

While there has been a lot of discussion about driver and pedestrian safety in a society of autonomous vehicles, nothing in the patent filing suggests the application would be used for driverless cars. 

“Autonomous driving definitely accelerates the search for better security and technology,” Ribas said. “GM wants to be one of the first, and this patent reflects that motivation.”

Meanwhile, a patent granted earlier this year to Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, points to company interest in pedestrian safety. Daimler registered a way to install airbags in the framework at the sides of the windshield, called A-pillars, 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, shown in a YouTube video, takes a different approach than GM, seeking to cushion the windshield area.

As auto companies move into expanded use of airbags, auto industry experts say high costs associated with airbag replacement motivates automakers to implement safeguards against unnecessary deployment. Companies also acquire patents they may let expire at a later date, if the technology is not needed.

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 or Follow her onTwitter @phoebesaid

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